The designer of the ‘Thanks to Erdoğan’ sticker campaign lands in the president's crosshairs

Original design of the sticker by graphic designer Mahir Akkoyun. Free to use as per the designer's permission.

Days ahead of the municipal elections in 2019, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was delivering a speech in the capital, Ankara. “We are holding local elections on Sunday. Do mayors have a chance to fix Turkey's economy? Does the mayor have an impact on the economy? Most of the municipalities are currently submerged. I am responsible for Turkey's economy. There is nothing local authorities can do,” said the president, following promises of “an economic structure” that will “support investment, production, growth, and employment.” Fast forward to 2023, and not only has the President failed to deliver on these promises, but those asking for accountability are being silenced. The most recent example is of graphic designer Mahir Akkoyun who was detained on April 7 over a sticker campaign he started.

I designed stickers like these for use at places where people face inflation and high cost of living the most — markets, fruit and vegetable vendors, grocery stores and shopping centers where you can stick these on any of the products or product shelves sold there.

The stickers read: “This product is expensive because of us. Remember this when you vote,” accompanied by pictures of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the leader of the ruling party's main ally, the Nationalist People's Party, Devlet Bahçeli. Other stickers read: “Is this product too expensive? It is because of Erdoğan. Remember this when you vote,” accompanied by pictures of the president.

In interviews with local media, Akkoyun explained that his main goal in designing these stickers was to change some people's opinions and to challenge the ruling powers. The stickers have gained significant popularity, which Akkoyun attributes to their simple message.

As stickers started gaining momentum on social media platforms and are being used across cities and provinces in Turkey, Akkoyun tweeted he was being detained on the grounds of insulting the president, disrupting the election, and making false rumors. After hours of questioning, Akkoyun was released. In a message the designer shared via his Twitter, he thanked everyone for the outpouring of support. In the note, Akkoyun described himself as a “socialist visual communication designer” who has previously been detained or questioned over his work. “This was not the first, nor I suspect, the last time it will happen,” wrote Akkoyun. The rest of the note read:

The things I did to reach thousands of people went far beyond my expectations and reached millions of people in a few hours and became a major subject in Turkey. My word became everybody's word, everybody's word became my word. For this reason, I would like to thank my friends, comrades, NGOs, political parties, political party leaders and representatives, mayors, lawyers, Izmir Bar Association, journalists, artists, intellectuals, workers, students, laborers, women, LGBTQI+ people who expressed their support and everyone else whose names I could not list and to whose messages of support I could not return.

I am not the only person in this country who has been detained, investigated on fabricated grounds, imprisoned or nearly imprisoned due to their political stance and struggle. There are millions of people who are imprisoned, detained and forced to pay the price because they are at odds with this system. If we want to get rid of those who condemn us to poverty, misery, hunger, and exploitation, we have to show the same solidarity and unity with those people and win by fighting together.

Finally, the great support I received yesterday and the fact that my work has reached millions of people has motivated me even more. Now I will continue to struggle and resist by working more, producing more, sharing more.

Thanks again for everything.

Scores of prominent political leaders, activists, and journalists tweeted in support of Akkoyun, demanding his immediate release and condemning the detention. Among them was the leader of the opposition coalition Iyi Parti (Good Party), Meral Akşener:

This morning, Mahir Akkoyun was detained because of his designs. You will not be able to intimidate our youth, who cannot be intimidated by threats, by striking blows to their freedom. Your persecution and oppression will soon end. We will make history with our young people who speak the truth! Only 37 days left.

Journalist Sedef Kabaş, who was detained last year over a proverb she used, tweeted:

Mahir Akkoyun who prepared stickers that read, “Is this product expensive to you? It is thanks to Erdoğan,” is being taken into custody. Why? Isn't life expensive? Don't we live in a country where you can buy only 25 onions for 200 TL? Isn't it Erdoğan who said “its me who is the only one responsible for the economy”?

Akkoyun is among countless people who have been accused of “insulting” President Erdoğan.

In 2022 alone, 7,600 cases were launched on similar grounds, including “insulting” the state, government, or the nation, according to reporting by the Turkish online newspaper Gazete Duvar. According to Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code, it is illegal to insult the president. The accused can face up to four years behind bars. Article 301 of the Penal Code criminalizes “degrading Turkish Nation, State of Turkish Republic, the Bodies and Institutions of the State.” Since being elected in 2014, Freedom House reports that some “100,000 people have been accused of defaming the president” and breaking Article 299 of the Penal Code, a provision rarely used before, according to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch.

Studentsartistsjournalistslawyers, and average citizens have been prosecuted or faced trial. According to the Ministry of Justice, General Directorate of Criminal Records and Statistics, 36,000 people were investigated for allegedly insulting the president in 2019 and 31,297 in 2020. In comparison, only four people were investigated under the article in 2010. In October 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the criminal proceedings instituted under Article 299 are in violation of Article 10 on freedom of expression of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Akkoyun has been building his portfolio in the run-up to the election:

Akkoyun's work inspired others to launch similar campaigns. The youth branch of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) designed a QR code that it stuck in markets that, when scanned, led to that speech President Erdoğan delivered in Ankara in 2019 ahead of the municipal election.

Istanbul youth branch of CHP stuck QR code stickers on market shelves. When scanned, the QR code starts playing the video where Erdoğan says, “I am the one responsible for the economy, me!”

With a little over a month left until the general elections in Turkey, where Erdoğan's seat will be challenged, Akkoyun's detention speaks to how nervous the ruling party feels in the run-up to the vote.

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