An illustration of Zunar at a D.C. eatery in 2015. (Michael Cavna/The Washington Post)

ON WORLD PRESS Freedom Day, it is vital to remember that political cartoonists remain on the front lines of the fight.

If you value media freedom, you might pause to reflect on the plight of Musa Kart, who has been jailed in Turkey since last Halloween. Kart’s battles with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan stretch back more than a decade, but events escalated from courtroom wrangling to direct home raids last fall: Karr and 10 of his fellow Cumhuriyet staffers were rounded up amid Erdogan’s larger crackdown that has affected tens of thousands of Turkish citizens. Kart went uncharged until last month; he now faces decades in prison on political allegations that rights workers say are without merit.

Today is also an opportune time to think of the young cartoonist who goes by the nom de plume Mr. Eaten Fish. He is an Iranian refugee who has been jailed in Papua New Guinea’s Manus Camp after seeking to escape political persecution, he says, by trying to enter Australia.

“Manus Camp” by Eaten Fish. (Cartoon courtesy of CRNI)

We also think of the continually targeted Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque — better known as Zunar — who as of last fall has been banned from travel outside his nation.


(Courtesy of Zunar)

“Cartoonists Rights Network International is currently working with [those] two imprisoned cartoonists in Turkey and Papua New Guinea, and the other [one] in Malaysia whose passport has been seized, so in a sense he is imprisoned in his own country,” Robert Russell, the executive director of Cartoonists Rights Network International, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs.

“About four other cartoonists languish in a third-party countries waiting for some kind of rescue from the forces that have made them leave their homes,” continues Russell. “They live lives of fear, hunger, insecurity and, like other journalists in their situations, sleepless nights that constantly erode any sense of hope.”

Russell has worked for decades on securing the rights and freedom of political artists the globe over, but he finds the current era to be especially difficult.

“What seems most frustrating to me,” he says, “is how impotent some of our best-designed institutions are when they come up against the wall of a sovereign nation that has decided not to observe those human rights that are not convenient to them.

“The case of our friend and colleague incarcerated at the Papua New Guinea, Manus Island Detention Center — Eaten Fish — is the perfect example of these forces,” Russell says. “We, along with many other institutions and individuals — from the absolute grass roots right up to UNHCR and the British, Australian and Canadian parliaments — have not been able to find him safe passage to a welcoming country. Over the last year or two progress has definitely been made, but the forces of xenophobia seem to be powered by some ancient pool of dark energy worthy of any of Stan Lee’s dark comic books.”

CRNI’s principles, he says, are unbowed by such dark forces.

“In high school, our history professor used to drum into our heads that a democracy that fails to protect its minorities loses its right to rule,” Russell says. “Government with no right to rule seems inevitably to trump the better of mankind’s institutions.”

As such, Russell says World Press Freedom Day symbolizes the beacon of hope, and “all the strategies, all the creative thinking, all the highest ideals that humankind can put to work defending the cornerstone of all other rights: freedom of speech.”

And so, on this day, CRNI renews its call to the governments of Australia, Malaysia and Turkey “to take the higher road” and “recognize these lost souls in detention.”


(CAVNA’S CANVAS 2015)