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.”


Lebanese losing faith as politicians fumble over economy

Updated 15 min 27 sec ago
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Lebanese losing faith as politicians fumble over economy

  • As the economic crisis deepens in Lebanon, so has the public’s distrust in the ability of the old political class
  • Many fear a Greek-style bankruptcy, without the European Union to fall back on and with potentially more violent social unrest

BEIRUT: For days, Lebanese TV stations have been blanketed with live coverage as lawmakers held heated debate over a controversial austerity budget meant to salvage the flailing economy, with protests outside parliament and critics denouncing its focus on tax hikes and wage cuts. Mohammed Badran, sitting in his barber shop empty of customers, couldn’t be bothered to watch.
Those officials don’t even know how much bread costs, he scoffed. “They basically don’t know anything about us.” The 33-year-old hair stylist — his hair spiked stylishly in front — sat idle in his salon in central Beirut with the TV tuned to Qur’anic recitals.
Badran said things have gotten worse the past four years. Taxes, utility bills and prices have increased, while his income hasn’t changed. Once, he kept about three quarters of his earnings; now he pockets only about a quarter, he said.
“Things have been turned upside down,” Badran said.
As the economic crisis deepens in Lebanon, so has the public’s distrust in the ability of the old political class, widely viewed as corrupt and steeped in personal rivalries, to tackle major reform. Many fear a Greek-style bankruptcy, without the European Union to fall back on and with potentially more violent social unrest in the small country wedged between war-torn Syria and Israel.
A new budget that reduces public debts, improves governance and reforms infrastructure could unlock some $11 billion in aid promised to Lebanon last year by European countries. But after weeks of delay amid haggling among the government and lawmakers, the result is a bill that mostly taps into the pockets of average Lebanese, while critics say it does little to tackle structural issues and deeply entrenched corruption at the root of the crisis.
The final vote on the budget is expected Friday, unless more delays occur. It is expected to pass overwhelmingly.
Still, during three days of live-televised debate this week, a line of lawmakers took to the podium to rail against it — most of them members in the government that designed it. In his speech Thursday, the finance minister snapped back, saying they were treating the budget like an “abandoned baby” no one would admit to fathering.
Critics said the theatrics were designed to absorb public anger over an economic slump that has hit hard.
Growth reached an all-time low of 0.2 percent last year. It slowed further after the Central Bank halted subsidized housing loans through commercial banks, contracting the real estate market, a main engine for growth since 2012. The budget deficit reached 11 percent of GDP, up from 8.6 percent in 2017, and public debt stands at 150% of GDP, one of the highest in the world. Fuel imports have increased, further deepening a trade deficit.
The downturn has impacted the country’s trusted banking sector. The Central Bank’s foreign assets have receded by around $6 billion since last year, as it props the currency pegged to the dollar. Deposit growth has been the lowest since 2005 as some people transfer savings abroad.
Meanwhile, some businesses have liquidated and shops have closed. More apartments are up for sale, deflating prices.
The budget submitted to the parliament aims to bring the deficit for 2019 down to 7.6 percent, though the International Monetary Fund projects it will likely be at 9.75 percent.
Last year, the government hiked the value-added tax to finance a pay increase it promised to public sector workers. This year’s proposed new budget cuts pay and benefits for government workers and freezes public sector hiring for three years. The VAT hike remains in place, and other taxes are also increased.
Economist Jad Chaaban said the anxiety around a potential Greek-style bankruptcy has allowed government officials to push an emergency fix rather than enact major changes, such as progressive taxes or debt restructuring.
The real problem, he said, is the political elite, which treats the public sector as a jobs source for supporters and covers up corruption that enriches them and drives up debt. Commercial banks are largely owned by ruling politicians and profit from holdings of public debt.
Chaaban and other critics say officials have tried to divert bitterness over the economy by campaigning against the nearly 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, calling for their return and clamping down on illegal labor.
For Badran, economic hardship has curbed even the simplest of dreams. He dropped plans to build a solarium at his salon. After 14 years of owning his shop, he still lives with his parents, unable to afford marriage.
In the last year, his profits maxed at $500 a month in the face of increasing bills, rent and costs. Like all Lebanese, he pays one electricity bill to the government and a separate one to a private generator provider to fill in during daily power cuts caused by the decrepit infrastructure.
“Ever since I can remember, there has been no electricity, no water. Now I am 33 years old, and we still complain of the water and electricity,” Badran said. “Look next door, in Syria, there is war and all that, and it has electricity and water. Here, we have charlatans.”
With mounting costs — hair gel prices have gone up by 30 percent, for example — he has cut back on supplies for the salon as well as personal spending.
Most of his young, stylish clientele have also cut back, coming to his shop once a month instead of three times.
Once the new budget passes, Badran said he’ll likely have to raise his prices for the first time in years, adding to the burden on his regulars, many of whom already work two jobs.
“I have been buttering up my clients so as not to lose them,” he said.
Along one street in the busy commercial neighborhood of Mar Elias, known for its jewelry stores, at least four shops had “For Sale” signs in the window.
Among them was emptied-out family gold shop. Maha, a 34-year-old, staffed the shop with her uncle on a recent day. The family still has its wholesale gold business but can’t keep running an idle retail shop, they said. Both refused to give their last name to protect the family’s commercial reputation and private plans.
Maha said only the middle class feels the economic pain since the wealthy and government officials stash their money abroad.
“People ask why we don’t protest. Look around us what happened when people protested?” she said. “Look at Egypt, or even worse Syria. We will end up in a worse place.”