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18 December 2014

Poking fun at power: Why dictators and despots hate political cartoonists

Cartoonists around the globe are being told to tone down their art, or face massive fines and prison sentences, writes Rachael Jolley.

By Rachael Jolley

The power of poking fun is not to be underestimated. A reporter might craft a stunning first line, a sub editor put together a powerful headline, but the impact of a cartoonist’s sarcastic pen is often more powerful, and often underestimated.

Long after the headline is forgotten cartoons are kept and framed. The art, humour and the political message live on. As weeks pass a cartoon still carries its power onwards while many a text-heavy article remains unread, much to writers’ chagrin.

Not surprising then, that in times of conflict, and national stress, authorities can decide that cartoonists should be cut out, closed down, and in some cases locked up.

Punitive action against cartoonists is ramping up, and crossing continents. Recently Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart faced the wrath of President Erdogan, and a possible nine-year jail sentence, for drawing something the president didn’t like. Cartoonists in other countries rallied to his defence, creating edgy cartoons that called out Erdogan and what was happening. After being acquitted, Kart recognised the contribution and said it made him feel part of the “world cartoonist family”.

Across the other side of the world, two of South America’s leading cartoonists, Rayma from Venezuela and Bonil from Ecuador, have had to face up to particularly nasty pressure. Rayma lost her job at Caracas-based El Universal newspaper after drawing a critique of her nation’s health system, while in Ecuador one of Bonil’s cartoons, telling a story of a raid by the police on the home of a journalist and parliamentary advisor for the opposition, resulted in a $92,000 fine for the paper at the instigation of President Correa.

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Both South American cartoonists have drawn about the threats to freedom of speech and expression for the upcoming issue of Index on Censorship magazine, as well as writing about the responsibilities of cartoonists in times where the media is under pressure to mute its criticism. Bonil writes: “I believe that humour is the best antidote to fear and the best defence against abuses of power.” While Rayma says: “Cartoons are like mirrors in which governments can see themselves, and that’s why authoritarian regimes don’t like them.”

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Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman has a long affiliation with cartoonists, and illustrators, and a history of fighting for them, partly because he spent 12 years on the board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Gaiman, who is interviewed for the upcoming Index magazine, has said in the past: “A nice easy place for freedom of speech to be eroded is comics because comics are a natural target whenever an election comes up.”

Gaiman, who was put on the banned list of the American Family Association, worries about the way the idea of offence is used to close down conversations. He says: “I think that comics, because of the capacity of offence that an image can give will always have a foot in the gutter.”

He adds, on the subject of stories that offend: “As long as people are getting upset, then a medium is not dead.” And that must also be true of cartoons, there is no question that the medium is dead, it is very much alive, and kicking pretty hard at subjects that don’t like the pressure.

At a time when we are remembering the First World War, it is worth remembering cartoonists place within it. Cartoons passed through the German and British trenches often as part of the myth making of the one side against the other, accentuating the enemies’ failings, while others poked a sarcastic pen at the decisions of the powerful. Visual arts were used to incredible effect in that war, with the famous Kitchener posters issuing a call up cry and the official posters of the global flu epidemic urging the public not to panic, while failing to reveal the real and present danger of a disease stealing across borders to kill an estimated 50 million. In WWII, official cartoonists were hired by governments to work on their side, their power acknowledged.

Cartoonist and illustrator Ben Jennings, who draws for Index among others, believes the power of the cartoon is that “they can remind those who seek ultimate power that they are only human”. And there are plenty of national leaders who would rather not be reminded of that. Cartoons can also be the valve of opposition in nations where little opposition can be heard or seen. Sometimes cartoons get in under the wire, where a written article would have been pulled, or never even written.

Humour is a leveller, a chance to bring those with massive power down to size, or blow them out of proportion, comedy with a kick is something that those with no sense of reality, or with an inflated sense of their own importance fear. But a lesson for those who fear comedy, or cartoons, should consider is that throughout history, movements to build popular support or take a pop at the powerful have used art, drawing and caricature. But when you ban something, or create massive fines to stop cartoonists being published, then you often create a sense of mystery of what can no longer be viewed. Tell a small child not to look behind a curtain and they instantly want to take a peek. And adults are no different.

Banning things gives them more power and mystique than they had previously.  Tell someone they can’t see something, and you can be sure as soon as you do they will be far more motivated to seek it out and find out about it than they ever were before.

Rachael Jolley is editor of the quarterly magazine Index on Censorship. View Bonil and Rayma’s cartoons in the next issue. Find out more: