A court in the north of Nicosia on Thursday cleared two journalists who had faced up to five years in prison on charges of insulting and defaming Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan.
Sener Levent, the editor of Turkish-language daily Afrika, and the paper’s reporter Ali Osman Tabak were on trial for “insulting a foreign leader” after the newspaper published a cartoon showing a Greek statue urinating on Erdogan’s head.
The cartoon first appeared online at the time of Erdogan’s 2017 visit to Greece, and Afrika later published it with the caption “seen through Greek eyes.”
Levent and Tabak were likewise acquitted of the second charge, that of “inciting hatred against a foreign leader with the aim of spoiling the friendly and peaceful relations between the two countries” – meaning Turkey and the breakaway regime.
The judge told a packed courtroom that the image “did not constitute an insult.”
By publishing the cartoon, the judgment added, the paper was reporting the feelings of some Greeks after meetings between Turkish and Greek leaders.
The court also cited rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, which has acquitted journalists over alleged “insults” to politicians, and noted that satire is part of free speech.
The court erupted in loud applause as the ruling was read out and supporters cheered as the two journalists were released.
“Erdogan lost and we won,” Levent told foreign press as he left the courtroom.
The decision, he added, demonstrates that the north of Cyprus, despite being under Ankara’s suzerainty, nevertheless has an independent judiciary.
“Had the same trial taken place in Turkey, the outcome would have been very different.”
“But,” went on Levent, “this is Cyprus, we are Cypriots, citizens of the Republic of Cyprus and of the EU. We are not in Turkey here.”
In other advanced countries in Europe and the United States, such cases would have never gone to court in the first place, he said.
Levent, a vocal opponent of Erdogan and his ruling AKP party, called the court verdict “an important milestone for real independence against Turkey.”
The editor also faces trial over an article he wrote criticising a Turkish military operation against a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria.
Erdogan responded at the time by calling on Ankara’s “brothers in north Cyprus to give the necessary response.”
The following day, a crowd attacked the offices of Afrika as Turkish Cypriot police stood back and watched.