In yet another chilling development for cartoonists’ freedom of expression worldwide, an Algerian appeals court this week convicted cartoonist Tahar Djehiche of insulting the country’s president and inciting mob violence via cartoon. He has appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court, but if the conviction is upheld he will receive six months in prison and a fine of 500,000 dinars (about $4600).
The offending cartoon was about an issue familiar to many Americans: drilling for shale gas by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. At the behest of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s government, the state-owned oil and gas company Sonatrach began the exploration phase of a fracking project in the Sahara Desert last December. Bouteflika was caught off-guard by sustained peaceful protests in the impoverished and sparsely populated region, which eventually snowballed into street demonstrations in the nation’s capital, Algiers.
In the midst of the unrest, Djehiche posted the cartoon shown here on social media. With Bouteflika at the bottom of the hourglass about to be buried by sand from Ain Salah, the desert village where the protests began, the cartoon succinctly illustrates the idea that the administration’s time could be running out due to the unforeseen citizen action. Illogically, though, the authorities chose to view Djehiche’s symbolic illustration of the effects of the protests as incitement to more protests–or rather, to riot. (Again, the demonstrations were tense but peaceful until police fired tear gas at protesters in late February.)
Back in May, the cartoonist seemed to be in the clear after a local court acquitted him of the charges. But the Algerian judicial system does not bar double jeopardy, meaning that the prosecution could appeal his acquittal and have him tried again in a higher court for the same alleged offenses. Even so, his conviction at the appeals court still came as a shock to Reporters Without Borders regional representative Yasmine Kacha. “This decision is incomprehensible,” she said in a statement last week. “Algeria’s highest court must show leniency towards Djehiche, whose cartoons just emphasized the environment challenges linked to shale gas production.”
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.