Will Turkey pass the Charlie test?

The Charlie Hebdo controversy may put an end to whatever press freedom is left in Turkey.

Even the publication of four pages is a bold move in the Muslim world, writes Aktar [AFP]

“This is a difficult moment for Turkey, where secularism is under attack,” said Gerard Biard, the new editor of Charlie Hebdo, who views the Turkish edition as “the most important” among the many versions published worldwide in various languages following the January 7 attack on the satirical newspaper’s office in Paris.

Yet the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, which volunteered to publish the 16-page special edition, ultimately came out with only four pages on Wednesday. The editor, Utku Cakirozer, explained in various fora that the decision not to publish all 16 pages was meant to avoid offending sensitivities in one of the most homogeneously Muslim countries of the Middle East.

Still, even the publication of four pages is a bold move in the Muslim world, which unanimously rejected the new issue – and in particular its front page depicting the Prophet Muhammad shedding a tear and holding an “I am Charlie” placard.

‘This is Turkey, not France’

It is difficult to predict how this move will play out in Turkey, a country where official secularism is increasingly under threat by the government’s actions as well as those of its cronies. 

A group of protesters gathered outside the premises of Cumhuriyet on Wednesday evening, chanting slogans such as “Cumhuriyet will answer.” and “This is Turkey, not France.” Five protesters were detained for burning copies of the newspaper, and police closed off Istiklal Street in central Istanbul. Protests also broke out in other cities, including the capital Ankara, Edirne, Sakarya and Konya.

Listening Post – Lead: Charlie Hebdo and the media

Earlier on Wednesday, Turkish anti-terror police had raided the newspaper, stopped the outgoing copies, and took pictures of sensitive pages for the Office of the Istanbul Prosecutor before releasing the trucks. The police had no authorisation to conduct such a search.

A hundred thousand copies were printed, double the usual number. And the copies sold out quickly. In the morning, the newspaper’s editorial staff started receiving threatening phone calls and emails leading to the management asking for police protection.

Protesters were heartened by the declarations of one deputy prime minister, Yalcin Akdogan, who called the publication seditious and provocative, instead of calling for calm. 

Ercan Sezgin, a lawyer from Diyarbakir, filed a complaint to the local prosecutor’s office to forbid the distribution and publication of the copies of the original journal in French while the prosecutor has forbidden access to internet sites which published the front page of this special issue. 

Cumhuriyet defied this decision when two of its columnists Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Cetinkaya used the Charlie Hebdo cover in their columns. The newspaper’s editor opted not to publish the controversial image as part of the four-page special. During the day, another online media outlet published the entire 16-page edition in Turkish.

On Thursday, a public prosecutor opened an investigation on incitement for hatred (Article 216 of Turkish Penal Code) targeting two columnists and Cumhuriyet for having published the cartoons following the harsh words of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu who declared that cartoons depicting the prophet will never be allowed in this country.

Supporting Charlie

Many citizens in Turkey, by virtue of an old tradition of freedom of expression, have chosen to support the decision of those media outlets who dared to publish the cartoons. They have called upon their fellow citizens who were offended, to simply ignore these images. Their approach is in line with the views of Charb, the slain editor of Charlie Hebdo, who told Al Jazeera English, in an interview in 2012, that he believes all those who disagree with the newspaper should either ignore it or simply not buy it. 

A fierce debate now rages between those who call themselves “Charlie” and those who reject this name on irreconcilable grounds. The former argue a worldly principle on human freedom while the latter reject that principle in the name of a celestial belief.  

A fierce debate now rages between those who call themselves ‘Charlie’ and those who reject this name on irreconcilable grounds. The former argue a worldly principle on human freedom while the latter reject that principle in the name of a celestial belief.

This political debate actually predates the recent attacks in Paris. It’s been going on since the publication of the first cartoons in Denmark by Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2006.

The Turkish ambassador in Copenhagen, acting under instructions from the government in Ankara, encouraged her Muslim colleagues to file a protest against the cartoons with the government of Denmark. That was a first in Turkish diplomatic history as this country had never joined a religiously motivated protest before.

Since the republication of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons by a number of papers around the world, including Charlie Hebdo, in a gesture of solidarity, Turkey has always reacted officially, arguing that the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet is offensive to Muslims.


The indignation of the Turkish government vis-a-vis Denmark was pushed further when Turkey tried – but failed – to block the candidacy of the then Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to the post of secretary-general of NATO in 2009.

On Thursday, the European Parliament published a report, supported by all major political groups, on the appalling state of press freedom in Turkey. Indeed Turkey is now ranked amongst the worst countries in terms of press freedom.

Occasionally forbidding access to Twitter and YouTube, putting pressure on journalists and editorial boards, calling for prominent columnists to be fired and jailing journalists have become common practice over the last few years.

In the Freedom of the Press 2014 report of Freedom House, Turkey was downgraded to “not free” status and ranked 134th among 197 countries. In the 2014 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranked 154th among 180 countries – that’s behind Afghanistan and Iran.

Thus the “Charlie test” will be worth watching closely as it may seal the end of an already shaky press freedom in one of the last Muslim countries which enjoyed relative liberty. 

Cengiz Aktar is a senior scholar at Istanbul Policy Center. As a former director at the United Nations where he spent 22 years of his professional life, Aktar is one of the leading advocates of Turkey’s integration into the EU.