Nicosia (AFP) – Hundreds of protesters Monday demonstrated outside the offices of a Turkish Cypriot newspaper that aroused the ire of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by slamming Ankara’s operation inside Syria as an “occupation”.
The Afrika newspaper — which is often anti-Ankara and staunchly critical of Erdogan — wrote on its front page Sunday: “One more occupation from Turkey.”
This was an ironic reference to the 1974 Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus which is regarded in Turkey as a “peace operation” but, in the eyes of the international community, led to Turkish troops occupying the northern third of the island.
Around 500 protesters, waving Turkish flags and the flag of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot statelet, gathered outside the offices of the paper, throwing eggs, water bottles and stones which smashed the building’s windows.
“Allahu Akbar! (God is Greatest!)”, they shouted. Some unfurled banners saying: “Afrika newspaper must be shut down immediately.” Others carried a huge banner of Erdogan.
A group climbed a flagpole outside and dismantled the newspaper’s main sign on the building’s balcony. Police refrained from taking action, an AFP journalist reported.
Mehmet Demirci, the Turkish ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) representative in northern Cyprus, said the newspaper had exceeded the limits of criticism.
“We condemn those who put such headlines in the Afrika newspaper and who dare to make politics over this headline,” he was quoted as saying by the Anadolu news agency.
At the weekend, Erdogan had personally taken aim at the newspaper, criticising its headline as “immoral”.
“They say the Turkish army is carrying out another ‘occupation’ after Cyprus. How immoral it is, how shameless it is!” he seethed.
Erdogan called on the Turkish Cypriots not to remain silent over the newspaper’s controversial headline, in what some saw as encouraging the protest.
The foreign ministry of the internationally recognised Cypriot government expressed “grave concern” over the events in the north and condemned Erdogan’s comments as “incitement to violence.”
It “is yet another proof of Mr Erdogan’s policy to consolidate Turkey’s authoritarian policies in the Turkish occupied part of Cyprus, including restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” it said.
Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci defended the paper’s right to freedom of speech, saying he had often been the target of criticism by Afrika but had never told the paper to be silent.
“It is not possible to correct wrong ideas with wrong actions,” he said, in reference to the protests, warning against provocations.
OSCE representative for media freedom Harlem Desir said on Twitter he condemned “the attack vandalising” the offices of Afrika adding that “media freedom must be protected and respected.”
The eastern Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded the northern third in response to an Athens-inspired coup seeking union between Greece and Cyprus.
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is recognised only by Ankara.
Turkey on Saturday launched its operation with Ankara-backed Syrian rebels to root out the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) militia from Afrin.
Turkey views the YPG militia as “terrorists” linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has fought against the Turkish state since 1984 and is designated as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
Erdogan has urged national solidarity over the operation and the government has reached out to leaders of the main nationalist and secular opposition parties.
But Erdogan warned those who respond to calls for protests in Turkey will have to pay a “heavy price”. The authorities on Monday detained 24 people on suspicion of disseminating “terror propaganda” on social media.