In 1992, Manouchehr Karimzadeh, cartoonist for the Iranian
magazine Farad, was sentenced to fifty lashes, one year in prison and a hefty
fine. After he had served the one year prison sentence incommunicado, the
Supreme Court of Iran ruled that he was to be re-tried and a further arbitrary
ten-year sentence was imposed.
His crime? He drew a cartoon on the poor state of Iranian soccer. But the authorities ruled the footballer depicted bore an unacceptable resemblance to the late Ayatolla Khomeini as a youth.
Much as many politicians may wish it, cartoonists in Australia & NZ tend not to get sentenced to lashings. Politicians may huff and puff, and occasionally threaten legal action if an apology isn't forthcoming, but generally those in power prefer to be seen to have a sense of humour. In fact often grit their teeth and buy the original.
But how did we arrive at this point, where we can sit around freely, without being thrown into jail, no matter how hard we try?
This is a convention we inherited, as part of a 'free press', from mid- nineteenth century Europe.
In a famous court case in France in 1831, the publisher/cartoonist Philipon was charged with defamation by King Louis-Philippe. Philipon had been depicting the king as a pear. "La poire", a pear, at that time in France also meant a "buffoon". The case dragged on for several months causing great hilarity throughout Europe, with newspapers outside France taking great glee in reproducing the cartoon frequently. Philipon was eventually aquitted after demonstrating with a series of drawings in court that the king did, in fact, resemble a pear.The court also ruled that no more drawings of pears should be published. Philipon published the findings of the trial on the front page of his magazine, La Caricature, with the type designed in the shape of a pear. Two years later Daumier was jailed for portraying the king as Gargantua.
The king in the meantime had made such a fool of himself amongst the chattering classes of the time, the aristocracy, that it gradually became a convention in France, then the rest of Europe, to accept the ridicule of cartoonists, rather than be seen not to have a sense of humour.
This convention has become an essential element of 'free comment' in the world's democracies.
But not in the dictatorships.
In Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany dissident cartoonists had to buckle under, doing propaganda cartoons or risk labour camps or worse.
Throughout the early Stalin years Boris Efimov, Russia's great 20th century cartoonist, tried to get a subtle subtext of social comment to his seemingly obvious cartoons, but was always under threat of arrest, in fact used to smuggle letters to & from David Low for advice and with information about the situation in the soviet press.
"Kukryniksy", the other great 'cartoonist' of that period, was actually the combined name of three cartoonists, (KUpryanov, KRYalov and NIKolai Sokolov) an attempt in the 20s and 30s to avoid prosecution. They would have turns drawing, and sometimes all three would participate in the same cartoon, always under the combined signature.
All these cartoonists were 'saved' by the rise of Nazism and became enormously popular and powerful anti-fascist propagandists. They did light 'digs' at Stalin occasionally, riding on their popularity. But nothing too serious.
In Germany they weren't so lucky. The great satirical magazine of the early 20th century, Simplicissimus, was forced in 1934 to become a propaganda sheet or be closed down. Many of he magazines great illustrators, such as Bruno Paul and George Grosz , fled the country. Some went 'underground', others such as Olaf Gulbransson continued on the magazine through the 30s, often producing anti-semetic cartoons.
Not all cartoonists are heroes.
I'd like here though to mention a couple of great Nzers of this period who worked in Britain under difficult conditions, though nothing like their counterparts in Central Europe. Will Hope and David Low.
Hope, who also cartooned under the pseudonym "Espoir" has been unfairly forgotten after a brief but brilliant career in London in the early 1920s.
He went to London in 1919 joining the Daily Herald as a sports cartoonist, a common way to get a foot in the door, drawing under his surname " Hope".The Daily Herald was owned by the Lobour Party. But at the same time he was drawing large and powerful cartoons for a radical left magazine, The Communist, under the signature "Espoir", French for 'hope'.His "Espoir" cartoons were astonishingly powerful, both in theme and technique. His main topics were the contemptuous,as he saw it, treatment of some of the colonies by Britain, notably Ireland, India, and Palestine, and how this treatment would eventually backfire. The other topic was the Labour Party (his main employer). One hilarious weekly series of about ten cartoons he depicted the topic "What if Jesus returned and joined the Labour Party?" A prominent Union leader who had been depicted in the series, sued for defamation, and won, forcing the magazine to be closed after three years. In the meantime Hope had become the main Editorial Cartoonist on the Daily Herald, under his own name. About a year after the magazine closed it finally sunk in that he was the notorious "Espoir" and in 1924 he was sacked. He tried to get support from the powerful Printers Union to be reinstated, but no.one in the Labour Movement would support him, and he found himself unemployable in Britain. He moved to Canada, but never worked as an editorial cartoonist again. But his cartoons, especially of the treatment of the Colonies were fair comment, and in the light of history, very accurate.
