Sampsonia Way presents Art to Die For

Friday, July 5, 2013
IMAGE: Sampsonia Way
By Olivia Stransky Originally published in Sampsonia Way Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) was the first cartoon-focused human rights organization when it was founded in 1992. Created by Sri Lankan cartoonist Jiffry Yoonis and development consultant Robert Russell, CRNI collaborates with a network of cartoonists from around the world. These affiliates keep the organization informed on what is happening to their colleagues in their respective countries. Sampsonia Way spoke to co-founder Robert Russell and four of CRNI’s affiliates, located in the most dangerous countries for political artists. In this series we present these affiliates and a slideshow of cartoons from their country.

An Interview with Robert Russell, Founder of Cartoonists Rights Network International

In 1992, Robert Russell walked into a newspaper office in Sri Lanka. He was there to visit a man he had never met, a man who had been beaten and stabbed in front of his whole family. This man’s name was Jiffry Yoonoos, and his crime was drawing a cartoon. Yoonoos drew his cartoons for the newspaper Aththa, and he had recently drawn a series of caricatures of Sri Lanka’s president, Pranasinghe Premadasa. Shortly after their publication, Yoonoos was attacked. Although Russell was neither a fellow cartoonist nor a journalist, he felt compelled to find Yoonoos and offer any help he could. “What do you want? What do you need?” Russell asked the bandaged man in front of him. He though maybe an international letter campaign denouncing the attack could be started. Another possibility was (somehow) getting President Bush to publicly condemn the attack. But Yoonoos simply replied, “If they kill me, please make sure my children have sandals for their feet when they go to school. If I am put in the hospital again, please make sure I have a doctor who will take care of me.” Russell was compelled by this conversation to research existing human rights organizations devoted exclusively to cartoonists. He found that there were no such international organizations. This led to his and Yoonoos’s creation of Cartoonist Relief Network, which later became Cartoonists Rights Network International. Jiffry Yoonoos passed away in 2003; however Russell still runs CRNI as its executive director. In March he spoke with about how the human rights field has been influenced by this organization to pay attention to cartoonists, why cartoonists are so vital to citizens and so threatening to governments, and what the three most dangerous topics are for a cartoonist to draw. CRNI collaborates with a network of cartoonists from around the world. These affiliates keep the organization informed on what is happening to cartoonists in their respective countries. In the following installments of this series, Sampsonia Way will present interviews with CRNI affiliates in Bangladesh, Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt along with slideshows of cartoons from those countries. Sampsonia Way: You founded Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) with Jiffry Yoonoos, a Sri Lankan cartoonist, in 1992. How did the idea for CRNI begin? Robert Russell: I’m not a journalist or cartoonist. I have been an international development consultant my whole life, working as a community development organizer and institution-builder in developing countries. In any country that I found myself in, I would read all the editorial cartoons I found. After a while, I made it a point to meet the cartoonists as well. I discovered that they were a very put-upon and ignored part of journalism; the other journalists in an editorial room were usually under contract or full-time employees covered by insurance or protected by ethical guidelines, but cartoonists were usually just paid per cartoon. They could draw for a newspaper for ten years, but they would never get a contract or be protected. They would be paid five bucks for the cartoon, and that’s it. Despite this, the editorial cartoonist is the most cost-effective agent of change in society. An American embassy political officer in Uganda told me that during her diplomat training she was taught that the first thing you should do every day is read the daily political cartoons. Then you will know what every bus driver, ditch digger, office worker, and common man, for example, will be talking about that day. That hit me like a two-by-four. Who in society can have more impact on people’s opinions for so little cost? This may not be true in western societies, but in developing countries, you can’t find a single person who has more influence and more efficiency as a social change agent than a cartoonist. This realization made me want to work with cartoonists and ultimately that commitment became CRNI when I was in Sri Lanka working with Jiffry Yoonoos. He and I did some research on other organizations, and we decided to start CRNI because there was no free speech or human rights network dedicated exclusively to the problems facing political cartoonists. SW: Why do you think there wasn’t an international organization exclusively devoted to cartoonists before? RR: I found that cartoonists were looked down upon even by the print media; Journalists, and particularly editors and publishers often don’t take cartoonists terribly seriously. This is despite the fact that when newspapers do research on what readers like and want, a large portion of the readership say they enjoy the political cartoons the most. It seems to go over their heads. SW: You have affiliate cartoonists from 14 different countries. How do they collaborate with you? RR: They’re just affiliates, not members or employees. There is a chapter organization in Bangladesh. We have about twenty-five volunteer affiliate cartoonists who give us information and alert us to cartoonists in danger, so they’re more like stringers. SW: Of these different countries where you have stringers, which countries are most dangerous for cartoonists? RR: Bangladesh. Iran. Pakistan. India, to name a few. We’re without a representative in India right now because our Indian representative got angry at our support for a particular cartoonist he didn’t like. We don’t want our representatives to exercise their own editorial choice over who they want to help. They of course can have their own opinions about the quality of any cartoonists work, but when you’re working in the field of human rights you don’t represent a cartoonist so much as you represent the law. Our exception is that we don’t represent cartoonists who advocate racism or violence. The danger will arise in any Islamic country where a cartoonist draws a cartoon related to the Prophet or a reference from the Koran. Exercising a sense of humor when dealing with anything religious can be very dangerous. Tunisia and Egypt are dangerous for cartoonists. One of our Egyptian clients, Doaa El Adl, drew a cartoon of Adam and Eve being talked to by a politician. It had nothing to do with the Bible, but she was charged with insult to Islam. She’s in serious trouble for that and has had to back down on her other work. There’s a young Tunisian blogger in prison right now who was charged with blasphemy because of a cartoon he posted to his blog site. He’s very close to death because the doctors won’t treat him or feed him properly. No one will protect him from the other prisoners who want him dead because he’s a a declared atheist. There’s a Syrian cartoonist, Akram Raslan, who has disappeared. We’re trying to find him and get him out of Syria, which is just a quagmire. Those are high on the