Win, lose or draw: the Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani was jailed in 2006
Show Hide image

Doodles with death: the brutal mistreatment of cartoonists in the Middle East

The experience of cartoonists like Ali Ferzat, whose hands were broken in 2011, provides a bleak backdrop to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Clutching his bulging suitcase, Bashar al-Assad jerks his right thumb out to hitch a ride. He is gesturing to Muammar al-Gaddafi, frenziedly chugging towards him in a getaway car.

It was this simple drawing – calling on the Syrian president and the former Libyan leader to flee during the Arab spring – that led to a brutal act of censorship by Syrian security forces. The man behind the sketch, one of the Arab world’s best-known cartoonists, Ali Ferzat, was beaten up before dawn in Damascus in 2011. The masked gunmen removed the one weapon on his person: they broke his hands.

The experience of cartoonists such as Ferzat, doodling with death in the Middle East, provides a bleak backdrop to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France. The attack provoked a collective shock that journalists in a western democracy could lose their lives exercising their right to free expression. Imagine, then, the risks that their counterparts are taking in nations that are less respectful of human rights, where they encounter not only censorship but imprisonment, beatings, exile and execution.

In Iran, the cartoonist Mana Neyestani was imprisoned in 2006 for depicting a cockroach speaking Azeri. He fled the country at the first opportunity and now lives in exile in France. Another Iranian cartoonist who riled the authorities, Kianoush Ramezani, a political refugee since 2009, calls cartooning “the art of danger”. He fled when the government began to arrest his friends: bloggers, activists, journalists. “We just had to leave the country,” he says grimly.

Ramezani is particularly scathing about self-censorship, in which fear and financial necessity force some to acquiesce. “There is no free or independent media inside my country,” he says. “If you want to work, you need to accept some red lines. Then, in my opinion, you’re not a cartoonist. You do propaganda for a regime.”

His recommendation to those who wish to draw with integrity is to “leave the country”. Last year, he said in a Tedx talk: “In order to do my job, I need some things: pen, paper, maybe a hand – and a secure society to give me freedom of expression.”

Also on hand for advice is Robert Russell, the founder and director of Cartoonists Rights Network International. He calls the Middle East “the most dangerous place in the world for cartoonists” and insists that those who “stick their big toe over the red line really have to have some alternatives”.

“We recommend they have what we call a ‘bail bag’,” he says: “a suitcase with an airline ticket in it, $1,000, a way to get out quickly, or to go to a safe house easily . . . collect their most trusted friends and relatives and be prepared to disappear for a while.”

It is poignant that cartoons are a more potent political tool in the Middle East than they are in the west. The Turkish-born academic Fatma Müge Göçek, a sociology professor and the editor of Political Cartoons in the Middle East, argues: “In countries where there is no freedom of expression, where to think things that are revolutionary or destabilising is in itself a crime, text is easier to punish. A cartoon has much more legal space within which to define oneself than something you write.”

Russell points out that there is a double jeopardy for cartoonists drawing in non-or pseudo-democratic states: terrorist groups and ruling regimes alike “are equal-opportunity oppressors”, in his eyes. “It just depends who the cartoonist is bothering that day.” 

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496