David Low came under a different sort of pressure. Low is a whole topic in himself, but I'll just mention one episode in 1938. Lord Halifax had been sent, as a part of the appeasement policy to meet with Goebells to try to placate their anger over the way they were treated in the British press, and in particular the Low cartoons.
On return Halifax said to Low's Editor " You cannot imagine the frenzy these cartoons cause. As soon as a copy of the Evening Standard arrives, it is pounced on for Low's cartoon, and if it is of Hitler, as it usually is, telephones buzz, tempers rise, fevers mount and the whole government system of Germany is in uproar. It has hardly subsided when the next one arrives…."
Halifax requested that Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Standard , do something about Low and Winston Churchill, who at that time was out of Parliament, and writing a column for the paper. Beaverbrook thought about it, and sacked Churchill.
So we come to the present.
Even today there are cartoonists working under great difficulty and often threat throughout the world. Most avoid direct attacks on their leaders, hoping for better times. Others work anonymously. But some openly, perhaps foolishly, ridicule their rulers.
In Argentina in the 1970s, the political cartoonist Hector Oesterheld, who regularly portrayed the military junta as extra-terrestials, was kidnapped and murdered along with his two daughters. More recently, in 1996, cartoonist 'Nik' was abducted, stuffed into a car, hit on the head with a pistol, told to 'behave himself', and dumped on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
In Algeria in 1995, Brahim, the 40 year old cartoonist for the daily "El Moudjahid' was kidnapped and found executed near his home in Algiers. Another Algerian cartoonist, Sid Ali Malouah, has gone underground after several attempts on his life.
The most publicised case in recent years was the assassination of Naji el-Ali, a Palestinian living in exile in London. He had no political affiliations and in his work for a Kuwaiti newspaper portrayed the plight of the Palestinian people. He also opposed terrorism, the lack of democracy and the gross inequality in the Arab world. He was shot in the head as he was going to work in Chelsea. Two weeks earlier he had been warned by a friend in the PLO that his life was in danger.
In Turkey the cartoonist Aydin has had to stand nine trials for his cartoons. Twice convicted he has spent eight months in jail. His colleague Erkanli has served ten months in jail.
South Korean dissident cartoonist Hong Song-dam has just served seven years. In Burma and mainland China cartoonists work underground.
Jonathan Shapiro, better known in South Africa as Zapiro, was working as a freelancer during the late 1980s, and was about to open a gallery show of his work when the police detained him on suspicion of planning a 70th birthday celebration for the then imprisoned Nelson Mandela. He spent six weeks in jail without charge. He spent the next few years working 'underground'. (These days he is enormously popular, working for several publications, including the mass circulation Sowetan. Although, he says, the press is far freer than it used to be, there are still pressures. Last year the Human Rights Commission caused a furore whilst investigating allegations of racism in the media when it subpoenaed several newspaper editors. He is concerned that he and other 'progressives' might be seen as reactionary or racist when they question the African National Congress government. "The race card is being thrown around quite a lot by a certain part of the ruling elite" he says. As someone who campaigned against apartheid and now generally supports the government, he finds this "bloody scary". )
And there is the ridiculous. In Saudi Arabia in 1993 the Arab News ran an episode of BC, the US strip, as they had done for years. It was a light cartoon of a character on a mountain-top saying to the clouds "God if you're up there give me a sign". The next panel shows a bucket of garbage being dumped on him. The editor was sentenced to two years in prison and 500 lashes, whilst the editor-in-chief received one year and 300 lashes. (Whatever happened to seniority?)
A few years ago the Japanese Asahi Magazine published a cartoon in which one calligraphic stroke of the name of the Wind Party was left off in order to read Lice Party.The party's candidate, Shusuke Nomura, called in to the magazines's offices for a meeting with the newspaper executives, bowed in the direction of the Imperial Palace, and shot himself dead with two pistols.
Australasian cartoonists don't expect anything quite so drastic. But that doesn't mean they’re lily-livered.
The ancient 19th C urge still
Three or four years ago I was rung by the editor of a small regional paper in country Queensland. He was urgently requesting permission to reproduce a recent cartoon, any cartoon, from the SMH.
He told me he had been having a little bother with his local contributing cartoonist. This cartoonist had developed a personal dislike for the local mayor's wife, and whenever he had the chance would put her face on an animal in the background. A cow, a pig, whatever. She had complained, but he continued, and it had become the talking point of the town. He was warned by the editor, and he refrained for a while. But today he had submitted another one, and had refused to change it, and the editor had had to suspend him.
Perhaps 500 lashes may have done the trick.