list for dangerous countries for cartoonists. SW: Besides religion, which, in your opinion, are the other two most dangerous themes for a cartoonist to address? RR: Another topic that is generally taboo for cartoonists would be criticism of leaders in societies and their governments that are starting to fail . The failing government’s first reaction is not to improve or ask why they’re failing, but to shut down the press and take over the justice system. Cartoonists are very often the first ones to be attacked because of what I mentioned earlier: practically no one reads the editorials but everyone reads the political cartoons. A very dangerous time for cartoonists is election time . Anywhere there’s an election that won’t be free or transparent the political goons on one side or the other might choose to attack a particularly popular cartoonist if their opinions aren’t in line with the political objectives. Of course this is also when political cartoonists are at their best. A really challenging cartoon about the incumbent, two or three weeks before the election, is going to change votes, and that becomes dangerous for the incumbent if they have to publicly steal the election. Religion, failed governments, and violent political transformation periods are all risky for cartoonists. SW: And what about the internet… Can it be a threat for cartoonists? RR: We all know that the Internet is just another tool. The laws of push and push-back are operating at much deeper levels in society because of the internet. Cartoonists, like other journalists, initially thought that the internet might provide a great new place to expose their work and make money. Cartoonists have discovered that while the internet is not a great place to make money, it is a great place to expose their work to an entirely new and broader audience. However in response to bloggers who use cartoons to illustrate their opinions or to cartoonists who are posting their cartoons which would never be accepted by an editor, the government can hire a whole office building full of hackers and track down these cartoonists and bloggers. They can open or shut down a Facebook and other social media pages almost at will. I’m glad that governments will have to spend more and more money to shut down free speech. But I’m also afraid they may get more vicious and intolerant, like in India and Ecuador. SW: Besides having all these affiliates and supporting their right to draw any topic they decide to, you also find safe asylum for cartoonists in danger…. RR: We try to. A lot of human rights and free speech organizations have funds for journalists in trouble, and we are usually able to tap into funds from other organizations for cartoonists who need it. We also work closely with the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) and are working on a couple of cases right now with them. We’ve helped one guy from Bangladesh, and two guys from Iran as well as a Somali cartoonist who was a refugee in Egypt. We also partner closely with the Cartoon Movement, which is a new website that helps unknown cartoonists find a market for their striking and powerful cartoons. They especially look for cartoonists and countries where censorship has shut down many of the traditional outlets for a cartoonist. As an organization we are horribly terribly overburdened right now. Twenty years ago we might have one new client a month . Today we have at least two new clients a week. Because of the rising awareness on the part of both terrorists and tyrants of the power of cartoons, attacks against them are getting more serious. Right now we have to pick and choose the cartoonists we can help based on the amount of imminent life-threatening danger and the very precious available staff time the two of us have. We would like to hire another two people to deal directly with cartoonists just in the Middle Eastern countries who are in trouble. We’re desperately in need of donations to support the efforts of the two people running CRNI and I and hopefully hire another multilingual person to fill out our staff requirements. SW: You also started the “Art to Die For” exhibit, the world’s only archive of cartoons which precipitated a human rights attack against the cartoonist. Can you tell me more about that? RR: We have been archiving these unique cartoons for about ten years. The archive consists of about 25 cartoon panels. People get upset by cartoons like these, but our exhibit also humanizes and personalizes the individual cartoonist in trouble. Alongside the cartoon we show a picture of the cartoonist and give a short explanation about what happened to him or her. Because we don’t have the resources to market the exhibit it doesn’t get around very much. But when I go to a convention, I always bring it with me. It’s always available for exhibition wherever anyone wants it. We’d love it to get around much more, and we really don’t charge much more than the reproduction and shipping costs. It would be great in cartoon museums, colleges, and universities, it would be a great class project on human rights. We put it up in the gallery here at nearby George Mason University, and it was very popular. Art classes came to look, as well as social science, journalism and history classes. SW: After starting CRNI and developing all the activities we mentioned before, have you seen any change in the United States or even on an international level of how cartoons are viewed or respected? RR: Absolutely. I would love to say it’s because of our work. I know a lot of human rights organizations’ webpages now have cartoon-centric sections because of CRNI’s early and consistent work. The biggest change in attitude of the development of the human rights organizations came after the twelve Danish cartoons were published in 2006. The world exploded in anger because of those cartoons, and suddenly the journalism world sat up and said, “Whoa, whoa. What’s going on here?” Those little images have caused an incredible amount of resentment and strife, but also demonstrated the absolute power and influence of political cartoons. It has become a vastly changed environment for cartoonists in the last five to ten years. Cartoonists in India and Bangladesh and all over the Middle Eastern world are now being attacked, reviled, and charged with hate or insult crimes. One cartoonist in India was charged with sedition, punishable by many years in prison, for cartoon that featured the country’s national symbol. A young American cartoonist is now in a modified FBI Witness Protection Program because of her cartoons about the Prophet Mohammad. We keep in touch, but I have no idea what her new name is now. Her life is upside down. Many Americans don’t know there’s a cartoonists hiding in the U.S. because of a fatwa issued by a recognized terrorist. SW: What is one of your most memorable moments from working with cartoonists? RR: I remember working with Sandhya Eknaligoda, the wife of missing cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda from Sri Lanka. There is no one else in the world like her. No one will fight harder for a missing cartoonist or a cartoonist in danger than a family member, and she is a dog with a bone when it comes to finding out the truth of her disappeared husband. We gave her an award a couple of years ago for her steadfastness and hard work for helping a missing cartoonists. She was able to stay at my house, and we went to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) convention, where she gave a talk. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Bangladeshi Cartoonist Arifur Rahman on Calling a Cat “Mohammad”

