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MEDIA: WHO HAS THE LAST LAUGH?

Satirical caricatures have always ruffled the feathers of the powerful
Updated Nov 03, 2019 12:02pm

The outrage recently directed against a single political cartoon only showcases how satirical caricatures have always ruffled the feathers of the powerful


Dear reader, as is often the case nowadays, it all began with a tweet.

On Sept 25, Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari tweeted out to her 1.5 million followers on the microblogging site: “Cartoon today in Express Tribune [corrected minutes later in another tweet to ‘The Nation’] is offensive, over the top & downright insulting. U [sic] can have your criticism of the PM but some basic norms of decency & respect should be shown or does hatred overrule decent journalistic bounds? [...]”

The next day, The Nation issued an apology from its Twitter handle: “Dear Readers, we would like to apologise deeply for a cartoon that appeared on our pages. The artwork fell short of our standards and does not reflect our editorial policy. It should never have appeared. […] The necessary steps have been taken to ensure our internal procedures. […]”

The most obvious of these “necessary steps” was that the cartoonist’s work did not appear in the newspaper that day, nor since. Soon it emerged that the cartoonist had been suspended, without being given any indication of when publication of his work would resume, if at all. Suggestions were also made that the paper was pressured by the government to have him removed.

ANGRY BIRDS

On Twitter, uproar ensued over a cartoon that few cared to pay any attention to before Mazari brought it to everyone’s notice.

At a time when Prime Minister Imran Khan was soliciting international support at the United Nations General Assembly — following India’s unilateral move to alter the disputed status of India-held Kashmir — some went as far as to suggest that the cartoon was not just insulting but outright anti-Pakistan.

Others sought to defend the cartoon and its author Khalid Hussain, arguing that free expression — no matter how critical or tactless — is an essential democratic right, and that it was the editor who was ultimately responsible for ensuring the standards of the newspaper’s content.

Editorial cartoonist and convener of the recently formed Pakistan Union of Cartoonists Sabir Nazar tweeted that the union “strongly condemns [the government for pressurising the newspaper] to stop publishing cartoons of Khalid Hussain. Politicians are not above any criticism and satire by cartoonists.” The US-based Cartoonists Rights Network International also weighed in. “Another colleague loses ground in Pakistan, as news media there bends its collective knee to a renewed intolerance toward satire and the dissenting attitude that cartoonists elsewhere take for granted,” it said in a statement.

So what exactly did this cartoon depict?

THE OFFENDING IMAGE

Reproducing the image here for the sake of commentary would be in poor taste (as has now been ‘officially’ established) but out of necessity to inform you, dear reader, a written description should suffice, hopefully without falling out of the bounds of journalistic decency.

The cartoon depicts PM Imran Khan pulling a chariot on which US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are seated arm-in-arm. Trump is dangling a carrot affixed to a stick in front of Khan, and over the Pakistan premier’s head is a thought bubble containing the word ‘mediation’.

In one of her September 25 tweets, Ms Mazari expressed the view that the “cartoonist in his hate-filled mind has also failed to understand the situation on the ground! Trump repeatedly wants to mediate & Modi finds himself in uncertain terrain despite the Howdy bonhomie. Seems PMIK’s straight talk in NYC has upset ET [sic]!”

I asked Hussain what he had sought to convey. “The cartoon was on Trump’s offer to mediate between Pakistan and India on the Kashmir issue and his backtracking when Modi refused,” Hussain explained. “Trump could have forced Modi if he wanted, but instead he was buying time for Modi to do what he wanted in Kashmir, while giving Khan the runaround — offering him a ‘lollipop’ in the form of an offer for mediation.”

Clearly, both parties had fundamentally divergent views on Trump’s offer. But was a mere difference of opinion the reason why the cartoon sparked such controversy?

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Here, I must point out, albeit delicately, the elephant in the room — well not quite an elephant, but there is an animal here.

What neither Mazari mentioned in her criticism nor Hussain in his defence of the cartoon (and what I, too, left out of my earlier description) is the fact that the prime minister was depicted pulling the chariot not on two legs as a human would, but on all fours. While the caricature itself was given no animalistic attributes, the PM’s pose along with the carrot-and-stick would lead many a mind to read what the eye does not see — that is, a donkey or mule.

This was certainly not the first time an anthropomorphic caricature of a public figure ran afoul of public sentiment. Only five months prior, on April 25, the international edition of The New York Times published a cartoon of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a guide dog leading a blind Trump.

The outrage, however, had less to do with Netanyahu’s canine depiction as it did with the inclusion of religious symbols, which gave rise to allegations of anti-Semitism.

In its aftermath, NYT announced it was doing away with publishing editorial cartoons altogether.

Scottish cartoonist Lorna Miller’s cartoon on the second Scottish independence referendum shows Theresa May being attacked by insects bearing the Scottish flag
Scottish cartoonist Lorna Miller’s cartoon on the second Scottish independence referendum shows Theresa May being attacked by insects bearing the Scottish flag

Few cartoonists defended the image itself just as few — other than the most virulent of right-wing or edgelord cartoonists in the West — defend humour steeped in misogyny, violence, racism or Islamophobia. But all lamented the erasure of yet another space for political satire.

The real elephant in the room is that cartoons are revered and reviled in equal measure because the immediacy of visual humour puts them in the frontlines of many an ideological battle over free speech.

