Cartooning for Peace – the response to violence against cartoonists

4 October 2019
Cartoon of cartoonist on social media
Côté (Canada); logo / Cartooning for Peace


Cartooning for Peace is an international network of committed press cartoonists, united by common values such as the defence of fundamental freedoms, the pluralism of cultures and opinions and democracy. 

Freemuse speaks with the international organisation on the state of artistic freedom for cartoonists globally, discussing why cartoonists are so “essential to our democracies”.

What is cartooning for peace and how was it developed?

The organisation was founded at the initiative of Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Prize and former United Nations Secretary-General and Plantu, cartoonist at the French newspaper Le Monde, in answer to the violent reactions that followed the publication of cartoons in the Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten in 2005. It started as a meeting of 12 world cartoonists for a symposium titled “Unlearning intolerance” and represents today a network of 203 cartoonists from 67 countries.

With respect to the values of peace and tolerance it defends, Cartooning for Peace mission has three main objectives:

  1. Promoting press cartooning and its authors work through media partnerships, events, international meetings of press cartoonists and the production of exhibitions and books, such as the important collection developed with Gallimard Publishing house in France;
  2. Advocating for the recognition of the role of press cartooning in the democratic debate but also for the importance of defending their right to inform and denounce without risking their job, reputation or life. Whenever that right isn’t respected and the cartoonists face dangers, the association collaborate with a large range of partner organizations in order to provide the support they deserve;
  3. Relying on the pedagogical value of press cartoons to develop Media and Information Literacy (MIL) and Civic and Peace Education actions. That takes the form of meetings between cartoonists and youth and marginalised audiences, the development of pedagogical tools and the training of cartoonists and education specialists.

Crosscutting these, all of Cartooning for Peace’s actions aim to raise awareness on the promotion and defence of fundamental rights and particularly the freedom of expression.

How would you describe the global climate as it relates to cartoonists?

We haven’t developed an exhaustive and quantitative study on the matter, but in early 2019, 70 cartoonists from the network answered a survey and two major observations have emerged and confirmed the analysis made of practical cases we identified the past years:

  • For more than 50% of the respondents, political censorship remains important in major countries in the world, mostly in countries led by authoritarian regimes. Fear, censorship, self-censorship and violence towards cartoonists remains the major issue cartoonists state as major problems. In 2018 and 2019, cartoonists have been sent to prison in China, Turkey. Other cartoonists have been exiled in Nicaragua, Russia and many other cartoonists have faced threats, censorship and pressure around the world. And we all remember the attacks that took place in Paris against the editorial staff of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
  • Then, another major evolution impacts more and more the cartoonists: a global climate of political correctness going along with a violent expression from major public authorities and that is amplified by the development of the social media. Cartoonists face more and more often online backlash for published cartoons, leading to self-censorship, online violence as well as, and more and more often dismissals. The end of publication of cartoons by the New York Times in its international edition summarises well that major change that affects cartoonists, more recently in North America and Europe;

Another major pressure on cartoonists lies in the financial weakness of the media or their monopolistic control. Dismissals of cartoonists for budget cuts are becoming the norm and more and more cartoonists face difficulties to get paid for the cartoons they produce.

What are some of the key issues cartoonists face?

The past years have been marked by various developments that impacted cartoonists. A major issue has been the development of the Internet and of the use of social media. This isn’t new and has already affected the history of press cartooning in 2005 with the reactions to the publication of the caricatures by the Jylland Posten, but it has greater broader effects on various interconnected ways.

First, the environment of the media and information has changed and impacted the press. Traditional media are no longer the only ones to provide information. And today, some cartoonists who work for a newspaper don’t publish only through their newspaper, but also on social media, sometimes increasing their number of publications. Some others only publish online. On one hand, this allows a greater diffusion of their drawing, which is positive, especially for beginners in the profession. On the other hand, that changes the relation towards the newspapers who employ them and the nature of their responsibility. But that also changes the relation towards the audience.

