Cartoonists Under Threat Around the World

“The world is unfortunately waking up to the power and influence of cartoonists, [responding] through the exercise of violence and murder.” So said Robert Russell, executive director of Cartoonist Rights Network International, in the recent report, “Drawing the Line: Cartoonists Under Threat,” published by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

From the attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices earlier this year to several other cases of prosecution and the legal repercussions that cartoonists and journalists have had to face in order to have their works published and disseminated to a larger audience, Shawn W. Crispin investigates what it means to be a cartoonist in the current international climate — a climate greatly impacted by the advent of the internet and social media. These sites have not only blurred and even transcended linguistic and territorial boundaries, opening the door for more cartoonists to be seen and their messages to be heard, but they have also allowed cartoonists to be more closely monitored by those who would have them silenced.

The world of cartooning has drastically and rapidly changed with the inception and usage of the internet. More cartoonists are being given the opportunity for their works to be published, and more of the international community is being exposed not only to those works and the cartoonists’ messages, but also to the legal and often violent actions being taken against these creators. Although print has always been the traditional medium for cartoonists, that medium has limited the accessibility of content, whether it be by a language, a physical, and even a legislative barrier. The internet on the other hand has little to no international border. Due to the fact that it is virtually accessible to anyone around the world, it has become the perfect vehicle to increase awareness of attacks on cartoonist and on free speech. For cartoonists and advocates for free speech, this mode of transmitting information has become invaluable.

“In many quarters, cartoons are reaching people now more than ever with the advent of social media,” noted Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who has been prosecuted for his depictions of rising political corruption in India. “If there’s a message that speaks to something greater, its chances of going viral and spreading to the masses are high.”

But along with the celebration of a way for cartoonists’ works to be more visible, Crispin is also right to point out the internet is a double-edged sword. “Rising Internet penetration rates have allowed enemies of the press everywhere to more easily monitor and respond to cartoons they view as objectionable,” he says.

Along with reaching a larger global population, more cartoonists have been the target of censorship, lawsuits, imprisonment, and in more radical cases, physical violence, death, and even self-imposed exile. Citing a range of recent cases like the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in France, the governmental prosecution of cartoonist Zunar in Malyasia, American cartoonist Molly Norris being advised by the FBI to go into hiding due to threats made over her 2010 “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” Facebook post, Crispin notes that the world that cartoonists now occupy has become alarmingly dangerous and the risks and repercussions, whether it be from outside forces or self-imposed, for being published have increased several fold.

“It has created very much fear. I am also afraid,” said Kurt Westergaard, a cartoonist who contributed a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad to the highly controversial Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten in 2005 and still continues to receive death threats. “Fear from [attacks] will not disappear. It will be for a very long time. Of course, there will be some type of self-censorship, and that in a way is the worst kind of censorship.”

Whether the censorship be self-imposed, suggested by a cartoonist’s editor or publisher, or forcibly by the government or radical groups, Crispin’s report exemplifies all of the reasons why we need to fight for freedom of speech now more than ever. And many cartoonists are already taking this approach — and taking the personal risks — with this thought in mind.

Venezuelan cartoonist, Rayama Suprani has received pressure from her editors for her controversial cartoons criticizing the late President Hugo Chavez, but she sees value in continuing her fight even though she risks her welfare:

Weeks before my firing, I started being censored by my editors, [who asked] questions like, ‘You have no other options to publish tomorrow?’… The idea was to try to make you see that you can tone down your work a bit and not lose your job. But in my case this was impossible because I am someone who is highly committed to freedom and my work.

Other artists have made similar remarks. “No matter what, I need to confront the challenge, not give in to fear, and try to be more creative,” said Ecuadorian cartoonist Bonil, who was recently charged with “socioeconomic discrimination” for his work.

“If I am not prepared to take risks, I have no right to call myself an artist. If there is no mission or message to my work, I might as well be a painter and decorator” commented Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat.

In the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the world was not only shocked, but cartoonists came under more scrutiny by both the public and their public enemies.

“It showed wherever you live as a cartoonist you would not be safe — even in the heart of democracy and liberty you could be killed because of your job,” said Neyestani, an Iranian cartoonist. “I always say that a cartoonist is like a parachutist: we jump out of a plane even if we have high anxiety. It is our job and love, so we jump and hope that we’ll land safely.”

Read the full report here.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!