And last month, while visiting Washington for a free-speech talk at Freedom House, Ecuadorian cartoonist Bonil told me that he can’t spend his creative energy thinking about death threats, as well as a preliminary criminal investigation over his artwork, when he returns to his country. He faces accusations of “socioeconomic discrimination,” and he is fighting to stay free in body as well as in speech.
Elsewhere around the world, some political cartoonists also face arrests and threats at best, and disappearance and death in the darkest scenarios, over their commitment to exercise the power of the pen.
As Zunar says in a statement this week about the true power of the politically charged cartoon: “The truth is seditious.”
Coming to the aid of these artists the globe over, though, is the Cartoonists Rights Network International, which for one more week is running an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for its numerous fights for cartoonist rights and protection.
The Virginia-based organization is buoyed by many of the industry’s American brethren, including such Pulitzer-winning cartoonists as Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald-Leader and Matt Wuerker of Politico. And at the center of the human-rights group is executive director Robert Russell, a former Peace Corps worker who founded CRNI a quarter-century ago.
Comic Riffs caught up with Russell to talk about the mission and movements of CRNI, as well as how to best aid, protect and rescue cartoonists who risk life and liberty in the name of free speech, and in the visual pursuit of truth.
MICHAEL CAVNA: CRNI has been on the front lines of helping support cartoonists under editorial and personal attack for a quarter-century now. How much are threats against, and persecution of, cartoonists always a constant … and roughly how many cartoonists around the globe would you say need your help at any given time?
ROBERT RUSSELL: At any given time, anywhere from three to five cartoonists are very high on our radar. For some of these cartoonists, the problems are just temporary and usually settled positively and without too much fanfare in the civil courts. Other of our cartoonist clients have been in and out of trouble with their antagonists for years. We also find that a consistent group of “usual suspects” keeps making the rounds on our radar screen. Recidivism amongst some particularly hard-hitting cartoonists can be very high.
The big turning point for us came after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. At that time, the United States started trading its diplomatic positions on human rights for insider information on terrorist plots. Our willingness to trade off human rights for terrorist-plot information opened a flood-gate of repression and the denial of freedoms among some of the most repressive governments in the world. Then the 12 Danish cartoons events in 2006 brought new attention to the work of political cartoonists. For some extremist groups, attacking political cartoonists became a good way of getting face-time with the media. I think many of the more repressive and violent of the Islamic-reawakening movements saw opportunities in attacking cartoonists who could be accused of insulting Islam. When CRNI started nearly 25 years ago, we would find two or three cartoonists a month getting into trouble. Recently, we have had some cases of two or three new cartoonists in a week.
MC: How much has Charlie Hebdo changed the public awareness of how dangerous cartooning can be, from your vantage point on the ground? And are you able to use that heightened awareness at all as you try fund-raise to help cartoonists elsewhere in the world?
RR: The fallout from the Charlie Hebdo attacks is still not completely clear. The 1 million people who marched in support of free speech in Paris after the killings were there to support free speech and affirm their commitment to defending the individual’s freedom of expression, not necessarily there to support cartoonists. I do feel that many donor organizations around the world are now opening their doors to projects involving cartoonists.
I have been a career professional in the field of international development. Twenty-five years ago, I recognized cartoonists as being the most cost-effective change agents in the society. My experience, mostly in Africa, showed me cartoonists who set the day’s political agenda through a particularly insightful cartoon, who got paid maybe five dollars for the work. Nobody else in society had that amount of power and clout for that price. That was when I made a personal commitment to helping cartoonists stay safe and productive.
In addition to the cartoonists being much more aware of how dangerous their work can be these days, their editors and publishers are also taking steps as a result of the most recent threats. Some of these steps will be to help protect the cartoonist who may be at risk, and unfortunately, other steps will be to deny them a platform if their work is deemed potentially too risky in this new environment. I have the greatest sympathy for editors and publishers who want to defend free speech and who understand that the protections of free speech are their only tickets to long-term success. At the same time, they also have to protect the lives of their employees, and very pragmatically the bottom line of the company publishing the paper.
Of course, the Internet has opened up vast new territory for cartoonists to publish without financial cost or editorial control. It also means that many new people are coming into cartooning who may have no training or background in the ethical rules of journalism.
