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Media Watch 2003

26 May 2003
Source: New York Times
Author: Marlise Simons
Comment: The following article appeared in the New York Times on 26 May 2003
Turkish Cypriot Publisher Goes to Press, and Court, Almost Daily

NICOSIA, Cyprus - As a poet with no time left for poetry, Sener Levent could use a few extra hours in the day. It is not the long stretches he spends at his office as editor and publisher of the main opposition newspaper in Turkish northern Cyprus. The real noose around his neck is his almost daily trek to court.

Mr. Levent has lost count of the fusillade of lawsuits pending against him. "I think there are more than 100 cases now, in civilian and in military courts," he said.

Sometimes his predicament can seem to border on the absurd. He has been arrested several times while coming out of one courthouse, he said, because he failed to show up at a simultaneous hearing at another court. "I've suggested they work on their schedule," he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

As much of Cyprus has celebrated the recent opening of the 1974 partition line that had separated the island's Turks and Greeks, Mr. Levent's plight is a reminder of the tough Turkish policies that linger in the north. When he tried to visit friends across the dividing line, as tens of thousands have done in recent weeks, plainclothes police officers stepped up at the checkpoint and turned him back without explanation. He was able to cross two days earlier, the police told reporters, only because they had not noticed him.

Mr. Levent, 55, owns and directs Afrika, the most popular opposition newspaper in the northern part of the island under Turkish Cypriot control. All the lawsuits against him or against his daily newspaper have been filed by the civilian or military authorities, and they include charges of defamation, libel, sedition, spying and other offenses.

There is more. He has been jailed twice and received death threats. His equipment has been confiscated, and his printing plant has been bombed. All of this has failed to silence Afrika. If anything, it has steeled Mr. Levent and his two brothers, who help him run the independent newspaper with a staff of 20.

Actually, he recalled in his modest office recently, the newspaper started out in 1997 as Avrupa, the Turkish word for Europe. That name was tantamount to subversion because it was an open message that many Turkish Cypriots wanted to cut loose from Turkey and join the European Union, along with the the Greek Cypriot part of the island. But he was forced to close down Avrupa because of the enormous fines imposed on it.

"So we re-opened it as Afrika," he said. "It means that we are living under the law of the jungle."

Mr. Levent has an affable, self-effacing manner, more in keeping with the image of the published poet than of the combative newspaper editor, but he is inflexible in his conditions.

He has denounced official corruption and incompetence, but above all he wants to end the division of Cyprus. Almost daily he denounces the two main obstacles he sees: the elected Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, who has dominated politics here for almost three decades, and Turkey's military, which keeps 40,000 troops here. Mr. Denktash maintains that northern Cyprus is an independent nation, a status recognized only by Turkey.

"We live in a dictatorship, run by the Turkish military and their cohort, Denktash," Mr. Levent said. "You can live a normal life here if you keep quiet, if you don't tell the truth that we live under Turkish occupation, that much of our territory is a military zone where we can't go.

"I want a unified Cyprus that can join the European Union, not for economic reasons, but to have a democracy, to have European laws with respect for human rights. We don't want to live under Turkish law."

Mr. Levent and several of his reporters speak from experience about the law here. In 2000, he was arrested on charges of being a spy for the Greeks. A Turkish general testified against him in court, but he was released 11 days later for lack of evidence. In 2002, Mr. Levent and Memduh Ener, Afrika's chief political writer, were sentenced to six months in jail for articles about Mr. Denktash's political career that "risked harming the authority of the president," the court said. Following pressure from human rights and journalists' groups, the men were released after two months."