The First Amendment: A Reason to Give Thanks

November 22, 2012
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This Thanksgiving, CBLDF takes a moment to give thanks for our biggest asset in the fight to protect free speech the United States: the First Amendment. Though we continually see challenges to free speech, the results are not as extreme as those seen in other countries. We take a look at a few of the challenges from around the world to remind us of what could happen without the protection provided by the First Amendment.

India

The Aseem Trivedi case brought a sharp focus to the free of speech movement in India. The cartoonist was arrested on sedition charges stemming from cartoons that criticize and expose corruption in India’s government. His arrest sparked protests from supporters, leading the government to promise a review of the charges against Trivedi. He was released on bail, and on October 12, the Maharashtra state government dropped the sedition charge on advice from the advocate general.

The general consensus, even among Trivedi’s detractors, is that Trivedi’s arrest is an abuse of the law. It led to a call for the removal of the sedition law from India’s Penal Code. Justice Markandey Katju, chairman of the Press Council in India wants to use the Aseem Trivedi case as a test case for repealing the sedition law. He is bringing criminal charges against the police involved with Trivedi’s arrest and against the politicians who brand criticism of the actions as “anti-national.” This show of support is in keeping with Trivedi’s commitment to the fight for free speech and the repeal of the sedition law:

There are two main points of this battle. One is the fight against Section 124(A) [of the Indian Penal Code] and second is for freedom of speech and expression. It is important that we should be allowed to say what we have to say so that the government hears our voice.

Trivedi still faces additional charges under the Prevention of Insults to National Honor Act, 1971 for insult to national symbols, emblem, and parliament. A conviction carries a sentence of up to 3 years in prison, a fine, or both.

For more CBLDF coverage of the Trivedi case:
Political Cartoonist Charged with Treason in India
Indian Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi Released on Bail After Arrest on Sedition Charges
Frivolous Arrest of Cartoonist Fuels Effort to Repeal Indian Sedition Charges
Sedition Charges Dropped Against Asseem Trivedi

Syria

Renowned Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, along with Aseem Trivedi, received the 2012 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award from Cartoonists Rights Network International for “show[ing] exemplary courage in the face of unrelenting threat, legal action or other pressure as punishment or disincentive for cartoons that are too powerful for some officials, sects, terrorists or demagogues.” Ferzat used satire to criticize the government and its officials in his cartoons. For his efforts, he was kidnapped and beaten, both hands broken to send a message to stop drawing the cartoons. In his coverage for CBLDF, Justin Brown writes:

“[P]olitical cartoonist Ali Ferzat has been a bastion of anti-censorship and political criticism in Syria and “…has no intention of letting the censors keep him down,” despite being violently attacked and injured by Syrian authorities, according to an article on IndexOnCensorship.org by Malu Halsa. The website was founded as a forum for reporting, analysis, and discussion of free expression issues.

From Halsa’s article, entitled “Creative Dissent in Syria“:

Drawing the president, Ferzat admits, was a personal and political breakthrough — if not foolhardy. “It is quite suicidal to draw someone who is considered a godlike figure for the regime and the Ba’ath party, but still I did it and people respected that courage and started carrying banners with caricatures in the protest to show how they feel about things.”

Ferzat must have anticipated that his actions might lead to violent repercussions. Last August, pro-regime forces viciously assaulted him and broke both his hands. During the attack, one of the assailants yelled at him, “Bashar’s shoe is better than you.” Article 376 of the Syrian penal code makes it an offence to insult or defame the president, and carries a six-month to three-year prison sentence.

Other forms of harsh persecution, suppression by intimidation, and censorship have been prevalent in Arab nations, in contrast to changing ideals, ousting, and transitioning of governments, and the renaissance and public acceptance of comics and cartoons.”

For more CBLDF coverage of Ali Ferzat:
Syrian Cartoonist Beaten, Hands Broken
Comic Spring in the Arab World
Two Cartoonists to Receive CRNI Award

South Africa

South African President Jacob Zuma has been repeatedly accused of using his authority and law-making influence to silence his critics. Earlier this year, he took the Goodman Gallery to court over their exhibition of Brett Murray’s painting The Spear. Based on a Leninist propaganda poster, it portrays Zuma with his genitals exposed. The ANC filed a lawsuit against the gallery, claiming defamation and a violation of Zuma’s right to dignity under South Africa’s constitution. The lawsuit was dropped when the gallery removed the painting after it was defaced.

South African cartoonist Jeremy Nell (aka Jerm) was fired from the publication The New Age in October. Their reason for terminating Jerm’s contract was that his cartoons made political statements. Carol Hills, producer and reporter with The Worldspoke about Jerm’s work for The New Age and gave insight into the reasons for the newspaper’s decision:

…Jerm was let go, and the reason was that his cartoons are not in alignment with the mission and goals of The New Age… [T]he newspaper is owned by these three Indian brothers, the Gupta brothers. They immigrated to South Africa after the end of apartheid. They’ve struck huge business deals, many of them involving the government. Some of [South African president Jacob] Zuma’s family members have benefited from the Guptas, they have jobs with them or they’re involved with investments with them.

Hills also characterized Jerm’s cartoons as critical of the Guptas, President Zuma, the African National Congress (ANC), and issues that are important to the ANC’s platform. The implication is that the paper acted out of a desire to protect its political interests and connections.

On October 28,  Zuma announced  that he was dropping his lawsuit against cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, known by the pen-name Zapiro. Zuma brought the suit for defamation against Zapiro, along with Sunday Times publisher Avusa Media and editor Mondli Makhanya, in 2008 for Zapiro’s cartoon “Lady Justice,” which depicts Zuma set to rape Justice personified as a woman. The president’s office released a statement saying that they dropped the charges in order to avoid setting a legal precedent that would have a chilling effect on free speech in South Africa. Zuma’s critics, including Zapiro, do not believe that this is the real reason for the withdrawal of the suit. Zuma is up for re-election as the leader of the African National Congress (ANC) during the Manguang conference in December. Critics believe that the lawsuit was dropped to avoid potential negative fallout from a court appearance.

For more CBLDF coverage of censorship in South Africa:
South African Scuffle Over Controversial Portrait Spurs Debate, Censorship
Editorial Cartoonist Fired for Drawing Political Cartoons
South African President Drops Defamation Suit Against Cartoonist

Censorship often appears cloaked in good intentions and with the best interests of society in mind. Stories from around the world, similar to the ones highlighted above, point to the need for vigilance in protecting the speech that allows democracy to flourish, that encourages the free exchange of ideas, and that serves to entertain. There is a fine line between these ideals — the fight is over where it gets drawn, and who gets to draw it. The First Amendment is our most powerful weapon in that fight.

This holiday season, CBLDF gives thanks for protections afforded by the First Amendment. 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 comic fan, a writer, and a 2015 J.D. candidate at Phoenix School of Law.