In 2007, Alpin, the satirical publication Arifur Rahman worked for, published one of his cartoons that made a joke about adding “Mohammad” to the beginning of a person’s name. The cartoon culminates in a young boy introducing his cat as “Mohammad Cat.” The cartoon, which was published during the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, ignited protests across Bangladesh and led to Rahman’s arrest. After six months in prison for “hurting religious sentiments” he was freed, but found himself unable to publish his work. His employer, Alpin, and its parent publication, Prothom Alo almost lost their publishing licenses, and no newspaper wanted to risk association with Rahman. Three years later, through a collaboration with the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) and Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), Arifur Rahman arrived in Drøbak, Norway as an exile. He continues to live there, working on tOOnsMaG.com, an online cartoon publication he founded in 2009. In this interview Rahman discusses the most dangerous topic to illustrate in Bangladesh, being blacklisted from publishing, and the financial motivation behind self-censorship. Sampsonia Way: You spent six months in jail for one of your cartoons. How common is this kind of censorship for Bangladeshi cartoonists? Arifur Rahman: As far as I know, the cartoon was the first to be censored in Bangladesh and no Bangladeshi cartoonist since has been censored in that way. In 2007 I was sentenced to three months’ detention for my cartoon, “Naam” (Name). After three months my sentence was extended by three more, and I was in prison for a total of six months and two days. As a result of this cartoon there were demonstrations all over the country because people felt that I had insulted the Prophet Mohammad and Islam. After that all the newspaper editors and publishers in Bangladesh decided that they would not publish my cartoons anymore. From 2008 to 2009 no one published my cartoons. In 2010 two newspapers finally published my cartoons, but they were published anonymously, with my name and signature removed. SW: Is the situation less dangerous now? What was life like in Bangladesh after you published the cartoon? AR: From 2007 to 2010 I lived in danger in Bangladesh. Radical Muslims felt that I had insulted Muhammad and Islam, and I was tortured several times both inside and outside of jail; I also received lots of death threats. I do not think it is any more or less dangerous now than it was then. SW: Global Voices reported that cartoonists have been participating in the Shahbag protests by exhibiting their work in Shahbag Square. Are cartoonists considered important social commentators in Bangladesh? AR: Bangladeshi cartoonists are always active in social movements, and Shahbag one blogger was killed by Islamic terrorists, and four bloggers were arrested in Bangladesh because a group of Muslims thought they were atheists and felt that they had insulted Muhammad and Islam in their blogs. Their blogs were then censored by government. SW: Is there any legal recourse or protection for cartoonists who are threatened? AR: We have some laws/legal recourse for the protection of citizens in Bangladesh. One of them is Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), but we don’t have any special legal recourse or protection for cartoonists who are threatened. SW: Do cartoonists in Bangladesh censor themselves? What themes do cartoonists avoid? AR: Yes, sometimes cartoonists censor themselves. It also depends on what kind of publication they work for. If a cartoonist works for a newspaper, they have to think about the editor. If the editor doesn’t approve a cartoon then it will not be published, and the cartoonist will not be paid. So, when they censor themselves, it’s often related to money.

