Cartoonist Challenges Authority in Tunisia

January 14, 2014
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Tunisian blogger and cartoonist _Z_ didn’t sit back when he saw his government catering to the wealthy elite at the risk of the general public and fragile ecosystem in Tunis. Not long after _Z_ began his crusade against government corruption, authorities tried to shut him down. Fortunately, _Z_ and his followers proved more technically savvy than the government.

_Z_ has chosen to remain anonymous because Tunisia has a history of censoring cartoonists, bloggers, and those who oppose the government. In 2012, Tunisian citizen Jabeur Mejri was sentenced to seven years in jail after sharing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad on Facebook. Tunisian rapper Weld El 15 (real name, Ala Yaakoubi) fled the country after he was targeted for a video that protested the use of excessive force by police. He was sentenced to two years prison in absentia.

Authorities thought they had caught _Z_ when they arrested a female blooger named Fatma after she posted several of his cartoons. Fatma was released after _Z_ released a cartoon featuring a flamingo — _Z_’s symbol — declaring “I am not Fatma.”

PRI’s The World recently spoke with _Z_ about his cartoons, which frequently target Tunisia’s overwhelmingly Islamic government that was elected in 2011 after decades of dictatorship:

“The country is in a political stalemate,” says _Z_. “Many Tunisians, especially older Tunisians, believe that Tunisia can only be governed by a dictatorship or a theocracy. It’s a distortion of reality.”

Many of _Z_’s cartoons poke fun at Islam, but _Z_ says it’s not because he is against religion. “I poke fun at it because it’s the dominant political issue and we as a society have to accept satire and the satirical form of criticism. It’s part of becoming a democracy.”

_Z_ lives in Paris, where he is a practicing architect, but he still travels to Tunisia despite the risk of reprisals:

_Z_ visits Tunisia often to see his family. His dream is to return to Tunisia and start a satirical magazine. But not until Tunisia’s constitution changes. “The law in Tunisia considers the religion of state to be Islam. So if I make cartoons against Islam, the law is against me.” _Z_ believes that if he got into trouble, there would be no freedom of speech protection for him.

You can listen to PRI’s broadcast and view some slides of _Z_’s work below.

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