GENEVA (Reuters) - A Turkish caricaturist facing more than three years in jail won the International Press Drawing Prize on Thursday, an award given every two years to leading cartoonists, especially those working under authoritarian regimes.
Musa Kart of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet was one of 14 staff handed sentences last month ranging from 2 1/2 to 7 1/2 years on charges of supporting Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Muslim cleric that Ankara blames for a 2016 attempted coup. They have denied the charges.
Kart, 64, was sentenced to three years and nine months and is banned from travel pending his appeal. After the coup attempt, he spent nine months in prison.
“My beloved newspaper is currently surrounded by those who are uncomfortable with its journalism and want to silence it completely by threatening heavy punishments,” Kart said in a message read out by his daughter, Seran Uney, to a ceremony in Geneva on Thursday, marking World Press Freedom Day.
The staff of the Istanbul newspaper, long seen as a thorn in the side of President Tayyip Erdogan, is one of the few remaining voices critical of the government.
The jury of the Cartooning for Peace Foundation includes cartoonists Jean Plantu of France and Patrick Chappatte of Switzerland, and Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
They make the award based on cartoonists’ “approach and commitment ... especially if their cartoons were published in a political context of repression and censorship.”
“Cartoonists are the barometer for freedom of expression. When there is some little opening in Iran, we know it thanks to cartoonists,” Plantu said.
Autocrats maintain a facade of toughness to inspire fear, Roth said.
“That’s why cartoonists are so dangerous, they make us smile. They crack the facade of strength with humor and for a moment they liberate us from our fears. They remind us of our freedom and they undermine the pretence of the strong man. Musa Kart very much played this role in Turkey.”
The Cumhuriyet case is one of several high-profile trials, part of a broader crackdown since Erdogan announced a state of emergency following the attempted coup. Around 150 media outlets have been shut down and 160 journalists have been jailed, the Turkish Journalists Association says.
Turkey is at a crossroads, with tens of thousands of journalists, activists and politicians dismissed from their jobs or imprisoned ahead of snap parliamentary elections on June 24, Roth said.
“So this award today is in many ways at the forefront of the fight for freedom in one of the most important battlefields around.
“Is it going to go down the path of dictatorship that Erdogan is trying to bring it or will the Turkish people be able to fight back?
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay