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Profiles in Cartooning Courage

How artists in Syria, Iran and India wield free-speech pens against powerful government forces.

Speaking Thursday at the Library of Congress, “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau highlighted an intriguing dynamic of satire: The more the intended target reacts, he said, the more its practitioner gains the advantage. If the victim flinches or returns fire at a cartoon, the illustration only gains in power.

If you consider that cause-and-effect, then three editorial cartoonists around the map — in Syria, India and Iran — are presently among the most powerful practitioners in the world.  And this week, news involving that trio reminds just how perilous the act of satire can be in some countries.

The Virginia-based Cartoonists Rights Network International has announced that Ali Ferzat and Aseem Trivedi are the 2012 recipients of the group’s Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award. The honor is presented to a “cartoonist in great danger or who has demonstrated exceptional courage in the exercise of free-speech rights.

Ferzat, you may recall, was abducted and badly beaten last August amid the Syrian regime’s crackdown. Ferzat, 60, had become critical of the government in his cartoons; the assailants tellingly injured both his hands, breaking at least one.
At the time, political cartoonist Matt Bors — who spoke before Trudeau at Thursday’s Herblock Prize event — said to Comic Riffs that the attack on Ferzat was “a reminder that picking up a pen to draw cartoons is still a dangerous act in many parts of the world.” And when Ferzat was named to the “TIME 100 Most Influential People for 2012” list in April, Politico’s Matt Wuerker wrote in the magazine: “Tyrants often don’t get the jokes, but their people do. So when the iron fist comes down, it often comes down on cartoonists.”

[Ali Ferzat: A Call to Cartoonists to draw support for the viciously beaten Syrian artist]

In announcing that it was also honoring Trivedi, CRNI said the Indian cartoonist was mobilizing “his fellow citizens against India’s pervasive political corruption.” The human-rights group cited Trivedi’s launch of two pages on Facebook: Cartoonists Against Corruption and Save Your Voice: A Movement Against Web Censorship. The group said Trivedi has been charged with treason, and at least one Indian lawmaker has said Trivedi’s work has mocked national emblems and his nation’s parliament.

“By suppressing art, you cannot suppress corruption,” Trivedi said in January in an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s India RealTime.

[Whither Political Cartooning? A Conversation With Matt Bors]

The week also brought headlines that Iranian cartoonist Mahmoud Shokraiyeh was sentenced to more than two-dozen lashings for depicting a member of parliament (MP), Ahmad Lotfi Ashtiani, as a soccer player. Iran has a history of punishing some cartoonists who have tackled religious issues — but the nature of this sentencing was believed to be unprecedented.

“There is one little religious factor in this cartoon!” exiled political cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar, who was jailed in Iran in 2000 for his work, tells Comic Riffs. “The cartoonist did not miss the dark spot on the forehead of the MP, that is caused by too much prostration during prayer. It is a sign of devotion in many Islamic communities.”

[Nikahang Kowsar: Iranian cartoonist sticks to his satiric guns]

This sentencing for printed media libel “is very dangerous for each and every cartoonist in the country,” Kowsar continues. “Based on this ruling, from now on, politicians would be able to demand punishment for cartoonists depicting them. So if a minister or even a low-ranking official feels offended or insulted by a cartoon, he or she would refer to this judgment and demand at least 25 lashes for the cartoonist.”

Mana Neyestani, who was imprisoned in 2006, called upon fellow Iranian cartoonists to show their support for Shokrayeh by drawing Ashtiani, Kowsar says.

“It is a turning point for Iranian cartoonists, and everyone’s worried for the future of the art,” Kowsar tells Comic Riffs. “But regardless of the fear created by this judgment, Iranian cartoonists are lashing the MP with their cartoons.”

All of which adds a corollary to Trudeau’s explanation of satire’s ”unfair” dynamic: Sometimes, the more the intended target reacts, the more practitioners band together to oppose repression of free speech and rights. 
Some governments may carry out physical attacks on their artists, but satirists still wield the assault of laughter. And we all know what the mighty Twain once said about that.

(NOTE: The CRNI award ceremony for Ferzat and Trivedi is scheduled for Sept. 15 at D.C.’s George Washington University during the convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.)

Via The Washington Post
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