Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is notorious for bringing thousands of his citizens, including many artists, up on insult charges ever since he took power in 2014. Freemuse continues to report on the president’s repression of artistic expression; and while he currently tries to force another country – Germany – to do the same on his behalf, artists in Turkey continue to face harsh repercussions of using art to comment on their country and thin-skinned president.
By Sara Whyatt
The possible prosecution in Germany of a comedian whose obscene poem about President Erdoğan could see him convicted under archaic German legislation that penalises causing offence to a foreign head of state, has rightly caused international outcry. It seems extraordinary that a head of one state can order the head of another to prosecute someone who had slighted them.
Hopefully the German courts will see sense and not proceed, and one good thing that could come out of this fiasco is that this article of German law that had until now sat forgotten and little used since it first came into being back in the 1870s will be removed from the law books.
But for the hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Turkey who have had insult cases brought against them by President Erdoğan in their own country, and where abolition seems unlikely in the near future at least, the outlook is bleak. For many, the reasons for their prosecution are just as absurd as in the German case. Let’s take just on example, the folk singer Kutsal Evcimen.
In March 2016, Evcimen was sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in prison, a sentence that was suspended for five years. His “crime” was to have performed a song about baby donkeys 18 months earlier at a folk festival. The song, whose lyrics, despite not mentioning any president or any names, was deemed insulting to President Erdoğan.
Evcimen performs on the folk circuit, playing to audiences in towns and cities across Turkey, has been broadcast on radio and online, performed in Japan, and recently produced his second album. In August 2014 he took to the stage during the Arguvan Folk Festival in the eastern Anatolian city of Malatya, picked up his guitar, and with a small backing band, sang a song written by another folk artist 30 years earlier called ‘Sell it all, you baby donkeys’.
What is a “baby donkey”?
For those outside Turkey, this needs some explaining. To call someone a “baby donkey” is a mild form of insult, like calling them a fool. The song’s lyrics make it clear that the “baby donkeys” in the lyrics are government officials. It starts off relatively gently, accusing the donkeys of eating food and lazing around while the workers toil, but then quickly goes on to accuse them of selling the nation, unleashing police brutality, then entrapping and imprisoning the workers and peasants.
The song was written and performed in the 1980s by Aşık Fakir, who, from what is known, didn’t suffer reprisals, despite the fact that the original song was written under the military regime of Kenan Evren when one would have thought that retribution was inevitable. President Erdoğan is clearly more thin-skinned than his predecessor.
Events quickly began to unfold for Evcimen as he was still on stage. In the audience was a member of the local branch of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party who took umbrage and sent angry tweets from the auditorium calling Evcimen a “pseudo artist”, “charlatan” and an “animal that had had too much grass to eat”. Evcimen in turn got angry, took the party member to court, and won – receiving an award of 5,000 TL (around €1,500) for damages.
That a citizen can take a criminal defamation case out against another is just one aspect of the peculiarities of the Turkish penal system, and one of the reasons there are so many court cases, but what happened next was more worrying.
As soon as the verdict against him was passed, the AK party member took revenge, and this time it was he who went to the courts accusing Evcimen of having insulted his party’s leader, President Erdoğan.
The trial opened in November 2015, ending four months later on 18 March 2016, when the 11-month-and-20-day sentence was passed, with its execution suspended for five years. What this means for Evcimen is that should he dare to repeat the offence or be charged with a similar one in the next five years, the original sentence will be activated, as well as any new conviction.
Damocles Sword hanging over artists
These suspended sentences have been described as a legal Damocles Sword, hanging over the heads of dissidents who live with the constant threat of new charges, and some see no other recourse than to self censor. Thus, in Turkey, authorities do not need to imprison their troublesome artists, but rather just hold them at bay with threats of prison.
Some of course ignore the threats, and continue writing, singing, drawing and speaking out. In one case, in 2013, a cartoonist faced with a three-month sentence suspended for five years for a caricature, refused to accept the suspension, preferring instead to serve jail time. He told the press that he would be taking his pens and ink into his prison cell, spending the time creating more work, then step out a free man. The prospect of living under the Damocles Sword for five years was a far worse position to be in than a short stay in prison.
At his first court hearing in November 2015, Evcimen told the press:
As a folk singer, it is my duty to sing songs. The song in question was composed 30 years ago as a satirical song. It is still relevant today because of the victims of the Gezi protests, those killed and the thousands wounded. While so many people are suffering, then this song has relevance. The AK party is frightened of art and artists and that is the reason we are suppressed. Artists have followed a critical line and we will continue to sing our songs.
Meanwhile read the lyrics of the baby donkey song and make up your own mind where the insult lies; if it exists at all:
Sell it all, you baby donkeys
Lyrics: Aşık Fakir
We work and you eat
Lay down, you baby donkeys
Call us crazy behind our backs
Make up lies, you baby donkeys
Some day the suffering will end
Your lies will be laid bare
Knowingly sell the whole country, you baby donkeys
Fill your flasks with blood
Offer it to your friends as sherbet
Unleash your soldiers on us
Hit us, you baby donkeys
Unleash your police on us
Hit us, you baby donkeys
Humanity is far from you
To whom can we plead?
Set up your traps for this poor nation, you baby donkeys
Set up your traps for your poor workers, you baby donkeys
Set up your traps for your peasants, you baby donkeys
Throw your people into dungeons, you baby donkeys
With thanks to Gürkan Özturan for research support and translation
» CNN – 18 March 2016:
Artist punishment for insulting the president
» Haberler – 17 November 2015:
Kutsal Evcimen in trouble
» Artsfreedom.org – 18 April 2016:
Germany: Comedian faces potential prosecution for criticising Turkish president
» Freemuse.org – 22 February 2016:
Art Under Threat: Attacks on artistic freedom in 2015
» Freemuse.org – 21 January 2015:
Turkey: Charges against musician of insult to prime minister