Laughable Fear of Cartoon
Cartoonists in Southeast Asia are facing pressure and are being muzzled when they criticize those in power. The rise of self-censorship weakens criticism.
GOVERNMENTS should not see political cartoons as a threat. This visual art is not a force to overthrow governments, but a humorous way of expressing criticism. The muzzling of cartoonists by governments in a number of nations in Southeast Asia is a reflection of the fear and insecurity of anti-democratic regimes.
For democratic governments, criticism must be more open. Cartoons are created to criticize governments using cynicism or sarcasm. Fans will see this criticism with smiles on their faces.
Discussions on pressure and threats of muzzling of cartoonists came to the fore in the ASEAN Human Rights Cartoon Exhibition, which took place virtually throughout May 2021. This exhibition showed the work of dozens of cartoonists from nations with poor freedom of expression and democracy, namely Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The work of these cartoonists illustrated, among other things, continuing widespread human rights violations, constraints on the media, immunity of the security forces, extrajudicial killings, and limits on freedom of expression.
The courage of these cartoonists when expressing criticism often leads to them having dealings with the authorities. For example, cartoonists in Myanmar face the threat of being pursued by the military junta currently in power in that nation. The government of Thailand restricts the right to criticize the government through the lèse-majesté article in the criminal code popularly known as Section 112, which bans criticism of the king and his family.
Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, alias Zunar, who persistently criticizes the government, constantly faces the threat of prosecution. Zunar has repeatedly been banned from publishing books, has been arrested and has been charged with offences carrying a 43-year jail term. On May 7, he was asked to report to the police station because one of his cartoons on Facebook was seen as touching on the issue of racism.
In other parts of the world, cartoons are not entirely free of pressure. We still remember the tragedy that struck French weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo. Twelve of the magazine's staff were killed in an armed attack on their office in Paris on January 7, 2015. Five of the dead were cartoonists, including the magazine’s editorial director, Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier. They were shot following the controversy over the publication in the satirical magazine of cartoons seen as offensive to the Prophet Muhammad.
Years after the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, cartoonists still face political pressure as well as threats of violence, prosecution and murder. Both governments and anti-democratic groups often use accusations of blasphemy as a way to censor cartoons. These threats and persecution stifle the creativity of cartoonists. The slightest error can lead to jail and harassment. Therefore, more often than not, cartoonists start to rein in their level of criticism. This type of self-censorship means that cartoons are no longer effective in conveying criticism.
In journalism, cartoons are a part of the media’s political editorial comment. Cartoons also reflect an awareness of democracy in the media, society and government. Cartoons that are too polite and indirect show the weakness of democracy in the nation, including among its journalists. Pressure on and threats to cartoonists are a barometer of freedom of expression as well as an indicator of a democratic way of life.
Cartoonists should be given considerable freedom to express criticism, as well as to make their fans laugh.