Drawing the line: Cartoonists and Press Freedom

"The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off." James Baldwin, 1962.

Journalists, columnists, editors and photographers are often the main focus in discussions around press freedom internationally. This World Press Freedom Day, observed on May 3, spoke to award-winning cartoonist John Curtis about the plight of editorial cartoonists who have been maimed, prosecuted and incarcerated, and often face an assortment of violent persecution for using their work to criticise social power and politically oppressive regimes. The work of cartoonists, although not always seen in the same light as that of traditional media practitioners, often shows immense courage in its execution and in the spotlight it casts on social and political injustices.

According to Curtis, editorial cartoonists are often targeted for their use of artistic liberty to level criticism against repressive governments or unbalanced systems.

What makes editorial cartoonists even more vulnerable, he says, is that they often work in isolation, removed from the formal and informal support structures that come when operating in a newsroom. Curtis points out that many editorial cartoonists often work from home. When they come under fire for their work, they lack the robust support mechanisms and public sentiment available to mainstream media practitioners.

According to Curtis, cartoonists do not enjoy the same outpouring of public and industry solidarity when harassed or threatened with violence, and the voices that are outspoken in their outrage when well-known journalists and media personalities are verbally attacked or trolled online is often lacking when cartoonists experience the same treatment. This is ironic because their cartoons usually appear on the same publications as written media coverage - often about the same controversial issues.

“I received a death threat a couple of weeks before Karima Brown received hers,” Curtis says, referring to the threats of violence and rape against a female South African journalist earlier this year. The threats against him, he says, related to content he published on the Africartoons website, a platform that showcases editorial cartoons from across Africa. Curtis says the threats were political nature, and often from people who He says who take umbrage to the political nature of the cartoons on display.

“Africartoons has a very strong presence on Facebook – with over a million followers. I received a message saying a gun should be put to my head. I asked him whether this threat was directed at me personally and the person said it is directed at all the cartoonists.”

Despite threats of this nature, cartoonists have not been deterred from fighting the fight for media freedom and freedom of expression from the frontlines. Many cartoonists continue to push back against oppressive machinations by governments to suppress media practitioners and media institutions.

Belgian editorial cartoonist Luc Descheemaeker won first prize at the 2019 Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom at their annual luncheon to mark to UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day.

On the test for artistic freedom for editorial cartoonists

Curtis says its interesting to note that there is a yardstick used by US-based Cagle Cartoons to measure freedom of expression for editorial cartoonists, and that this simple test has proved quite useful as a gauge of the state of media freedom. According to Cagle Cartoons, one of the best tests is whether a cartoonist can draw a caricature of the presidents in their own countries; and shockingly, by their estimation, this is only safe in around half of the countries internationally.

Curtis says that currently the climate in Africa means that only about a quarter of its countries meet this relatively low threshold.

Burundi president insulted by school children's doodles

A recent incident in Burundi saw schoolgirls jailed for doodling on a portrait of the country’s President Pierre Nkurunziza. According to AFP reports the three girls – aged 15, 16 and 17 – were arrested on March 12 2019 and spent the weekend in detention, charged with insulting the head of state.

Three other girls, as well as a 13 year-old boy arrested for the same “offence” were released without detention.

The arrests sparked international outcry. Lewis Mudge, Human Rights Watch's director for Central Africa, spoke out, saying it was unfortunate that children could be prosecuted for harmless scribbles. The Twitter campaign #FreeOurGirls – where users drew doodles on pictures of the Burundian president – also pushed for the children’s release.

While they were eventually released on March 26, after two weeks in detention, the girls were permanently expelled by the director of their Akamuri school for “falsifying their school books”.

According to Mudge, more serious crimes are being committed in Burundi that warrant the action of authorities. These include crimes against humanity committed by Imbonerakure, the armed wing of the ruling party, in 2017 and 2018.

These offences by Imbonerakure include summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture and other cruel and degrading treatments, sexual violence and forced disappearances – all which are cited in the United Human Rights Council commission of inquiry report released in 2018.

As the world observes Press Freedom Day, cartoonists and media practitioners note that its incidents like these that prove that the fight for the freedom of expression affects everyone, and not just those with professional interest in the industry.

Two editorial cartoonists to watch

1. Khalid Albaih, Sudan

Khalid Albaih is a Sudanese editorial cartoonist in self-imposed exile in Denmark. He is affiliated to the city of Copenhagen as an artist through a programme of the International Cities of the Refugee Network. Albaih has had cause for concern and reason to be wary of possible heavy-handed responses, as his work continues to level criticism at the powers that be in Sudan.

Image: International Cities of Refuge Network

During the excessively repressive period before long-serving President Omar al-Bashir was toppled in April, violent crackdowns by Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services had seen the detention of human rights activists, protesters and anybody else deemed too vocal about the shortcomings of the regime.

According to the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS), it was only after Omar Al-Bashir’s demise that more than 800 peaceful protesters and activists were released. ACJPS is aware of 31 protesters killed in the month of April alone. The crackdowns, which started in January, involved the jailing of journalists and the shutting down of publications and the confiscation of printed content if it was deemed inappropriate by government.

The situation in Sudan is still tense. Military officials who arrested Al-Bashir on April 11 have still not relinquished power to pave way for a civilian-led transition. This has forced the African Union to extend its initial 15-day deadline for this transition to two months.

Albaih’s cartoons started gaining prominence during the Arab Spring and he was quickly dubbed "an artist of the revolution". In an opinion piece he wrote for Al Jazeera, he said that as an Arab and Muslim, his work as a political cartoonist always involves the fear upsetting the “wrong people”.

He now sees himself as one of the ambassadors of the aspirations, sided with the protesters who have refused to leave the streets until their calls for a civilian transition are met. He uses his social media accounts to further the causes he believes in.

According to Turkish news channel TRT World, Albaih’s social media accounts drew a massive following after his cartoon of Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick is the former American football player who started a protest that has since had ripple effects throughout the US and the world - a protest of kneeling, or ‘taking a knee’, before games when the US national anthem was played. This in protest of police brutality and in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Khalid Albaih’s Facebook page, Khartoon, has more than 85 000 followers in addition to his 25 000 Twitter followers.

2. Ali Ferzat, Syria

Exile is often a safer option for cartoonists who want to remain true to their work. The stinging criticism of authorities by cartoonists often results in a violent reaction. In 2011, Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, now exiled in Kuwait, was kidnapped by assailants from a militia group loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This was in reaction to Ferzat’s caricature of Bashar al-Assad hitching a lift from former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Gaddafi’s regime was toppled when he was brutally assassinated by Libyan militia in 2011. Al-Assad, on the other hand, had bigger problems when protests sparked by the Arab Spring movement that sweep through North Africa and the Middle East plunged his country into a bloody civil war that still continues to this day.

After he was kidnapped, his assailants crushed his hands to prevent him from drawing as a “warning”. After this he was dumped on the roadside. According to The Guardian, Ferzat felt he had no choice but to continue drawing, forcing himself to overcome his fear of the violence in order to continue calling himself an artist. “If there is no mission or message to my work I might as well be a painter and decorator," he said, explaining why caricatures of President Bashar al-Assad resurfaced in his work.

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