MC: About $150,000 was recently raised for Charlie Hebdo through the auction of an Asterix cartoon. Could you tell us what cartoons and original art you are making available to raise funds for CRNI – and is that one of the more effective ways for you to fund-raise?
RR: Currently, we have a crowd-source fundraising exercise going on the Indiegogo website. Matt Wuerker, the staff cartoonist at Politico.com here in Washington, D.C., has been spearheading it, along with our organizational consultant Joanne Conger.
On our pages, we tell the story of CRNI and how we got started, who some of our clients have been, and a very interesting list of American and Canadian cartoonists who support us. The thank-you’s that people get for donating at different levels goes right up to signed originals by absolutely the top-rung cartoonists, signed copies and signed cartoon books from some of the most influential cartoonists in North America. Please visit us at cartoonistsrights.org and look for our story on Indiegogo or go directly to: indiegogo.com
MC: Related to Hebdo in a way, I think it helps public interest and motivation to donate if people have a sense of the imperiled and threatened cartoonists themselves, as individuals. Could you tell us a bit about these cases: [Iranian artist-activist] Atena Farghadani’s situation and hunger strike – how does that stand?
RR: I’m checking on this. [Nothing new.]
MC: Syrian cartoonist Akram Raslan – is he still missing?
RR: Akram is still missing. No one seems to have any information about him that is absolutely definitive. I personally fear for his life.
MC: Zunar’s constant tug-of-war of free-speech rights with the Malaysian government – are you able to provide help and services in his case?
RR: Zunar [the pen name of Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque] is one of our “regular suspects.” When the whole weight of a government comes crashing down on a single individual’s head, as is so often is the case when cartoonists find themselves in trouble, it’s easy to be intimidated into silence. That was the whole point of the intimidation. Zunar has exactly the opposite reaction — he is like a boxer who gets up off the [canvas] and challenges you to go another round.
There are a whole cadre of cartoonists working in different situations who absolutely refuse to be intimidated, and they fight back as good as they get. Zunar is at the top of the list. After he was recently arrested and held by the police, and had his computer and his cellphone seized, we asked the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to send a representative to witness the police actions at his newest book release that occurred on the same day that he got out of jail. We also write letters to very senior authorities in Malaysia; we keep a steady stream of new information about him moving on our website and our Facebook page, and he and I talk very often about the best strategies he can use to keep himself safe while still producing his cartoons.
The government has absolutely shut him out of every publication in the country, so his recourse is to publish online and to sell hard-copy published collections of his cartoons in the local bookstores. Even this is thwarted. As soon as he comes out with a new collection, the government just rounds them all up, seizes them and threatens him with more intimidations.
Right now, he anticipates being formally charged with sedition. His latest book was of course about the head of state’s wife.
MC: Ecuador’s Bonil?
RR: I’m just off the phone as well with Ecuadorian cartoonist Xavier Bonilla, better known to most of us by his pen name Bonil. He wonders what is going to happen to him as soon as he reaches home. He is being investigated for drawing what is been termed a racist cartoon by Ecuadorian strongman President Correa. This is a new law in Ecuador — no one has ever been found guilty of this charge, so Bonil’s possible conviction would be setting a precedent in Ecuador.
MC: While in D.C. last month, Bonil told us how the current president has tried to turn his nation’s Constitution against the free-speech rights of journalists. Is CRNI ever able to intervene around the world on a governmental and/or judicial level – do you approach ruling bodies when supporting the cartoonists in the crosshairs of an administration or ruling religious body?
RR: Yes, when the cartoonist feels that letters to heads of state or heads of the judiciary are appropriate, we do that. I once wrote a letter to the minister of Constitutional Affairs in Kenya. For the first time in writing these kind of letters, I got an answer. She told me to bloody well mind my own business, and that she was a citizen, too — and [that] even though she was a minister of the state, she didn’t like people criticizing her.
We always let our cartoonist-client drive our strategy. Our primary concern is his or her safety. In a surprising number of cases, letters to the head of state, the judiciary, letters to the editor in local newspapers are all effective strategies to help cartoonists in danger, and we use all of these techniques when the strategy indicates.
In a surprising number of cases, however, the cartoonists ask us to simply lay low. In these cases, letters to prominent political leaders only irritate them, and attempts to influence the judicial process can often backfire. In Bonil’s case, the head of state likes to make fun of letters from NGOs and human-rights organizations during his weekly television program to the public. In this case, what would be more effective is a low-level PR campaign to keep the Ecuadorian and international public aware of what is happening to him and what the issues are.