Egyptian Cartoonist Doaa El Adl on Criticizing Genital Mutilation and Politicians

Considered by many to be Egypt’s most famous female cartoonist, Doaa El Adl has been making Egyptian headlines with two of her recent cartoons. The first, which was published in February 2013 shows a man reaching a pair of scissors between a woman’s legs to cut off a red flower–a criticism of Female Genital Mutilation. The other controversial cartoon, published by the independent Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm on December 23, 2012, showed an angel telling Adam and Eve that they could stay in the Garden of Eden if they voted for the right candidate. It meant to criticize political appropriation of religion, but instead El Adl was charged with blasphemy for the cartoon. In this interview, El Adl discusses the challenges she faces as a female cartoonist, what topics are popular to draw, and why she appreciates both negative and positive reactions to her work. Sampsonia Way: Are cartoonists considered important social commentators in Egypt? What are the most popular themes Egyptian cartoonists cover? What is the most dangerous theme? Doaa El Adl: Political and social cartoons are definitely influential in Egypt. The most popular topics covered by cartoonists are regarding the Egyptian revolution, the rule of Muslim Brotherhood, and the problems and frustrations caused by both those topics. Recently, I drew about former President Mubarak’s trial, and this cartoon became very popular online. This is a good example of Egyptians’ interest in cartoons. When Mohamed Morsi was first elected president, criticizing him was the most dangerous thing to do, but now it has become a less dangerous topic. SW: Are there very clear lines of what is or isn’t safe or legal for a cartoonist to draw in Egypt, or do you feel there is always a possibility for a cartoonist to face legal charges? DE: Legally, a cartoonist may be exposed on charges of insulting the President, or blasphemy. But these legal principles are broad and can be used against you anytime, as happened to me. I drew a caricature that criticized politicians taking advantage of religion and using it to dominate and influence simple people. Unfortunately, I was then accused of blasphemy! SW: Do you think cases such as yours are causing self-censorship among cartoonists in Egypt? DE: Cartoonists know they are always at risk once they criticize authority, so some of them take the risk and others prefer to avoid it. SW: Do female cartoonists face more obstacles or censorship in Egypt? DE: In the beginning of my career as a female cartoonist, I faced lots of obstacles. It was rare to find a woman who drew political caricatures. Colleagues of my generation used to disregard my abilities, and when I first started drawing, senior cartoonists thought that I was going to quit in a short time. However these obstacles made me determined to carry on. After several years, I finally succeeded in my field, and I have my own audience, which doesn’t care if I am male or female. SW: You recently published a cartoon dealing with the issue of Female Genital Mutilation; what are the consequences of addressing this issue, professional or otherwise? How common is it for cartoonists to address Female Genital Mutilation? DE: The caricature that I drew about female circumcision has led to controversy and shocked some people. The subject of Female Genital Mutilation has not been handled in such a direct way before. Some readers liked the idea behind the cartoon and were motivated to demand an end to this crime while others attacked the cartoon and rejected my decision to deal with the issue. I believe that these strong reactions to the cartoon is a good thing, whether the reaction is acceptance or rejection.

