North Cyprus journalist takes on Turkey's mighty Erdogan

Nicosia (AFP) –


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 criticising 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 recognises the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). It also bankrolls the entity.

- 'Fear the worst' -

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 told AFP.

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".

- 'Silence of people' -

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."