Cartoonists: in the line of fire

Ever since the attack on the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, the part of cartoonists has taken on particular importance. In the attack, carried out on 7 January 2015, three men forced their way into the weekly’s offices and began shooting at all present. The result was 12 people dead and 11 wounded; 4 of them seriously.

Most of those murdered belonged to the editorial committee, among them, the director and illustrator of the publication, Stéphane Charbonnier, better known as Charb, and the cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (Cabu), Philippe Honoré and Bernard Verlhac (Tignous).

The Al-Qaeda terrorist organisation claimed responsibility for the attack “in revenge” for or in response to the publication of caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, founder of the Muslim religion.

In 2011 the weekly had already received threats from radical Islamic groups for the same reason and had been attacked by an incendiary device, with no victims.

But attacks and threats for references made to the Prophet are not limited to France. Cartoonists like Sweden’s Lars Vilks, a man with a price on his head, or Denmark’s Kurt Westergaard have also been on the receiving end and live surrounded by strong security measures.

Controversy over the case known as the “Muhammad cartoons” began in 2005 when the Danish daily Jyllands Posten published several drawings by Westergaard, including one depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, sparking international controversy.

These events, and particularly the attack against the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, have precipitated lively debate around the world on the subject of conciliation between freedom of expression, religious freedom and respect for beliefs and religions.

On the one hand are those who defend respect for certain limits, and on the other those who believe that there must be no taboo subjects, that we must be able to treat all questions with total freedom, including the publication of cartoons that mock and even insult, considering them to be an indicator that maturity and liberalism exist in a democracy.

Despite the controversies triggered on the representation of religions, references to religious worship and belief are not the only reason for cartoonists finding themselves on the receiving end of pressure. Using drawings and a sense of humour and/or satire, cartoons, comics and comic strips in general become powerful tools that denounce, ironize and even ridicule different aspects of today’s world, such as political corruption, power struggles, the crisis, etc. They use a universal language, which goes straight “to the point”; often without words.

Just like information professionals, men and women cartoonists assume a great deal of responsibility given the media and social repercussion of their work. For that same reason they suffer censorship and self-censorship, threats, persecution and even death. Wit and creativity become fundamental weapons in overcoming the barriers erected by censorship given that, particularly in dictatorial regimes, a drawing in favour of or criticising an issue can bring dire consequences to those who create or circulate it.

The control strategies implemented by governments can be explicit (against their authors), or more subtle, transferring responsibility to the publishing companies. Thus, in some cases we find self-censorship imposed by the self-same professionals or publishing companies. As the graphic presenters of the news, deontological ethics also acquire importance, just as they do in the journalistic professions.

In this context, Cartooning for Peace is an international association that offers protection and legal assistance to caricaturists, promoting freedom of expression and the recognition of their work.

The initiative was born in 2006, devised by Plantu, famous cartoonist with the French daily, Le Monde and by the United Nations Secretary General of the time, Kofi Annan. They collected the creations of 21 cartoonists all over the world, giving rise to an association and to an exhibition exported all over the world. Its network of cartoonists continues to grow and currently includes some 40 nationalities.

Film: Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy

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