Cartoonists convicted for insulting Turkey's President

Story highlights

  • Court fines two cartoonists for insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
  • Weekly satirical magazine Penguen says it will appeal the decision
  • Press advocates express concern about criminal defamation laws in Turkey

(CNN)A court in Turkey this week sentenced two cartoonists to 11 months and 20 days in prison for insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Soon after, the court changed the jail sentence to a fine of 7,000 Turkish lira or about $2,700 each.

Cartoonists Bahadir Baruter and Ozer Aydogan draw for the weekly satirical magazine Penguen. Founded in 2002 with a weekly average of 65,000 readers, the irreverent comic book -- similar in many ways to the French magazine Charlie Hebdo -- regularly skewers Turkish politicians.
A defamation suit was filed against an August cover of Penguen in which a cartoon figure of Erdogan is welcomed to the presidential palace by a public servant. Erdogan tells him, "But this is so dry. We could have at least slaughtered a journalist."
    In a statement to the press, the Penguen team explained that a citizen who described himself as an Erdogan supporter "sent an email to the Prime Ministry Information Center. ... According to the notice, the employee (in the cartoon) 'made the gay signal with his fingers.' "
    Turkey's public prosecutor eventually launched an investigation, claiming that both the speech bubbles and the "hand drawing" insulted Erdogan.
    While the court ruled Wednesday in favor of Erdogan, a full-length explanation of the verdict will be released in a week to 10 days. It is so far unclear whether the judge ruled that the speech bubbles or the "gay hand gesture" or both were an insult.
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    The ruling comes amid an increase in criminal cases lodged against journalists, students and public figures for "defamation against a public officer." In 2014, Turkey was ranked one of the world's worst jailers of journalists by the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders and its press status "not free" by Freedom House.
    The Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, Nils Muižnieks, expressed his concern about the ruling against Penguen as well as the surge in criminal cases against people accused of insulting Erdogan.
    "This sentence is misguided and, along with a pattern of criminal prosecutions, sends a chilling message to media professionals and all those who want to exercise their right to free expression," Muižnieks said.
    Ann Harrison of freedom of press advocacy group PEN International told CNN, "We have long called for decriminalization of defamation, particularly of state officials, as to criminalize criticism of authorities severely stifles reporting and public debate."
    Harrison noted that special mandates from the United Nations, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Organization of American States have called for the abolishment of criminal defamation laws.
    Penguen announced it will appeal the decision. The magazine also defiantly released a new cartoon mocking the case.
    "We will continue drawing our cartoons," Penguen announced in a statement. "We hope this case will be the last example of the intimidation effort on free thought."