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New Legal Network Comes to Aid of Cartoonists

FILE - Martin Rowson shows British Prime Minister Boris Johnson cartoons in his studio in London, Jan. 24, 2022. The cartoonist says mockery is one of the trade-offs in democratic societies between government and governed: “They have power and we have the right to laugh at them.”

They satirize and poke fun, sometimes capturing the zeitgeist in a single sketch and often drawing the ire of rulers and other powerful people. Cartoonists’ power, wielded with humor and ink, can put them in the crosshairs of those they lampoon.

Cartoonists persecuted for their work anywhere on the globe now have the backing of a dedicated team of legal advisers.

The Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), a nonprofit that advocates for political cartoonists attacked or detained for their work, has set up a legal advisory network thanks to a UNESCO grant.

The $23,000 grant, issued through UNESCO’s Global Media Defense Fund, has enabled the network to put together a team of lawyers and academics specializing in human and media rights, digital freedom and security issues.

The team will assist those facing criminal action by assessing the merits of the lawsuits and helping cartoonists to connect with lawyers.

Most need support

It is a vital lifeline for cartoonists at a time when most work independently or as freelancers, and so have less support when they run into trouble.

“Back in the day [cartoonists] would go the head office to speak with their chief editor,” Terry Anderson, CRNI’s executive director, told VOA. “With the network, we can be that first person that they can call.”

The help comes at a pressing time for media globally, with a rise in the number of journalists fighting legal complaints related to critical reporting on how governments handled the pandemic.

In the first few months of 2020, the CRNI saw double the number of cases affecting cartoonists worldwide.

One of those was Bangladeshi cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, who says he was tortured while imprisoned in May 2020. Kishore was arrested after creating cartoons criticizing the government’s pandemic response. A writer arrested at the same time died while in custody.

A Dhaka court ordered a special police unit to investigate Kishore’s claims, his lawyer told Agence France-Presse.

Such cases demonstrate the need for better legal help, cartoonists maintain.

“The impact of the pandemic on the project has made it more powerful for me,” said Anderson, a Scotland-based cartoonist who has led CRNI for 2½ years.

For over two decades CRNI has supported cartoonists who have been threatened or harassed. The biggest threat currently, Anderson says, is lawsuits.

The legal response team will help CRNI better help those in need, he added.

Cartoonists play an important role in political commentary, often to show an opposing view, or to reflect skepticism about a particular figure or issue, Anderson said.

The legal network is typical of the projects supported by UNESCO’s media development fund.

FILE - Political cartoonist Wong Kei-kwan displays some of his work in Hong Kong, June 20, 2020.
FILE - Political cartoonist Wong Kei-kwan displays some of his work in Hong Kong, June 20, 2020.

The fund supports those “working on the ground in the undertaking or upscaling of projects that bolster journalists’ protection or media freedom through strategic litigation,” Thomas Mallard, a UNESCO press officer, told VOA by email.

Mallard said that journalists globally are facing increased risk, which is why initiatives like CRNI’s are so important

“This fund is a critical part of UNESCO’s wider work to ensure freedom of expression and the safety of the journalists worldwide, at a time of massive challenges,” he added.

Part of the problem, Anderson says, is that authoritarian governments can view cartoonists as a threat to their power.

Tanzanian detained

In September, police detained Opptertus John Fwema, a political cartoonist from Tanzania, for two weeks on accusations of cybercrime. The arrest came shortly after he posted a cartoon on Instagram criticizing the leadership of Tanzania’s president.

“Critical political commentary and coverage of the opposition are essential to Tanzania’s democratic discourse, and it is deeply worrying that police are equating this kind of journalism to criminal activity,” Muthoki Mumo, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement at the time.

With CRNI’s legal team now in place, Anderson wants to spread the word.

“One of the things I had wanted to do in 2021 was go to at least three gatherings to spread the word and promote the launch of the service,” he said. “I’m hoping by the end of this year, there will have been more of an opportunity to talk to cartoonists about what it is that we’re trying to do.”