Twelve journalists and cartoonists at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo died in an attack by Islamic extremists. Another cartoonist, Lars Vilks, known for his cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed was the target in a shooting rampage in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Saturday in which two people died. Carsten Luste, Flemming Rose and Kurt Westergaard, who all worked for Jyllands-Posten, are ‘wanted dead or alive’ by Al-Qaeda. Editorial cartoonists push the boundaries, but do they have to and do they get the support they need? Peta Krost Maunder addresses the issue.
Editorial cartoonists are, by their very nature, more courageous than others working in the media. Cartoonists push the limits of controversy in their art to make their point succinctly. And, generally speaking, they have no ‘sacred cows’, offending all kinds of people along the way. The recent brutal attack on staff of the weekly French satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were murdered, highlights this in the most abhorrent way.
“The nature of cartooning is akin to the old tradition of the court jester,” says Jonathan Shapiro (aka Zapiro), the most celebrated political cartoonist in South Africa. “The jesters were allowed to say pretty edgy stuff about the kings and those in authority but sometimes one would go too far and get his head chopped off.
“Then, out of the enlightenment of western Europe, came the place for savage critique in pictures with accompanying words. Cartoons developed out of that. They are all about pushing the boundaries.”
He says cartoons are punchy and easily accessible to an extremely broad audience that far surpasses, in numbers, those who actually read editorial tackling the same issues.
John Curtis, a popular editorial cartoonist and founding editor of africatoons.com (a website showcasing leading editorial cartoonists’ work), believes cartoonists operate in a privileged space where they have traditionally been afforded liberties journalists are not allowed. “Exaggeration and hyperbole are tools of the trade for cartoonists, and there is no requirement for them to be either accurate or fair in their assessments,” says Curtis. “They are opinion pieces, which often employ outrageous means to provoke thought and debate.”
City Press editor Ferial Haffajee says, “Cartoonists are modern society’s jokers or speakers of uncomfortable truths. Cartoonists have to push boundaries, or they would be mere illustrators. The better ones push hard and are prescient observers of their countries.”
And in her newspaper, she says, they “own” the space. “Cartoonists have a sacred position even higher than a columnist. With both, you don’t want to edit them as you do the news section or you blunt their message and their pens.” But not all editors or media owners feel the same way, particularly because they often bear the brunt of reaction to controversial cartoons. They can be tough on cartoonists, unwilling to allow them to push the bounds too far. Zapiro – who has been pushing the bounds for decades – says, “When I speak to my editors about the cartoons, I ask: ‘Does it work?’ That is the bottom line for me. If it is tough, rude, racy, edgy or dangerous, that is okay if it works, then we can justify it,” he says. “There have been times editors have insisted cartoons have been gratuitous. I didn’t think so but I don’t want to do anything that comes across as gratuitous.
“I don’t care about the feelings of public figures; they need to be able to take it. When people suggest I should think about the person’s family and children, that doesn’t wash for me. I only worry about the sensibilities of the people who unwittingly get hurt by my cartoons.”
Zapiro says he was very concerned about how women and rape survivors felt when he did the cartoon of President Jacob Zuma raping the figure of lady justice and checked it out thoroughly before it was printed. It was for this cartoon that Zuma sued Zapiro, although the president later dropped the charges.
This was not the first time Zapiro and many other editorial cartoonists have angered leaders or people with specific allegiances to religion, political parties or other groups. Cartoonists are not averse to all sorts of protests, even death threats. Says Curtis, “In my experience, defenders of every faith appear to be just as vocal in their disapproval of cartoons perceived to criticise their beliefs, and I have no problem with them voicing their objections or even threatening to rally their supporters in a boycott of the publication, as is their democratic right (although one always hopes one’s publication would stand by the cartoon). I would draw the line at threats and acts of violence, which thankfully have not been acted out on in any great measure in our country.”
Jeremy Nel (aka Jerm) was fired from The New Age in October 2012 for allegedly “not being aligned with the newspaper’s vision and mission”. He said at the time, “The editor didn’t want me to make cartoons that made political judgements or statements. My satire doesn’t really function under constraints.” Now he says, “Satirical commentary is meant to be uncomfortable at times. It is meant to start fires. It is meant to trigger debate. Instead too many times editors dilute the cartoons or simply choose not to publish them.” Jerm – who is not alone in having had conflict with editors over their work – warns that there is “a growing intolerance towards satire, which is ironic since there is a growing desire for freedom”.
Curtis says, “I have a special relationship with most of the 30-or-so professional editorial cartoonists in South Africa, and I believe I can speak for most of them in saying that there’s room for improvement in their relationships with their editors.
“Part of the conflict lies in the fact that cartoonists jealously guard their independence, while many editors struggle to get cartoonists to toe their editorial line. This is a phenomenon experienced internationally between editors and their cartoonists (who often tend to be ideologically to the left of their publication’s line). Another is that cartoonists work remotely, so they’re out of touch with the newsroom, and communications between themselves and the editorial staff are most often limited, and even non-existent,” says Curtis.
But is cartooning about pushing boundaries or making a point? Curtis says, “I don’t believe any limitations should be set on what a cartoonist may or may not draw, save the limitations set by their own publications’ editorial policies. That way, readers can decide whether or not they choose to read or support the publication, and its policies might be adjusted accordingly.”
Despite the international outcry against the Charlie Hebdo attack and the massive solidarity against freedom of expression violations, cartoonists are concerned with how the incident will affect their work.
“It has had a chilling effect on people and the solidarity and support has been amazing,” says Zapiro. “This doesn’t take away the fear of individual cartoonists, editors and media owners. It is hard not to wonder ‘how far can I go?’ We must try an elicit clear and unequal policies on freedom of expression. I am concerned that our own government has very carefully avoided expressing solidarity with freedom of expression.”
Jerm agrees, saying, “I hope it doesn’t lead to cartoonists and journalists backing off from – in this instance – religious matters. The problem with self-censorship is that it is silent; no one knows it is happening.”
Curtis hopes, “it will galvanise the world into appreciating the purpose that cartoons fill, and people will vigorously defend cartoons and cartoonists against future attacks”.
Haffajee believes it has and will continue to “sharpen the pencils of cartoonists” but “the media, as an entity, is in deep debate”.
“The point is,” says Zapiro, “you cannot grant people who subscribe to a certain belief more rights than someone else. Cartoons are part of a functioning democracy and the media, society and government cannot allow one group’s sensitivities to be more important than others, no matter what they do to try and stop freedom of expression. As cartoonists, we must be courageous and keep going as never before.”
Peta Krost Maunder is the editor of The Media magazine. This story was first published in the February 2015 issue.
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