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Rights group calls for acquittal of Cyprus journalists detained over Erdogan 'insult'

Two Cypriot journalists face up to five years in prison for 'defaming' Turkey's president [Getty]

Date of publication: 21 April, 2019

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Reporters Without Borders has called for the release of two journalists who face prosecution over a satirical cartoon of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has urged authorities in northern Cyprus to acquit two journalists facing up to five years in prison on charges of insulting and defaming Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Sener Levent, the editor of Turkish-language daily Afrika, and the paper's reporter Ali Osman Tabak are on trial over a cartoon showing a Greek statue urinating on Erdogan's head.

The image first appeared online at the time of the Turkish leader's 2017 visit to Greece, and Afrika later published it with the caption "seen through Greek eyes".

RSF said the two journalists are charged with defaming and insulting a foreign leader and "inciting hatred against a foreign leader with the aim of spoiling the friendly and peaceful relations between the two countries".

Their lawyer, who will deliver their final arguments in court on Monday, will argue that they should be acquitted, his assistant said.

The journalists deny the charges and say the trial threatens freedom of expression and the press.

"I hope that the court's decision will not be shameful for our society," 70-year-old Levent said.

RSF said in a statement that convicting the journalists would be "a grave error and would send an extremely negative signal to the media in the northern part of Cyprus".

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 recognises the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which it bankrolls and where it has more than 30,000 troops stationed.

RSF said journalists today face growing pressure both in Turkey and in the TRNC.

Levent also faces trial over an article he wrote criticising a Turkish military operation against a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria.

Erdogan responded by calling on Ankara's "brothers in north Cyprus to give the necessary response".

The following day, a crowd of ultra-nationalists 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.

"There is always a price you pay for freedom of expression," Levent told AFP afterwards.

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

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