In mid-August, American cartoonist Daryl Cagle presented a video conference on for editorial cartoonists and journalists based in Lahore, Pakistan. Cagle discussed the impact of political cartoons in the US, and the lack of restrictions on the ideas that American cartoonists can express. By contrast, Pakistani cartoonists felt that there were many taboo topics that inhibited their creativity.
As part of his presentation, Cagle discussed the nature of political cartoons, which he feels are best understood within the context of the society that inspired them. He noted that generally, there is no censorship in the US on what a cartoonist can draw. The market determines what content should or should not be published. In other words, editors frequently base their decisions on what cartoons to publish on the tastes of their readers.
In contrast, the cartoonists in Pakistan do not feel the same freedom to address any subject matter. Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution grants freedom of speech to all citizens, but this freedom is subject to any restrictions imposed by law. The most limiting of these are the “Blasphemy Laws,” which refer to Chapter 15 of the Pakistan Penal Code. When the international press refers to the Blasphemy Laws, they usually mean Section 295 (c), which prohibits the use of derogatory remarks with respect to Muhammad and carries with it a penalty of death. It is, in fact, the only statute in Chapter 15 under which the accused can be sentenced to death. Section 295 (c) further states that the remarks can be written, spoken, visually represented, by insinuation or innuendo — either directly or indirectly. You can be charged with blasphemy under this statute whether you intended to commit blasphemy or if the alleged blasphemous conduct was accidental. The result is that many cartoonists censor themselves. They choose not to draw caricatures of religious institutions and symbols in order to avoid a blasphemy charge and its attendant death sentence.
Cagle wrote, “It is the role of editorial cartoonists to criticize governments and nations, and to use the symbols of nations in our cartoons,” in response to the backlash against his cartoon featuring the Mexican flag. Criticism is an important part of the discourse that keeps a democracy healthy, shedding light on contentious issues so that society can address them. Cartoonists play an important role in this discourse, using art to reflect what they see in society. When free expression is restricted, either through direct censorship, or the enactment of laws that cause artists to censor themselves, we lose an important instrument of change.
Few countries protect Free Speech as adamantly as the United States does, and censorship has a chilling effect worldwide. Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues such as this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!
Soyini A. Hamit is a scientist by training, a comic fan, and a writer. You can follow her fascination with language and music at soyinianika.com.