Iranian Cartoonist Kianoush Ramezani on Three Kinds of Cartoons

In 2009, following Iran’s controversial election, many Iranians took to the streets and the web to voice their dissatisfaction. One of those who participated was Kianoush Ramezani, who at that time was publishing cartoons online as well as in Shahrvand, a Persian magazine based in Canada. Ramezani drew several cartoons criticizing the election results. Over the next seven months, Ramezani watched as his friends and colleagues were arrested. It seemed inevitable that it would happen to him too. Finally Ramezani had no choice: He fled Iran in December of 2009 and was granted political asylum in France. Since then Ramezani has continued to draw and speak out against oppression in his home country. In this interview, Ramezani describes the three kinds of cartoonists in Iran, how the government controls cultural institutions, and why the Iranian government will never be able to control the internet. Sampsonia Way: What are the most popular themes Iranian cartoonists cover? Why? Can you give me an example? Kianoush Ramezani: There are three different groups of Iranian cartoonists: Exiled cartoonists, government cartoonists (who work for the government or who control cartoonists for the government), and neutral cartoonists! For exiled Iranian cartoonists the most popular themes are the Islamic Republic and human rights issues in Iran. For government cartoonists the most popular themes are regarding propaganda that the Islamic regime likes to use. For example, Israel, imperialism, and generally making fun of western countries. For neutral cartoonists who are still able to publish their work and have exhibitions, the most popular themes are the most visual and non-political ones! SW: What is the most dangerous theme for an Iranian cartoonist to cover? What are the consequences of covering this theme? KR: The most dangerous theme is Islam, its symbols, and the prophet. It’s also dangerous to cover the leaders of the Islamic regime of Iran, especially the mullahs. If, by accident, a cartoonist offends any of these, he or she could easily be executed for insulting Islam or the revolution. SW: Is it becoming more dangerous or less dangerous to be a cartoonist in Iran? In what ways? KR: It depends on which kind of cartoonist you ask this question to. I think for neutral cartoonists it’s becoming less dangerous. For governmental cartoonists it’s becoming perfect as they are getting bigger budgets and more power from the authority. And finally for the exiled cartoonists it’s becoming more dangerous because of the harassment, cyber-attacks, and even some physical risks, even if they’re living outside of the country. SW: But it seems that is a fourth kind of cartoonist. One that is inside the country and is neither governmental nor neutral. In 2012 cartoonist Mahmoud Shokraye was sentenced to 25 lashes for a caricature he drew of a Prime Minister…. KR: The cartoonist apologized many times, and they forgave him and didn’t punish him. That case didn’t have any particular effect on cartoonists in Iran, because the situation has been this bad for several years. SW: The Iranian government has increasingly been trying to create a “National Internet” which would limit users’ international access. They are now trying to block Virtual Private Networks, which circumvent the government’s restrictions. If they are successful, how will this limited internet affect Iranian cartoonists? KR: As you can see, they will never have any success with totally blocking the internet. The new generation of Iran is very intelligent and skilled in information technology; besides, there are many Iranian opposition resources from abroad which help them fight blocking. At this moment, there are still millions of Iranians using Facebook and reading the opposition websites which are officially blocked. If one day the government can successfully block the internet, unfortunately we exiled cartoonists will lose our connection to our audience inside the country. But, as I mentioned, it will probably become much better for neutral and government cartoonists. SW: Iran’s Tabriz Cartoonist Association has only five cartoon-specific museums in the world. How closely are organizations like these monitored by the government? KR: These kind of organizations don’t need to be monitored by the government because they belong to the government! Government-sponsored cartoonists established and control them, and they receive salaries from the government for this! There is also the Iranian House of Cartoon which monitors all cartoonists (both inside and outside of the country) and runs all national cartooning events (like the Tehran International Cartoon Biennial). The director of the Iranian House of Cartoon, Massoud Shojai Tabatabai, is also the editor-in-chief of Kayhan-Caricature, a cartoon magazine owned by the newspaper Kayhan. The editor of that newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari, is the official representative of Ayatollah Khamenei. So the Iranian House of Cartoon and Kayhan-Caricature are both under the supervision of the supreme leader. SW: Iran’s presidential election is only a few months away, and media censorship is increasing as the election comes closer. Are cartoonists facing any specific restrictions or pressure? In what ways do you think cartoonists will be able to bypass censorship? KR: Unfortunately there’s no way to get rid of censorship. But, for example, from exile I am able to draw a series about the upcoming election. The U.S. Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a very active Persian Facebook page, and they’re publishing my cartoons there, as well as on many Iranian opposition websites and social networks.

