Kevin Kallaugher, the world famous political cartoonist, KAL, recently spoke at a meeting of the New Canaan Senior Men’s Club. He discussed his career, the creative processes involved in his approach to expression, shared his works, and he highlighted recent developments in editorial and political cartoons, highlighting the hazards of being a political and editorial cartoonist. KAL is known for his innovative work in print, animation and interactive animation. He noted that in two thirds of the world his talk would not be possible. He and his audience could either be harassed or prosecuted by authorities or other groups seeking to suppress speech. KAL is a past president of the Cartoonist Rights Network (CRNI), an organization that is dedicated to supporting cartoonists who are at risk. He is a great storyteller — even people not particularly interested in his work, were very interested in his comments. He didn’t spend a lot of time lamenting about the plight of editorial and political cartoonists, just enough to get me interested in trying to find out about the problem.
Political and editorial cartoonists use satire to identify issues and to try to change beliefs and behaviors. They raise issues, but rarely offer solutions. Reactions to their representations are almost always mixed. While cartoonists only occasionally hear from those who approve of their works, people who object to their images, ideas and sentiments often let cartoonists know what they think in no uncertain terms. Negative reactions range from harsh comments to threats, beatings and worse. Many governments ban satirical political and editorial cartoons. Satire is perceived to be disrespectful, and a threat to power and authority. Some groups view the expressions as blasphemous. Cartoonists and organizations that publish and distribute their works have been threatened even with death threats. Success for cartoonists is illusive, but the dangers to them are all too real. In one sense, political and editorial cartoons are no laughing matter.
According to the CRNI, “Editorial cartoonists are frequently the first individuals to be silenced by extremists, thugs and tyrants.” CRNI’s efforts are to protect a basic human right as defined in Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948),
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
CRNI conducts campaigns to help editorial and social cartoonists and their families that are under siege. CRNI uses awareness raising and public pressure to fight back. One of their recent efforts involves the plight of Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat who was maimed by supporters of the Assad regime. Ferzat is one of the region’s most widely read and respected editorial cartoonists. He has risked his life by depicting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hitchhiking in an absurd manner. During the early morning hours on August 25, 2011, Ferzat was dragged from his car by four armed men, and assaulted. During the beating, his body, both hands were badly injured. His drawing hand was broken, and his ability to express himself through his representations has been endangered. Ferzat was told by the gunmen that the assault was just a warning.
Another recent CRNI campaign involves a different form of harassment directed against American cartoonist Susie Cagle while she was covering the Occupy Oakland Movement as a journalist for AlterNet. On November 3rd, 2011, Cagle was arrested and detained for about fifteen hours. She was considered by the police to be a demonstrator who failed to leave the scene of a riot. She was handcuffed, detained and cited for an infraction. Cagle had her organization’s press pass and credentials which the arresting officers ridiculed. She did not have an Oakland Police Department (OPD) Press badge. Before the protests, she repeatedly had contacted the OPD Public Information Office seeking an OPD press badge. While huddled in a doorway, trying to stay out of the melee, she was arrested with a number of other people, including legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild. The charges against Cagle have not been dropped, even though the OPD more recently granted Cagle an OPD press badge, recognizing her as a journalist. Covering the movement has been a challenge for journalists, especially those representing the new media.
Some of the most violent and deadly attacks on political and editorial cartoonists involve cartoons that deal with religious subject matter. An international furor occurred when Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, went ahead with plans to publish a September 2005 article featuring twelve Danish cartoonists’ depictions of the Prophet Mohammad. Many people considered this blasphemy and apostasy, and violent demonstrations took place in a number of countries, resulting in what has been estimated to be over 100 deaths. Al Qeida issued death threats against the cartoonists who had to go into protective hiding. Kurt Westergaard was the target of such a murder plot. Startlingly, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution in which they called for the criminalization of cartoons similar to the one created by Westergaard.
These are not isolated cases. Threats against political and editorial cartoonists continue. The CRNI has a network of over 600 social and editorial cartoonists throughout the world. They try to make others aware of threats and use the power of the public to help counter them. Practically, they hope to help the cartoonists at risk; and more generally protect human rights, including personal and creative freedoms.
Each year, CRNI gives its Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning to a cartoonist who has shown exceptional courage in practicing free speech rights, or is in great danger. The CRNI writes, “We do not award a cartoon. We make no comment on the quality of, or intent of, a specific cartoon. We award a cartoonist in danger.” The 2011 winner is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque (aka Zunar). He has faced extensive harassment and censorship by Malaysian authorities because of his representations about governmental officials. Zunar has been threatened with sedition, his works have been seized, printing plants have been raided, and distributors have been told not to sell publications containing his cartoons. More details about Zunar’s case and previous award winners are published on CRNI’s website in its Courage Award Section.
With suggestive images and phrases, political and editorial cartoonists may stimulate our emotions or provoke us to think about issues. They are loved and hated.
“Bitter the jest when satire comes too near truth and leaves a sharp sting behind it.” Publicus Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 117).