In the aftermath of Kenyan cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa (better known as Gado) being fired from the Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation earlier this month, fellow cartoonists, free speech advocates, and cartoonist rights activists are supporting the artist and condemning Kenyan press for undermining freedom of expression.
Regarded by many to be the “most important” and “most syndicated” cartoonist in Africa, Gado has used his craft to illustrate the turbulent political climate of East and Central African for more than two decades. Although the subject matter of his cartoons ranges from terrorism, to social issues like deforestation and AIDS, to political corruption, the cartoonist has developed a strong following for his cartoons that focus on the dwindling state of free expression in countries like Kenya. His recent release from the Daily Nation after the newspaper was allegedly pressured by the Kenyan government is further proof of the precarious state of free speech in his home country.
Gado will not be silenced nor will his supporters. In light of the recent events, free speech organizations like PEN International and Cartoonists Rights Network International have spoken out, calling for the reinstatement of the cartoonist to the newspaper. “It seems clear from the sequence of events that the termination of Gado’s contract with the Daily Nation has more to do with his unsparing political commentary through his cartoons,” said Salil Tripathi, Chair of the Writers-in-Prison Committee for PEN International. “And as such, is intended to undermine his right to express his views freely, than for any other reason. This is distressing and wrong; it undermines Kenya’s own tradition of satire.”
CRNI executive director Dr. Robert Russell heavily criticized the newspaper for succumbing to external pressure. He argued that although it is the work of cartoonists that make political waves,
The newspapers, publishers and editors should be the front line of the defense of free speech in the country, not the individual journalist… While in this case the cartoonist is the practitioner of free speech, the publishers and the editors are the defenders of free speech.
Fellow Zapiro (Jonathan Shapiro), who has also faced political backlash in his home country of South Africa for his work, expressed great concern when he heard the news that Gado had been dismissed. “I am utterly shocked to hear that Gado has been fired and will no longer be seen in the Daily Nation,” said Zapiro.
The scope and impact of Gado’s cartoons, particularly about East Africa but also more broadly about the continent as a whole, make him arguably the most important cartoonist in Africa. It is clear that what has happened to Gado reflects the deterioration of freedom of expression in Kenya and that the editor of the Daily Nation has caved in to political pressure from the country’s rulers.
Although Gado’s cartoons will sadly no longer grace the pages of the Daily Nation, it has been reported that the cartoonist has found a new home at German media house Deutsche Welle. As the Professional Cartoonists Organization in the UK notes, “Gado is a world-class cartoonist, able to shine light on the darkest and most difficult situations that arise – and to do so with humour. The world needs to see more of Gado, not less.”
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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!