Libyan Cartoonist Faces Sinister Form of Censorship

The work of Libyan cartoonist Nabil Fannoush is generally well-received in his home country. However, he still faces enough hostility from fundamentalist elements in his country that his editors have advised him to stay in Canada, where he currently resides.


(c) Nabil Fannoush

Tjeerd Royaards recently interviewed Fannoush for Cartoon Movement. Fannoush cites the hostile environment toward creative expression in Libya as a motivator for his work. He also admits that he did much of his cartooning anonymously during the Gaddafi regime:

I did not think it was right to negotiate the integrity of what I say through my drawings and tailoring them to suit the regime’s standards, so I focused on earning a degree in computer science (and currently study and work in that field), but I still drew on request from NGOs and local causes without signature. I often drew anonymously when a subject bothered me enough. God knows I was fearful for myself at times, but it was fear for my family’s safety that prevented me from drawing openly at the time. I had no right to endanger them.

Fannoush downplays his skill as a cartoonist in the interview, but he confesses to high aspirations for the impact of his work:

One hope is that I give the average Libyan, who for decades was and still is suffering from marginalization, a voice that can be heard over the noise from the plethora of Libyan media that serves private interest and political agendas and not the public good: they ignore the daily suffering of ordinary people. Another thing I aim for that is the more daunting task of appealing to them for awareness and tolerance, which sadly are in short supply in Libya right now. People need to understand that they need to compromise on things and tolerate each other and differing views for the overall benefit of their country and put aside prejudices and short term personal gain.

Restrictions on speech in Libya have loosened with the end of the Gaddafi regime, but Fannoush has still been threatened for his work. He does not set out to target specific groups or people in his work, but some in Libya have still taken exception to his cartoons. Often, he becomes a target because of irrationality: The office of the newspaper for which Fannoush works was attacked by the owner of a grocery store who thought Fannoush had depicted him personally in a strip. Some Libyans argued that he was “offending religion” when he drew woman on a bicycle. The cartoon in question was addressing fuel consumption in the country, not the treatment of women in Libyan society.

While the government is less a problem than it once was and Fannoush recognizes there’s no official censorship in the country, he believes a far more sinister force for censorship is at work in Libya:

The danger now is different from that of an oppressive regime and carte-blanche security apparatus, and in a way more sinister. It’s the opposite extreme of armed lawlessness and fundamentalists — religious, ethnic, tribal or otherwise — who are answerable to no one but themselves. They need not fear accountability for any act, including murder and genocide. Unless a cartoonist becomes part of the problem and aligns with the militias and their agendas for protection (at the cost of integrity and serving the public), he or she is a soft target with little or no protection from a very weak state.

You can read the entirety of Fannoush’s interview here.

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