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COVID-19 pandemic brings new threats to cartoonists worldwide (Demo)

This statement was originally published on on 15 June 2020.

The Cartoon Movement, Cartooning For Peace and Cartoonists Rights Network International welcome last week’s statement made by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, European Federation of Journalists and the Media Freedom Rapid Response consortium calling attention to problems faced by cartoonists in Belgium, Denmark, Hungary, The Netherlands, Sweden and elsewhere.

CRNI is quoted in the MFRR consortium’s statement, saying “Cartoonists’ absence would indicate a loss of fundamental freedoms.”

In particular we object in the strongest possible terms to both:

  • interventions from ambassadors and other top-level national and international representatives calling for the dismissal or censure of cartoonists
  • and mass targeting of cartoonists via social media, apparently encouraged if not actively organized by bad actors

On at least two recent occasions such public over-reactions have led directly to death threats against the cartoonists in question. It is a scant five years since the attacks at Charlie Hebdo; death threats against cartoonists are still regarded with the utmost seriousness by police forces across Europe and lead to great levels of distress for those so threatened as well as their families.

But this report from within the EU covers only part of the picture. In the last two months we have also seen cartoonists arrested, threatened, subjected to cyber attack or court action originating in Bangladesh, Bolivia, China, Palestine, Peru and Uganda. And these are only the incidents that we can safely acknowledge. There is more; CRNI says that from late March through early May there have been twice over the usual number of incidents reported. This spike in cartoonists experiencing violations of their human right to free expression comes at the same time as the economic downturn. The vast majority of editorial cartoonists are self-employed and while some nations have extended relief in the form of grants to that sector, most have prioritized helping businesses and other organizations with payroll for employees. Even among the minority of cartoonists who have a relationship with a news media outlet, we’ve heard many describe being furloughed, dismissed entirely or warned by editors of rapidly diminishing revenue. The inevitable consequence will be a reduction in the numbers of cartoonists pursuing their careers.

We do not suggest that cartoonists are uniquely or especially troubled during this crisis. Journalists, commentators and artists of every description are encountering a newly hostile and difficult working environment; we note that Index on Censorship’s tracker has over one hundred and fifty incidents related directly to coverage of COVID-19 over the same period.

However we do recognize – through long experience in the matter – that cartoonists are often among the first to feel the effects of such a crisis, to the worst extent and yet can be overlooked thereafter. Not every incident we have seen since the start of 2020 can be explicitly linked to the health crisis. But we cannot escape the reality that an already bad situation can only be worsened by coronavirus, as new laws and emergency measures have an accumulative effect in favor of the forces of repression.

In their special collaboration with Courrier International last December, Cartooning For Peace described 2019 as “une année noire”. Every phenomenon mentioned: the notable emergence of authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism in all regions; dwindling opportunities as news media dispense with cartoonists, citing falling revenue; and the deleterious effect of social media on the public’s sensitivity to “offensive” material will be exacerbated in the wake of COVID-19. If 2019 was “black”, 2020 could prove to be an utter void.

“In a recent poll our regional representative cartoonists cited criminalization as their top [reason for] anxiety. The current global crisis has emboldened regimes that seek to censor dissenting or contrarian voices. We’re seeing it in Bangladesh with the arrest of Ahmed Kabir Kishore and others, whose open skepticism about the measures taken there is being spun as dangerous misinformation.”

Terry Anderson, Executive Director, CRNI 

“We need to be very careful we’re not sidelined in the effort against ‘fake news’. Who arbitrates between a sarcastic comment and a deliberate lie? We know that colleagues in Bolivia are anxious about Supreme Decree 4231, in Morocco there are worries following Law 22-20 and in France likewise after the adoption of Loi Avia. In so many places the local press is already heavily censored and now social media is going the same way.”

Tjeerd Royaards, Editor-In-Chief, Cartoon Movement

All three organizations acknowledge the vital link to audiences that social media provides to cartoonists in nations without a free press. As changes are made by companies and in particular Facebook to address issues of public trust in their platforms, we call upon them to recognize the special status of satirical content. Cartoonists do not make flat, factual statements:  they caricature, exaggerate, distil and distort, but all in pursuit of truths deeper than mere headlines can convey. They must remain at liberty to do so.

In the worst case scenario 2020 could see the global community of cartoonists irrevocably damaged. In part the circumstances are unavoidable; the economic depression will lead to the loss of many, and we have seen that attrition is already underway. But far worse, deliberate repressive action will silence yet more.

Cartooning for Peace often remind us that cartoonists are “democracy barometers”, as the threats they face indicate broader movements of repression that consequently affect society as a whole. As such there is a renewed urgency behind their reiterated call for solidarity and protection.

Ultimately we prefer to sound an alarm and risk being perceived as doomsayers rather than wait until a sudden surge solidifies into a trend.

We call on all governments to remember their obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially Article 19, and ask that careful consideration be given to 2019’s Addis Ababa declaration for the recognition of cartooning as a fundamental right 

We make a most urgent appeal to anyone who has ever considered assisting in our shared mission; now is the moment, so please take action in support of cartoonists.

The following is an illustrative (although for security reasons not exhaustive) list of notable incidents that have occurred in the last quarter:

  • AUSTRALIA –  dissident Chinese cartoonist Badiucao receives death threats via social media on a continuous basis, but these intensified while he reported on events in China and in particular his illustrated “Wuhan diary”.  
  • GAZA STRIP – cartoonist Ismael el-Bozom detained by Hamas personnel, spat upon, interrogated.  
  • BOLIVIA – cartoonist Abecor receives death threats via Facebook. 
  • IRAN – cartoons posted on social media lead to the arrest of journalists.  
  • PERU – cartoonist Carlín receives death threats over cartoon on first anniversary of former president’s suicide.  
  • SWEDEN – Palestinian cartoonist Mahmoud Abbas subjected to mass trolling, death threats from Twitter users in Saudi Arabia.  
  • UGANDA – cartoonist Jimmy Spire Ssentongo among those prevented from leaving coronavirus quarantine despite negative testing, resorts to hunger strike.  
  • BANGLADESH – cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore among multiple arrests under Digital Security Act, denied bail.  
  • HUNGARY – cartoonist Gábor Pápai accused of blasphemy and sued by ruling KDNP.
  • USA – cartoonist and syndicate operator Daryl Cagle writes to his congressional representative warning of collapse in industry and regression in press freedom.  
  • SPAIN – cartoonist Miguel Villalba Sánchez’s Facebook page is summarily deleted, prevented from signing in again under his own name; cites fact-checkers under contract to Spanish government.
  • JORDAN – cartoonist Rafat Alkhateeb pressured to remove caricature of Prime Minister Al-Razzaz from Facebook.

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