New Cartoonist: Hamed Bazrafkan
New Cartoonist: Latif Fityani

Between Censorship and Satire: Cartooning in Turkey

Turkey is in turmoil. Numerous terrorist attacks have taken a bloody toll in the last year and an attempted coup has only strengthened the power of Erdogan, who seems to be on a mission to force everyone who doesn't agree with him into submission, including cartoonists. We talk to four of our Turkish cartoonists, Menekse Cam, Emrah Arikan, Halit Kurtulmus and Oguz Gurel, to find out what it's like to be a satirist Turkey these days.

What’s the situation like for cartoonists at the moment in Turkey? Do papers still print (critical) cartoons or is there a lot of censorship?

Menekse: Unfortunately there is censorship, fear and all kinds of pressure. At present, cartooning in Turkey is really more dangerous than ever.  Anyone may be arrested and anyone may go to jail. I must admit that since the supposed coup attempt, I haven’t drawn cartoons about Erdoğan and Turkish politics. Because I want to see the road ahead; because I really need to know if I'm safe or what will happen after all this.
Halit: In Turkey,  there are three kinds of cartoonists. The first are press cartoonists. Their job is the hardest of all. They are likely to be pressured, to face censorship  and to be fired because of what they draw. The same is happening in many countries around the world. The second group of cartoonists usually work for the benefit of governments. Their practices change as the governments change. They are at ease. I’m in the third group of freelance cartoonists. We draw cartoons about current issues and issues regarding the public according to our own points of view. We share these drawings in various platforms (especially in the social media) and we are also likely to face the problems that press cartoonists face, which results in self-censorship.

Menekse Cam
Cartoon by Menekse Cam.

Turkey has a rich tradition of cartoons and social satire. Can you explain some of history of this tradition and what role satire (cartoons) play in Turkish society?

Menekse: Nasreddin Hodja is perhaps the most famous example from Turkish history. A personality whose quick repartee and sharp intelligence has survived in stories and anecdotes since 1284.  Another example is GIRGIR, which was a great humor magazine for 21 years. In my opinion cartooning is most important form of saitre, because it has a great mission. It creates awareness when something goes wrong. In a country like ours, drawing editorial cartoons is a form of activism. Also, cartoons  are like a captain's logbook. They are valuable documents that shed light on the future while the mainstream media are offering a one-sided representation of local or international events. So often cartoonists were arrested and imprisoned for calling attention to truths that they knew to be wrong.  As you know well, ‘There is more than one truth’.  Currently. there are much much more than one truth in Turkey but showing them clearly is really very dangerous for now. It's better to wait for a while. Otherwise, you may not be drawing for a long time.


'In a country like ours,  

drawing editorial cartoons

is a form of activism.'


Emrah:  The first cartoon was published in Turkey in 1867 during the Ottoman period. Diyojen was the first printed cartoon mag, printed in 1870. Cemal Nadir Güler is the most important cartoonist in classic cartoon period.
Halit: Even in the most difficult years, the old masters made use of cartoons to inform society about the issues which were difficult to write about in the press. We see this in the cartoons of Turhan Selçuk, Oğuz Aral, Semih Balcığolu and of many other old cartoonists. In the past, many humor magazines sold quite well. The interest of the Turkish people  played an important role in the establishment and improvement of the tradition of cartoons.

Emarah ArikanCartoon by Emrah Arikan.

3) What are your favorite subjects to draw about?

Menekse: I just love to draw no matter which subject is. I used to be a spectator of events; I became an activist questioning and criticizing by drawing cartoons. In addition to timely political cartoons I often draw cartoons on global issues which never lose timeliness (like the problems women face, wars, hunger, ecological issues, human relations etc.) I sometimes draw  them on specific days (like 1 May - Labor Day, or 8 March - International Women’s Day), sometimes I take inspiration from the competitions.  A cartoonist should be able to express him/herself in every subject.
Emrah: I tend to draw about general themes like terrorism, war, starvation, children rights, human rights, justice and freedom.
Oguz: I also tend to draw about those subjects that are universal.
Halit: I most frequently draw about political issues, sports, terror and social injustices.

Halit KurtulmusCartoon by Halit Kurtulmus

How do you see the future for cartooning in Turkey? Are (m)any young cartoonists? And are there enough places to publish cartoons?

Menekse: I believe that the conditions we face today are temporary. I hope the Turkish cartoon will have the place it deserves soon. There are a lot of young cartoonists here. For now the most important place to publish our works is the Internet, which provides an endless opportunity for us. The government banned first Twitter, later YouTube in Turkey two years ago. But while there were 7 million Twitter users in Turkey before the ban, there were 10 million at the end of the first day of the ban. In the same way the people continued to use YouTube after the ban. We became a kind of a specialist of IT by finding various ways to circumvent the bans. After all, Turkey provides us with many subjects to draw cartoons about!


'Cartoons are important

because they are often

the voice of the people.'


Halit: Even though the circumstances are getting harder, cartooning is improving in Turkey and the interest of young people is increasing. There are cartooning courses for children in many cities around Turkey, where master cartoonists share their knowledge. I’m personally very hopeful about the future of Turkish cartooning. Unlike many parts of the world, the number of young cartoonists in my country is increasing. We are happy about it. However, we don’t have any platforms to publish our cartoons.

Oguz GurelCartoon by Oguz Gurel.

Why are cartoons important in your opinion? Can cartoons contribute to a better future in Turkey?

Menekse: Because a  cartoon (even without any speech balloon) can tell people (no matter which language they speak) much more than a lot of  pages of the article. No doubt cartoons have the power to contribute to a better future.
Halit:  As it has always been, the art of cartooning still has an important role to play in the memory of a society. It witnesses and chronicles many events happening all around the world.
Oguz: Cartoons are important because they are often the voice of the people.




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