Cartoons to Die for? Political Art Perilous

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

Cartoons to Die for? Political Art Perilous


Byline: Julia Duin, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

At first glance, the image looks like any other political cartoon. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is shown flying through the air like a large bird. Atop him, clearly enjoying the ride, is a man carrying the Hindu symbols of a bow and a trident. The latter is a Cabinet minister, Lal Krishna Advani, who is the leader of a Hindu revivalist organization.

The cartoon is a takeoff on the rapid movement of India's once-secular government toward Hindu nationalism. But the outcome was anything but comical. In March 1999, cartoonist Irfan Hussain was carjacked, tortured, then slain in New Delhi.

A copy of his famous cartoon sits in the Burke home of Robert Russell, 59, founder of Cartoonists Rights Network International, which agitates for creative freedom for the world's political cartoonists. He calls creativity like Mr. Hussain's "art to die for."

In 1999, Muniru Turay, a cartoonist in Sierre Leone, was killed for his cartoons satirizing the Revolutionary United Front, the rebel militia that has overrun the country. His life's work was destroyed along with him. Friends managed to reconstruct one of his cartoons as a memorial.

A decade ago, an Algerian cartoonist who drew anti-government cartoons died under mysterious circumstances in Paris.

Turkish cartoonist Seyit Saatci was arrested for portraying the dilemma of the country's persecuted Kurdish minority by drawing a grieving mother. Where her heart should be is a hole with a blood-covered billy club pushed through. The ring on the hand holding the club carries a Nazi swastika.

Such situations are incomprehensible for cartoonists in the West, where press freedom is a given and heads of state are routinely caricatured. For example, the late Pat Oliphant showed President George Bush carrying a purse, and this newspaper's Bill Garner portrayed President Clinton with lingerie hanging out of a trouser pocket.

Mr. Russell has 50 cartoonists in his files who have experienced the gamut: threatening phone calls, jail time and death.

Exile is another possibility. Sara Seneviratne, a Sri Lankan cartoonist who drew anti-Tamil Tiger cartoons, was forced to flee to Hong Kong. When he continued satirizing the Tigers for another newspaper, he got a new warning.

"While most editors are used to reader complaints about their reporters and cartoonists, death threats are a form of reader feedback they are not normally prepared to handle," Mr. Russell says.

"I say 'violence works.' It's a very effective social-management tool. If something happens to them, these cartoonists get so traumatized, their work is changed forever." The new Chinese government in Hong Kong has caused its formerly outspoken press to start censoring themselves, he noted. As a foreigner, Mr. Seneviratne's days are apparently numbered at his newspaper, which has been reducing his salary in an apparent attempt to get him to quit.

Cameroonian cartoonist Paul Ntoogue, who depicted the head of state's wife as a prostitute, says he got a phone call from government security informing him he was to be killed. Did he, the voice asked, have a preferred method?

"He went into hiding [in South Africa] and stopped the cartoons," Mr. Russell says. "He tried to emigrate to Canada, because he spoke French, but got no response. The Canadians have a very liberal policy toward political asylum-seekers until you plan to use it."

Unable to locate him, security forces then threatened his younger sister. …

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