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15 January 2015updated 24 Jul 2021 7:57am

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.

By Anoosh Chakelian

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.”

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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.”

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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.”