The Middle East Channel

The might of the pen(guin) in Turkey’s protests

The might of the pen(guin) in Turkey’s protests

It is somewhat ironic that of all the images shown on Turkish television channels during the violent police crackdown in Istanbul’s Gezi Park — from cooking shows to soap opera reruns — penguins should become the symbol of media censorship in Turkey’s ongoing protests. After all, it is a magazine called Penguen that constitutes a bastion of social and political satire in Turkish media, using impressive wit to critique that which mainstream media most often does not — or, more accurately, cannot. Now infamous for being the country with the most jailed journalists, Turkey’s restrictions on press freedoms stem from an obstreperous prime minister who does not take criticism lightly and the complex business links between his ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi — AKP) and the media barons controlling the industry. Despite this highly contracted space for expression, Penguen continues to publish wickedly humorous and searingly critical caricatures of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For now, at least. 

The Turkish media’s general reluctance to portray Erdogan’s government in a negative light was brought into stark perspective by protesters flooding the internet with penguins of a different sort last week. CNN Turk’s airing of a nature documentary featuring penguins while CNN International provided live footage of the brutal means used to disperse demonstrators sparked outrage that, within hours, transformed efforts to preserve a park from destruction into a countrywide protest against police violence and media silence. Creatively turning a democratic deficit of traditional media into a tool of protest, AKP dissenters took to social media to share satirical penguin-themed cartoons. In one poignant depiction, a penguin on a melting iceberg watches Istanbul fill with tear gas on CNN International while a Turk at home watches penguins on CNN Turk, neither viewer aware of his own imminent demise. Actor Sermiyan Midyat surprised a CNN Turk anchor during a live broadcast by taking off his shirt to reveal a penguin T-shirt underneath, while a man prank-called CNN Turk to request on his mother’s behalf that the penguin documentary be shown again — but that next time could the penguins be younger and of a different size, please?

While the penguin image has since become a comical but familiar symbol among those protesting media censorship in the form of penguin masks, balloons, and inflatable toys, another iconic image has been co-opted in creative ways to protest unprovoked violence by police against peaceful demonstrators. The unforgettable series of photos depicting a girl in a red dress standing in front of police and then being sprayed in the face at close range with tear gas has been transformed into T-shirts worn both at demonstrations and on television. On the last episode of comedy talk show 3+1, all three hosts proudly display their T-shirts. One host relates his own experience at the Gezi Park protest in which, after being blinded by tear gas, he believes someone is trying to help him when in fact the presumed do-gooder just wanted a photo with him. With the audience laughing hysterically at the comic delivery of the anecdote, it is clear that humor is being used as an effective vehicle for conveying opposition to the government’s heavy-handed tactics.

This ability to find humor in dire and dangerous circumstances and to use it as a weapon against the increasing authoritarianism of the AKP government is perhaps what stands out most from Turkey’s ongoing protests. While the clever transformation of Erdogan’s dismissal of protesters as “capulcular” (looters or hooligans) into a word that now means one who fights for rights and freedoms has gone viral as Andy Carvin notes, thousands of witty riffs on other themes of autocratic rule can be found amongst dissenters on the web and on the ground. Absent a free press and subject to violence when assembling in protest, Turks — like James Scott’s subjects of study in Weapons of the Weak – use humor to bolster their own morale and to incrementally erode the legitimacy and power of their leader in (relatively) costless ways. The alteration of the Apple symbol into that of a quince with a bite taken from it — to eat quince (ayvayi yemek) means to be in hot water or in trouble in Turkish — seeks to undermine Erdogan’s credibility as a leader through wit rather than through force.

In the boldest display of creative dissent in a restricted environment, the host of popular game show Kelime Oyunu (Word Game) Ihsan Varol wrote all the answers that contestants had to guess during its live June 3 broadcast around the Gezi Park protest theme. Including answers such as tear gas, dictator, and Twitter (which Erdogan referred to as a lie-spreading menace), arguably the most hard-hitting critique was the answer to the clue “the lungs of democracy:” gas mask. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the game show has since been removed from live airing and is showing pre-recorded episodes. 

While the fate of both the protests and the protesters themselves remains uncertain, the inspirational and mobilizational power Turks continue to generate through humor under threatening conditions is unquestionable. The might of the pen, the power of words and images is being put to the test against a formidable opponent wielding more deadly weapons in Turkey’s protests. With thousands of people injured and two dead from violence during police crackdowns on protests thus far, the great majority of demonstrators continue to urge peaceful means; a commonly chanted slogan at Thursday’s Occupy Kugulu Park protest in Ankara was “No stone, no stick; our goal is liberty.” With sticks and stones off the table and with words on their side in the form of satire and humor, Turkey’s protesters are waging a fight the government seems ill-disposed to win: a battle of wits.

Lisel Hintz is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at The George Washington University and is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at Bilkent University in Ankara. Her research investigates the relationship between Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy, with a focus on contestation of national identity understandings. She can be reached at Lhintz@gwmail.gwu.edu.