Secondly, the past years have demonstrated the impact of the development of political correctness, amplified by the global information framework, that greatly affects the cartoonists in their mission: aggressive comments, threats, public condemnation of a cartoon or a cartoonist online by readers or “trolls” are increasingly common. In some specific cases, such as the “New York Times case”, the situation led to the dismissal of cartoonists.

The financial pressure cartoonists face is also related to a decrease in opportunities and more and more cartoonists have been dismissed due to budget cuts, leaving many of them with no resources.

As for other journalists and artists in the world, the pressure from public authorities remains strong. In many countries, political censorship and violence towards cartoonists are justified by many factors such as religious, cultural, political values or security. Confirming past reports published by Freemuse, many states make use of or create more laws aiming at defending national security or preventing blasphemy and insults to high-level representatives or hate speech, and by the same occasion, to shut any opposition’s voice. The Turkish cartoonist Musa Kart, for example, was accused of “association with a terrorist organisation” and was sent to jail for his cartoons of Erdogan’s authoritarian regime (fortunately released a few weeks ago).

Finally, the new tendency we notice in North American and European countries is the stronger incidence of political, religious and economic powers who have pushed to the dismissal of cartoonists who are too critical.

Have you seen a shift in these issues? If so, why do you think that is?

The political and religious pressure remains strong in many countries and we cannot speak of a shift but a continuation that evolves in different ways depending on the political regime in place. We can, however, attest that the tendency has spread and touches more and more countries, including those in North America and Europe. Behaviours such as verbal and physical violence towards cartoonists have become increasingly important, even common in countries promoting democracy and respect for human rights and freedom of expression. The additional shift lies in the development of more frequent dismissals of cartoonists by newspaper editors or owners due to their (too) critical opinions about political leaders in North America and Europe.

The expanded importance of the Internet and social media and its impact on the work of cartoonists is more an evolution than a shift but again, the recent years have shown more liberated and accepted violence online and more systematic use of social media to accuse cartoonists. And in a globalised world of information encouraged and necessitated by the development of the internet and social media, the voice of political correctness, even pushed by small lobby groups, is now more and more impactful, in a faster and more frequent way. A new form of public violence has evolved, and repression is no longer only institutional, but public. That is probably the major shift in the past years since we can see that even some media take this phenomenon into account in their editorial choices…

Why is it important that we protect the rights of cartoonists and satirists so they can continue their art?

They are essential to our democracies. As the cartoonist, Patrick Chappatte puts it very well, “Press cartoons were born with democracy. When he is threatened, freedom is also threatened”.

Their art wakes us and makes us reflect on the world around us. The press cartoon is immediate and directly touches our emotions and minds. It helps to be critical and raises awareness but also allows expressing things that can’t be addressed other ways. The cartoonist and Vice President of Cartooning for Peace Foundation, Chappatte also reminds us that, “in the insane world we live in, the art of the visual commentary is needed more than ever”. Whenever violence is around the corner, cartoons help us taking it with philosophy.

Allowing them to inform and denounce but also to make fun of situations confirms the recognition of the crucial role of freedom of expression. It also attests of an ability to laugh about ourselves, and the world surrounding us. That proofs mental sanity! A society that can’t laugh of itself is lost.

To quote the press cartoonist Plantu, cartoonists are true “barometers of freedom of expression”. The threats they face tell us about the climate of democracy in a state, which impacts journalism and then the rest of society.

On a positive note…

It is important to also highlight optimistic news from all around the world and reinforce our faith in that mission. Pedro X. Molina, Denis Lopatin and many others found a safe haven and can keep expressing themselves thanks to the support of many partners who believe in freedom of expression and fundamental rights. In the Ivory Coast, the satirical magazine “Gbich”, has celebrated its 20 years of existence (and humour), and many young cartoonists make use of social media to publish their cartoons and contribute to expanding the democratic space in their countries (such as Alaa Satir in Sudan but also many others).

Finally, the meetings we’ve held between cartoonists and young and marginalised audiences show us the vivid common and universal need for humour and expression of opinions.

Want more?

  • Visit Cartooning for Peace’s website to find out more.
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