Turkey struggles with Erdogan image, as EU focuses on migrant deal

Turkish authorities took over an opposition newspaper last month, with police using tear gas to storm the building. Last week, two journalists went on trial, accused of trying to topple the government.

Now, Turkey has entered into a row with Germany over a satire show that poked fun at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The German show, Extra 3, mocked Erdogan in song as a leader who jails critical journalists and launches airstrikes against Kurds while ignoring the Islamic State terrorist group.

The German ambassador to Turkey was summoned by Ankara, which wanted the two-minute medley banned. The effort to suppress seemed heavy handed in Western countries, where leaders are regularly raked over the coals.

The video for the song on YouTube subsequently went from just tens of thousands of views, a normal figure for the broadcast, to well over 4 million, after English subtitles were added. In a classic case of the Streisand Effect the regional sensation went globally viral, once the issue of censorship came into play.

"What is happening abroad is a reflection of what is happening domestically, in terms of how constrained the environment for political satire has become," says Sinan Ulgen, a Turkey expert at the Edam think-tank in Istanbul.

"If they don't show reaction to this type of content abroad, their reaction to similar content domestically will be less justified," Ulgen explains, noting that previous Turkish presidents had been more open to humour at their expense.

This is hardly the first incident. Last year a doctor went on trial for comparing Erdogan to Gollum, a character from Lord of the Rings. He, like more than 1,800 people in Turkey, is accused of insulting the president.

Supporters of the president, a divisive figure but still the country's most popular politician, this week launched a counter campaign on social media. But when their hashtag stopped being a trending topic on Twitter, proponents lost their cool.

"I believe this is part of a global operation against our president," said Bekir Bozdag, the justice minister, who joined the social media campaign, tweeting #WeLoveErdogan along with a photo of the president looking down at a young child and a flag.

The German satire show, which airs on Wednesday evenings, took the ruckus around its song in its stride, even using #WeLoveErdogan to promote itself on Twitter.

Extra-3's most recent episode started with the announcer speaking in Turkish, describing the show as Erdogan's "most beloved" comedy.

"We'll do it like the EU," the show said. "We'll offer Erdogan a dirty deal." For every joke a Turkish comic is allowed to make about their president, the show says it will take back one jab about Erdogan in return.

The European Union's relationship with Turkey is now dominated by the refugee crisis.

Europe is keen to stop the flow of migrants, including many Syrian refugees, to the bloc and has struck a deal with Ankara in recent weeks.

The deal, which includes an element of Europe agreeing to take in one refugee for every one sent back to Turkey, has many critics, including the UN's refugee agency.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's spokeswoman has said the attack on the satirical song "moves Turkey further from the EU."

However, Ulgen, the analyst, says this response is "superficial" and the current locking of horns over Extra 3 will blow over. If Europe really wants leverage over Turkey, he says, it would need to be more serious on Turkey's accession talks to join the bloc.

Meanwhile, the trial of Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, the two journalists accused of espionage and supporting terrorists by publishing a report on weapons shipments to Syria, resumes on Friday.

The case will be judged behind closed doors, much to the consternation of human rights groups. European diplomats attended the first session last week, but found themselves in Erdogan's cross hairs, with the president saying they had no business at the Istanbul court.

With the refugee crisis still a domestic political issue for Europe, it remains unclear how much more backing the pair will get from the bloc. They face life imprisonment if found guilty.

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49

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