THESE DARK TIMES

The world over, shockwaves triggered by an ‘offending’ image — in tandem with illiberal tendencies expressed through a combination of oppressive governments, extremist groups, profit-based media organisations and social media’s algorithmic amplification of outrage — have resulted in politically-motivated dismissals, imprisonments, riots and even murders in recent years.

“We are witnessing a decline in democracy with the rise of populist leaders … These are dark times for freedom of expression,” says Nazar. “Globally, we see restrictions and attacks on cartoonists. We foresaw the gagging of media and formed the Pakistan Union of Cartoonists just two weeks before the controversy over Hussain’s cartoon.”

For her part, when I asked her about the recent controversy, Mazari said, “I commented in a tweet on The Nation’s cartoon and simply welcomed the apology also — I would never fire anyone — I have been an editor, and in Pulse we did cartoons that were sometimes on the edge but we were ready to apologise if someone convinced us the cartoon was in bad taste, etc. But there are always bounds — one person’s freedom should not impinge on another’s freedom.”

In one of her September 25 tweets, Mazari expressed the view that the “cartoonist in his hate-filled mind has also failed to understand the situation on the ground! Trump repeatedly wants to mediate & Modi finds himself in uncertain terrain despite the Howdy bonhomie. Seems PMIK’s straight talk in NYC has upset ET [sic]!”

HABITUAL LINE STEPPERS

The time has come for me to fess up. I am in no way an impartial narrator here. I too make editorial cartoons for this newspaper’s Sunday editions. Thus I am all too familiar with the intricacies and nuances of attempting satire (the jury is still out on how well) on a national platform in Pakistan’s current socio-political climate.

The Guardian’s Steve Bell has often depicted US President Trump with a toilet head
The Guardian’s Steve Bell has often depicted US President Trump with a toilet head

Our prime minister may claim that the press in Pakistan is freer than our British counterparts — too free, in fact — but we are well aware that content similar to, for example, the running visual gags of The Guardian’s Steve Bell (greatest hits include George Bush with donkey ears, Trump with a toilet seat for hair, Theresa May in clown makeup and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson with a posterior in lieu of a face) would be inconceivable in a country where allegations of being, at best, unpatriotic and, at worst, treasonous are bandied about casually.

It was 50 years ago that the BBC broadcast the vanguard comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus with its giant Foot of Cupid boldly stomping across viewers’ television screens. But in Pakistan, even today, satirists must tiptoe hesitantly around a continuously transmogrifying mess of ‘red lines’.

Our peers in broadcast received their marching orders this June, when the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) issued a scolding advisory on the “airing of satirical content”.

Pakistani satirists know all too well the many sensitivities that must be minded while thumbing one’s nose. We abide by these limits in service of entertaining the public, but also push them to test the health and well-being of the body politic — because, for all its wry cynicism, satire belies a profound idealism. The genre is deeply rooted in democratic traditions; its ability to mock or decry our authority figures and their received wisdoms is as good a litmus test as any to prove whether power truly resides in the hands of the people.

COUNTERPUNCH

Nazar and Hussain, both cartoonist veterans with three decades’ worth of experience, argue that liberties must be taken in order to craft dramatic or comic commentary on often serious matters. Yet they, their predecessors such as Vai Ell, I.H. Zaidi, Maxim and Akhtar Shah, as well as the younger cohort such as Saadia Gardezi and Zeb, all recognise not only the power of an image but also the immense responsibility that comes with making one. Indeed, an ethical framework is a prerequisite for being able to express disagreement through satire, or else one runs the risk of being either gratuitous or sanctimonious.

Cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco expressed this poignantly in his graphic essay following the January 2015 attack by Al Qaeda gunmen on the notorious Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris. While grieving for his slain fellow cartoonists, Sacco was also critical of the kind of satirical content the paper published and its targeting of minorities in Europe, especially Muslims. “When we draw a line, we are often crossing one too. Because lines on paper are a weapon, and satire is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bone? What exactly is the target? And why?”

Few cartoonists defended the image itself just as few — other than the most virulent of right-wing or edgelord cartoonists in the West — defend humour steeped in misogyny, violence, racism or Islamophobia. But all lamented the erasure of yet another space for political satire.

In selecting targets, a basic rule of thumb satirists employ is to punch up, sideways or even oneself, but to never punch down. The core function of satire is ultimately the same as that of any other aspect of a free press — to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide whether Hussain betrayed this principle, the extent to which he or any other satirist should be made to pay for ridiculing the most powerful men in the land during ‘sensitive’ times, and what that might say about us.

FINITE JEST

There is an apocryphal tale of medieval acting troupes drawing a perimeter on the ground around them before poking fun at members of the clergy or royalty. This ‘magic circle’ was intended as a protective spell against reprisal, but metaphorically it represented a safe space for art in which it was acknowledged that the typical boundaries of ‘polite’ or ‘acceptable’ behaviour and speech could be reasonably transgressed.

Similarly, in a free contemporary society, the frame around a cartoon (or any other expressive medium) signifies an implicit exemption from the strictures of belligerent behemoths. Benign as it may seem, this recent episode is a foreshadowing of the rapidly contracting space for dissent. How soon before it leads to the worst joke of all — a shrunken space the size of a tribunal’s dock, a vigilante’s brickbat or a hangman’s noose?

Where does liberty then lie? No longer in the hands of comics who speak truth to power on your behalf, dear reader, but under the custody of sycophantic court jesters performing for the benefit of their dear leader.


The writer is a member of staff. She tweets @ReemKhurshid

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 3rd, 2019