Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Ethical Responsibility of Political Cartooning

Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Ethical Responsibility of Political Cartooning

Article excerpt

THE FIFTH AND MOST RECENT CONFERENCE of the "Unlearning Intolerance" seminar series convened on 16 October 2006 at UN Headquarters in New York. Organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information in partnership with Emory University's Claus M. Halle Institute for Global Learning, the seminar entitled "Cartooning for Peace: The Responsibility of Political Cartoonist?" brought together 12 cartoonists from around the world, stimulating a lively discussion on the responsibility, if any, of the artist when satirizing the political landscape.

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The panelists brought insight into the universal issues of gender inequality, racial harmony and the opposition to war. Much of the debate centred on the global impact of editorial cartooning on current events and how the visceral, yet subtle, power of this medium can affect genuine change from both Governments and civil society. The event also marked the opening of the "Cartooning for Peace" exhibit, which ran at the UN Visitors Lobby from 4 to 24 October, depicting over 40 cartoons by 18 well known international cartoonists. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his opening remarks, said that "cartoons are one of the most important elements in the press" and summarized the importance of the journalistic medium. "They have a special role in forming public opinion-because an image generally has a stronger, more direct impact on the brain than a sentence does, and because many more people will look at a cartoon than read an article."

The panel discussions were divided into two groups: one addressed the topic "Should the Cartoonist Educate?" and the other debated on "Should Responsibilities Abridge Rights?" In light of the depictions of Islam's Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper more than a year ago and the ensuing violent controversy that affected nations throughout the world, the seminar sought to affirm the role of the cartoonist in promoting peace and reconciliation. The panelists highlighted the issues that each of them face at a local level, as well as the cross-cultural and universal responsibilities within the field. They affirmed that within each cartoonist there must lie a moral conscience, and that each must take into account how his or her work will affect the global community.

The first panel was comprised of Carsten Graabaek of Denmark, Godfrey Amon Mwampembwa of Kenya, Cintia Bolio-Marquez of Mexico and Jeff Danziger, Liza Donnelly and Mike Luckovich of the United States. Tanzanian-born and Kenyan-based cartoonist Godfrey Amon Mwampembwa, known to his audience as "Gado", raised the complexities of political cartooning particular to East Africa. He noted that in an area of the world where freedom of speech has been historically stifled, "cartoonists have been at the forefront of the freedom of expression struggle [in Africa]". He added: "This has been, in my opinion, a tool to educate the public about their rights and their civil liberties, to express themselves without fear or looking behind their shoulders." Gado argued that the critical and at times acerbic nature of political cartooning lends society a hand in promoting free speech and lively debate. "By seeing cartoonists who strongly criticize ... the public has borrowed a cue from the artist and [can] speak freely." He vociferously affirmed the notion of the cartoonist as an educator. He has worked closely with artists in refugee camps, teaching them how to use the medium of political cartooning to get their unique message across to the wider public. Much of the work he showcased centred on the problems of African society and the inability of international organizations and foreign Governments to alleviate the poverty of much of the populace.

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Carsten Graabaek, who accepted "with some trepidation" the responsibility of representing Danish cartoonists at the seminar, was more cautious regarding the question of whether cartoonists had the responsibility of educating the public. …

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