North Cyprus journalist takes on Turkey’s mighty Erdogan

Updated 16 December 2018
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North Cyprus journalist takes on Turkey’s mighty Erdogan

  • “There is always a price you pay for freedom of expression”

NICOSIA: Jail time, angry mobs and assassination attempts — editor Sener Levent has paid a price for challenging Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and authorities in breakaway northern Cyprus through his tiny newspaper.

Alongside the stacks of old papers on his desk in northern Nicosia, a luminous screen displays footage from security cameras at his office’s entrances. The cameras are part of protective measures in place since gun attacks in 2011 targeted Levent, who has run the leftist daily Afrika for the past 20 years.

“There is always a price you pay for freedom of expression,” said the 70-year-old Turkish Cypriot, grey hair combed back and sporting a mischievous grin.

“We paid this price.... but I believe that a person should get rid of his fears.”

In January, hundreds of protesters attacked the paper’s offices after it ran an article criticizing a Turkish military offensive against the Kurdish border enclave of Afrin in Syria.

“Afrin, a second occupation by Turkey” after Cyprus, ran the article’s bold headline.

Levent is a native of Cyprus, a Mediterranean island whose northern third has been under Turkish military control since 1974.

Turkish troops invaded that year in response to a coup backed by the military junta then in power in Athens that sought to unite the island with Greece — a union staunchly opposed by Turkish Cypriots. Only Ankara recognizes the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). It also bankrolls the entity.

Ankara regards the use of the term “occupation” for its deployment of some 35,000 troops in the TRNC — as well as criticism of its operations against the Kurds in Syria — as defamation. After Afrika’s article on Afrin, Erdogan called on Ankara’s “brothers in north Cyprus to give the necessary response.”

The following day, a crowd of ultranationalists attacked the offices of Afrika — a tiny daily with a 1,500 circulation in a statelet of around 300,000 people — as Turkish Cypriot police stood back and watched.

For media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), “the hunt for critical media conducted by Erdogan’s government” is so widespread that “we can fear a collateral effect in Cyprus.”

Turkey ranks 157th out of 180 countries on RSF’s 2018 press freedom index.

Ankara holds more than 160 journalists in detention, according to P24, a platform that promotes editorial independence in Turkey.

Contacted by AFP, Turkey’s embassy in northern Cyprus refused to comment on “unfounded allegations” that Ankara interferes with the media. But the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk, Pauline Ades-Mevel, said “a freelance journalist critical of Turkey like Sener Levent can fear the worst.”

Levent currently faces three separate trials in north Cyprus for “defaming a foreign leader,” “insulting religion” and “publishing fake news with the intent to create fear and panic among the population,” his lawyer Tacan Reynar said.

He faces up to five years in prison for the article on Afrin and for republishing a cartoon from social media of a Greek statue urinating on Erdogan’s head captioned: “Through Greek eyes.” To avoid possible arrest, Levent shuns travel to Turkey, a country he says “is no longer a democracy.”

The TRNC leadership has said Turkish Cypriots cannot be extradited to Turkey, and Levent also sees EU citizenship as his protection.

“They know in Turkey that they can’t really do what they are doing to their citizens to a European citizen,” said Levent, a seasoned campaigner for reunification with the island’s Greek Cypriot south, an EU member state since 2004.

His two-decade career has long brought pressure from the Turkish Cypriot authorities.

In 2002, he and colleague Memduh Ener were jailed for nearly two months after “offending” the Turkish Cypriots’ veteran leader Rauf Denktash.

The previous year, an assailant who considered Levent a “traitor” tried on two separate occasions to gun him down.

He has carried a revolver ever since, but remains undaunted.

“The thing that upsets me the most is the silence of people in front of injustice,” he said.

And so, every night, the pages of Afrika continue to roll out from an old-fashioned press in Nicosia. But Levent remains modest.

“The true heroes are those people who are living today in Syria, in Yemen,” countries blighted by war where “women have to face incredible dangers every day.”


Iraq-Iran football match prompts awkward silence from Tehran-backed politicians in Baghdad

Updated 17 min 39 sec ago
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Iraq-Iran football match prompts awkward silence from Tehran-backed politicians in Baghdad

  • Iraqi official says failure of some politicians to get behind Iraqi team “embarrassing”
  • Many criticized Iran-backed political leaders in the build-up to the match for remaining silent

BAGHDAD: A much-anticipated football match between Iran and Iraq on Wednesday ended in an anticlimactic 0-0 draw. But in Baghdad, the Asian Cup clash proved fertile ground for Iraqi fans to poke fun at the crisis-ridden new government and express their rejection of Iranian influence in their country.

Many criticized Iran-backed political leaders in the build-up to the match for remaining silent and not encouraging the Iraqi national team against Iran.

Some even accused forces sponsored by Tehran of supporting the Iranian team instead of their own national players.

The game in Dubai was played against the backdrop of a tense political stand off in Iraq between pro and anti-Iran parties.

Iran has sought to deepen its influence in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. It supports armed factions and political parties, and increased its military involvement during the Daesh occupation of large parts of the country.

Iran-backed parliamentary blocs have been at loggerheads with rival groups for control of key government positions since an election in May.

Government figures and many MPs remained silent about the match, despite racing to encourage and congratulate the national team during previous games.

One senior Iraqi official told Arab News that the failure of some politicians to get behind the Iraqi team was “embarrassing”.

“Most of our political leaders have been silent as they are all busy praying that the Iraqi team will not win,” the official said. “How can they congratulate Iraqis on a victory against Iran?” he added sarcastically.

Fans were similarly bemused, posting scathing comments on social media.

“Today is the match between our team and the team of our lords,” Jaafar Al-Kinani, wrote on his Facebook page. “We ask God to help us determine which team we have to support.”

“I will support the referee. I cannot encourage any of the teams for fear of angering the other team,” Mustafa Nassir, wrote on his page.

Other fans posted more sincere calls for Iraqis to get behind their team despite the politics.

“All Iraqis will encourage the Iraqi team, even those close to Iran,” Ziyad Al-Dulaimaim, an activist from the Sunni-dominated western province of Anbar, wrote. “In 2007, our regions were under Al-Qaeda militants’ control and when the Iraqi team won the championship, everyone took to the street to celebrate, including the gunmen.”

Both Iraq and Iran had already qualified for the next round when they played on Wednesday. But a win against a strong team like Iran would have revived Iraqi hopes that they could reach the final.

In the build up to the match, many of the giant screens in Baghdad replayed previous Iraqi victories over Iran.

The last was in 2015 in the semifinal of the same tournament, when Iraq won in a penalty shootout. 

Cafes and clubs prepared for the match by offering free entry for families and decorating their facades with Iraqi flags. Thousands of Iraqis watched the match outside on the streets.

Both Iraq and Iran have won the Asian Cup in recent years. Iraq famously won in 2007 just four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein in a victory that came as the country was wracked by violence.