MC: How did you first become involved in defending and supporting the rights of cartoonists around the world?
RR: I was working in Sri Lanka in 1990, on a USAID development project. I read in the paper about a cartoonist, Jiffry Yoonoos, who had been physically attacked because of the cartoons he drew the head of state. I sought him out and interviewed him at length. His house had been trashed, his car vandalized — he had been beaten and stabbed in front of his own children. He was afraid for his life, and had begun living in the copy office of his newspaper, where he felt the goons wouldn’t be able to reach him. I asked him what he wanted people to do for him, and I expected him to say something like: Write letters to the head of state, or get the U.S. ambassador involved in the problem, or get the United Nations to launch an investigation into human-rights abuses. But his response was so simple: If they kill him, please make sure his wife and children are taken care of — make sure his children have shoes on their feet when they go to school.
That was the start of Cartoonist Relief Network, which later morphed into the Cartoonists Rights Network International, as we grew larger.
As I learned more cartoonists and their role in society, a lightbulb went on in my community-development brain. Nowhere in society can you find a more cost-effective change agent than the lowly paid political cartoonist working for the various national daily newspapers. Everywhere I worked in Africa and Asia, I made a point to meet them and get to know them. The more I learned about them and the deep fan bases they had in their own countries, the more they seemed like an awfully good investment.
MC: Has Danish editor Flemming Rose’s commissioning of Muhammad and Islamic cartoons about a decade ago done more good or harm for the world community of cartooning – and why?
RR: “No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” It was a terrible tragedy for those hundreds of people who were killed in the ensuing riots, but perhaps it was inevitable that the growing pressures in Europe to limit free speech, in order to be “respectful” of a religion, would be confronted at some point. If I look at what good has come out of all this strife about where we draw the lines of free speech, it must be that the world has been woken up to the threats to free speech, and I hope the underlying and fundamental requirement for free speech will be more closely evaluated and understood.
MC: Do you ever work in league with the State Department, ambassadors or other American agencies/departments when pursuing your goals around the world? What are just a few of the other techniques you use?
RR: We are always ready to work with an ambassador or even an office at the State Department. We wish we knew the United Nations agencies more than we do, and it’s necessary that we do, because this is where you find clout.
Frankly speaking, the international NGO networks are just that: non-governmentals. Repressive governments and their leaders understand the dictum, “Power emerges from the barrel of a gun.” Diplomatic pressures, the armies that lurk behind those pressures, and the economic incentives offered by bilateral and multilateral treaties are tremendously powerful influences in the world — much more influential than the public opinion that most NGOs can muster. It makes good sense to cooperate with governmental influences so long as an organization like ours stays away from any situation where our values and strategies could possibly be manipulated or compromised by those influences.
MC: If you hit your Indiegogo goal, what are just a few of the ways the money will be used?
RR: One thing I would begin is a program to connect people who love political cartoons with the cartoonists who are most in danger. Cartoonists in danger usually also lose their incomes. Their friends distance themselves, their employers let them go, opportunities to publish dry up, and many cartoonists in trouble find themselves isolated and their sources of income badly damaged. It would be wonderful if we could encourage a new generation of cartoon collectors to specialize in collecting cartoonists who are at the cutting edge of free speech in this world. While keeping a cartoonist safe is our highest priority, we do that concurrently with keeping them productive. A project like this would help both sides of these priorities.
MC: If you were pitching The Post’s readers directly, eye to eye, what is the prime reason you would give to encourage them to donate?
RR: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” This is my favorite quote from my favorite revolutionary. Leon Trotsky. Right now, the battle for your free speech is being waged by proxies. People like Bonil in Ecuador, Bahadir Baruter in Turkey, Kanika Mishra in India, Majda Shaheen in Palestine, Jonathan Shapiro in South Africa, Aseem Trivedi in India, Zunar in Malaysia and Rayma Suprani in Venezuela, “Molly Norris” in the United States, and dozens of other unsung cartoonists are bearing the brunt of this battle. By supporting Cartoonists Rights Network International, you are engaging absolutely one-on-one with these brave, intelligent and singularly important people who right now are fighting this fight for us.