Tunisian Cartoonist Lilia Halloul on Drawing Tunisia’s New Freedom of Expression

Prior to Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, Lilia Halloul never considered herself a political cartoonist. She was an illustrator for children’s books and when she did draw cartoons, she made sure to avoid any political themes, including any depiction of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. As a freelancer, she feared that anything political could, at the very least, blacklist her from being published by Tunisian media. Then, as the whole world watched, Tunisians overthrew President Ben Ali and his government. As freedom of expression in Tunisia expanded, it became safer for Halloul to turn her pen on politicians. In this interview Halloul discusses the improvements in Tunisia’s free speech, what still needs to change, and why some cartoonists still don’t feel safe. Sampsonia Way: Are cartoonists considered important social commentators in Tunisia? Can you give an example of a recent event where cartoons or cartoonists have been influential? Lilia Halloul: Since the revolution, most cartoonists have begun criticizing politicians. Cartoons have played a huge role in the most shocking event of the last few months: The assassination of Chokri Belaid, a lawyer who criticized the new government. Three months later the investigation into Chokri Belaid’s death is still open. Many cartoonists, like most Tunisians, are very angry, and they have used cartooning to express their opinions. SW: What are the most popular themes Tunisian cartoonists cover? LH: The biggest political theme right now is demanding when the constituent assembly will finish drawing up the new constitution so that elections can be held. This is all the more relevant in the light of the country’s economic and social crisis. Another popular theme for cartoonists is speaking out against any social or political divisions of the Tunisian people. SW: Is it becoming more dangerous or less dangerous to be a cartoonist in Tunisia? In what ways? LH: In the two years since the revolution, making cartoons has become less dangerous, and depicting politicians is no longer legally prohibited. Increased freedom of expression is the biggest gain of the revolution; this is evident in the discussions occurring in the media and on the streets. But those in power, especially politicians, criticize the media and accuse them of not being objective. Like any journalist, these kinds of criticisms can cause problems for cartoonists; however, so far no charges have been brought against any cartoonist in Tunisia. SW: But some Tunisian cartoonists, like Z, continue to hide their identities from the public. What would need to change in Tunisia for cartoonists to feel safe revealing themselves? LH: The reason for this is that there is an anti-defamation law that can be used against the media when politicians feel attacked. So with this law a cartoonist could go to jail for two years. A good example of this is the case of TV producer Sami Fehri, owner of the television station Ettounsiya, who is still in prison for having criticized the former government. So even though no cartoonists have been charged, they could be, and the reason for hiding their identities could be fear of this law. The good news is that cartoonists and journalists are committed to protecting and defending their freedom of expression despite whatever difficulties they face in doing journalistic work. SW: Is there enough support for this commitment to free speech? LH: After the revolution and following many years of dictatorship, cartoonists don’t want to lose their new freedom of expression, and they are receiving some support from cultural centers, magazines and newspapers. SW: What about religion? Can you criticize Islamists? LH: In our country, we can criticize the Islamists but not Islam, which is sacred for us Muslims. Islam is the primary faith of the Tunisian people; therefore, we can’t criticize the religion − it’s sacred. But cartoonists should have the right to criticize individual Islamists. SW: At the end of 2011, a group of 14 cartoonists published Koumik, a collection of cartoons and comic strips. Is this indicative of a general boom in cartooning in Tunisia? LH: These new cartoon publications demonstrate that support and creativity in cartooning clearly exist. But when it comes to creating more cartoon publications, we still need patience because right now only the elites are most interested in these kinds of books.

For more information

SampsoniaWay.org is an online magazine/forum for general audiences that advocates creative free expression as a basic human right. They publish interviews, essays, and multi-media features by writers from around the world in many languages, and they provide daily coverage of global threats to writers. To view this feature in its original incarnation, click here. For more content by Sampsonia Way, click here.

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