Column: Turkey needs satire for democracy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting of local administrators in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, April 6, 2016. (Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Press Service, Pool via AP)

Turkey has a history of conflict with freedom of speech, especially under its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to Freedom House, the nation is listed as “Not Free,” scoring low in the area of press freedom.

Many media outlets are either run by or are dependent on the state, and the government has in the past been responsible for censoring websites and arresting journalists who portray the government unfavorably. Other journalists have experienced attacks in the form of tear gas or confrontations with government police.

Recently, the German comedy show “extra3” attempted to shed light on Erdogan’s disdain for free speech in the form of a satirical video. The video, which is a parody of the song “Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann” by the German artist Nena, portrays Erdogan as an authoritarian figure who is oversensitive to negative portrayals of himself. It is accompanied by real footage of protests and arrests in Turkey under Erdogan.

The president demanded the video be taken down from the Internet in a move that is all too characteristic of his disdain for satire. Turkey, however, cannot hope to be a true democracy without the presence of political satire in its society.

It is impossible to deny that satire has played a crucial role in healthy democracies. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and the works of Mark Twain both provided commentary on social issues that many people of the time refused to talk about.

Today, satirical news shows such as “The Daily Show” and “Full Frontal” target the absurdity in all things political, bringing these issues to the attention of the public. In this way, satire has the ability to transcend the boundary between politics and entertainment; as a result, it raises awareness of political issues in a nation and therefore creates more informed citizens.

In fact, a Pew Research Center study of American citizens found that viewers of satirical shows like “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” were more informed about news and political issues than viewers of mainstream media sources such as CNN and Fox News. This is because one of the key components of satire is truth. Just as the “extra3” video presents the truth about Erdogan’s censorship policies, other political satirists aim to portray absurd government policies in their stark reality, regardless of government opinion.

This is possible because of satire’s basis in comedy, which serves as a sort of excuse for any bold attacks on government or society. In this sense, it is a form of free speech that can be used when every other form of dissent is considered unacceptable. Take, for example, the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, in which Stephen Colbert gave a speech mocking government censorship in the post-9/11 era.

By adopting the guise of his satirical character, Colbert was able to criticize the Bush administration under the protection of his comedic intentions. While the government officials present were displeased with his performance, his real audience turned out to be the American public. Colbert used satire to ally himself with the people, keeping them informed and empowered, and in doing so, he strengthened their voice in democracy.

In such a democracy where it is still difficult for the voices of average citizens to be heard by distant lawmakers, satire has become the last line of defense by which those who are not government officials can speak freely.

Through satire, journalists, writers, comedians and even average citizens can maintain the true intentions of democracy, in which everyone has a voice. Criticisms can be made toward a government for the sake of improvement. Right now, Erdogan’s censorship and rejection of satire are preventing Turkey from improving as a democracy.

Regardless of any alliances Turkey has with democracies and any claims it attempts to make about the freedoms of its people, the nation cannot be a true democracy until it accepts satire a necessary component of free speech.


Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist to the Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.