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Turkey- No laughing Matter

By Firdevs Robinson.

The Turks are not normally known for their caustic satire or their ability to laugh at themselves. Irony is one of the most difficult words to express in Turkish. But curiously, political satire has a long and proud history in Turkey's less than pluralistic media. In a country rocked by military take-overs and periods of authoritarian rule, satirical magazines have always symbolised resilience in the face of adversity. The best-selling publications in the 70's and 80's were the cartoon-magazines like Girgir with a circulation of up to 450,000, more than most national dailies. As the country yet again comes under the spotlight for attacking the right to freedom of expression with heavy-handed prosecutions of journalists, lawyers, even celebrity musicians such as the world renowned pianist Fazil Say, so, too, satirists sharpen their sense of humour.

Zaytung is the Turkish version of the satirical fake news site, The Onion. Mimicking the increasingly sensational writing style of Turkish conventional print media, it produces spoof news and comments on current affairs. With an irreverent style, it parodies the public figures and serious publications. What makes it a new phenomenon in Turkey is not so much its original wit but its plausibility. More than once, its fake news items have been quoted by respectable commentators as a reliable source.

Political interference and the concentration of media ownership have shaken the trust in Turkish mass media in recent years. Many publications have become the mouth-pieces of the government. Investigative journalism is rare. Endless columns and commentaries contain more speculation and rumour than fact. Media in Turkey barely covers the war in Syria. Turkish public heard about Arizona senator John McCain's recent visit to Syria to meet rebel leaders only after it was reported in western media, even though he crossed the border from Turkey.

It isn't just the state of the media that provides a wealth of satirical material. Pronouncements and decisions by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have become so arbitrary and extreme in recent months, even careful followers of the current affairs wonder whether what they read is real or Zaytung-style spoof.

Drink at home!

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's weekly speeches at his party group have each become something of an agenda setting, opponent bashing occasion. As well as making the headlines in conventional media, inevitably they feature just as prominently in all kinds of satirical publications. Take the latest speech by the prime minister, telling off the critics of a new law severely restricting the sale, service and advertising of alcohol. Having declared the yoghurt drink "ayran" as the real national drink for Turkey earlier in April Mr Erdogan hit back at those that saw the recent changes as an illiberal interference in personal lives. "If you want to drink, drink at home" he said, adding "When two drunkards made the law, you respected it. But when we make a law according to what our faith orders, you reject it."

Zaytung didn't even try to be funny about it. The sentence with reference to two drunkards made it to their headline as it is. Spoof comments that followed weren't that different to those expressed by the real ones in mainstream media. Both questioned whether the prime minister was referring to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the republic, who was known for his fondness of aniseed flavored raki (now the disgraced former national drink of Turkey). A member of the main opposition party immediately tabled a question about it in Parliament. Zaytung commented that the prime minister finally let the cat out of the bag. Hurriyet daily columnist Mehmet Y. Yilmaz commented: "It looks as if the prime minister reverted back to his earlier belief that the democracy is a tram you get on until you reach your destination. Clearly, the tram stop is getting closer."

The Justice and Development Party government had already taken measures against alcohol by heavily taxing it before. Consumer taxes on raki went up 249% during the past ten years. Outside tourist destinations and big cities, it has already become very difficult to have an alcoholic drink in public spaces in Turkey. According to 2012 OECD figures, Turkey is one of the lowest alcohol consuming countries, with rates well below four litres per adult. In comparison, the average pure alcohol consumption per adult across EU member states stand at 10.7 litres.

So, alcoholism and alcohol related problems aren't exactly a pressing public health issue in Turkey. By banning the sale of alcohol from 10 pm to 6 am and by refusing license to premises at a distance less than 100 meters from educational establishments and places of worship, the new law brings fierce limitations on availability and personal choice. According to The Directorate of Religious Affairs, there are 82 thousand 693 mosques around the country, with many more mosques being built all the time. Number of schools is estimated to be 66 thousand. It is already difficult to be less than 100 meters away from a mosque in any built-up area.

Intervention in personal lives by the government and lecturing by the prime minister has become the norm in Turkey. In June 2012, Mr Erdogan said he was against births by caesarean because it was unnatural. He saw it as a planned move to restrict population growth in Turkey. He also considered abortion, which is currently allowed up to ten weeks, to be murder. Mr Erdogan compared legal terminations to the aerial bombardment of civilians in Uludere near the Iraqi border, where 34 Kurds were killed by the Turkish military in December 2012. "You keep talking about Uludere but every abortion is like an Uludere" he said. The prime minister regularly advises the Turkish public to have at least three children and in recent years, he even has started to make similar calls abroad. In September 2011, addressing their prime ministers he called on Balkan families to have at least three children.

Are government and society on the same track?

Growing social and religious conservatism is a fact of life in Turkish society. Tolerance for different life styles and beliefs has been visibly eroding in recent years, particularly in Anatolian towns. Despite having to recalibrate its Syria policy following his visit to the USA and the unanswered questions left by the tragic events of Reyhanli where two car bombs killed over 50 people near the Syrian border, Mr Erdogan's government seem confident that they have the majority of the public support behind them. There isn't any strong evidence to the contrary.

Occasional protests becoming visible are quickly and violently put down. For example on the 1st of May, riot police gassed and fired water cannons at demonstrators wishing to attend an International Worker's Day rally in Istanbul's iconic Taksim Square. The whole city was shut down, traffic restricted and public transportation suspended.

The Government's rapidly expanding urban renewal projects have turned the country into a big construction site. Giant shopping malls pop out everywhere, often at the expense of already-scarce green spaces. The latest to cause controversy is again in Istanbul's Taksim Square. The Prime Minister announced last April that one of the rare open green squares, which was the site of an Ottoman army barracks, would be reconstructed to be used as a shopping mall and a residence. When the bulldozers moved in to remove 75 year-old trees, a large and diverse group of demonstrators gathered to stop them. As was the case in every other peaceful demonstration in recent months, the police resorted to tear gas to disperse the crowds. In down raids, demonstrators were brutally removed, causing injuries to many. A picture distributed by the Reuters news agency spoke volumes. Dismissing the Taksim protests, Mr Erdogan said: "Whatever you do, we have decided about that place and we will do it".

On the 29th May, the 560th anniversary of Istanbul's conquest, Prime Minister Erdogan, along with Turkey's President Abdullah Gul, attended the foundation laying ceremony for the $3 billion new bridge to be built over Istanbul's Bosporus. They decided to name it after the Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim. Yavuz Sultan Selim, as he is known in Turkey, is also renowned for being the first sultan to assume the title of caliph, as well as being notorious for the massacres of Shias and Alevis. The choice of the name for the latest Istanbul landmark infuriated Turkey's Alevis.

Thanks to a handful of courageous young satirists, Turkey may at last be discovering "how to recognise irony," but "consensus" seems still to remain a totally alien concept.

May 2013