Art to Die For: Cartoonists at Risk and Their Defenders

by Olivia Stransky    /  May 15, 2013  / 1 Comment

An interview with Robert Russell, founder of Cartoonists Rights Network International.

Cartoon by Ilian Savkov, courtesy of CRNI.

In 1992, Robert Russell walked into a newspaper office in Sri Lanka. He was there to visit a man he had never met, a man who had been beaten and stabbed in front of his whole family. This man’s name was Jiffry Yoonoos, and his crime was drawing a cartoon. Yoonoos drew his cartoons for the newspaper Aththa, and he had recently drawn a series of caricatures of Sri Lanka’s president, Pranasinghe Premadasa. Shortly after their publication, Yoonoos was attacked. Although Russell was neither a fellow cartoonist nor a journalist, he felt compelled to find Yoonoos and offer any help he could.

“What do you want? What do you need?” Russell asked the bandaged man in front of him. He though maybe an international letter campaign denouncing the attack could be started. Another possibility was (somehow) getting President Bush to publicly condemn the attack.

But Yoonoos simply replied, “If they kill me, please make sure my children have sandals for their feet when they go to school. If I am put in the hospital again, please make sure I have a doctor who will take care of me.”

Russell was compelled by this conversation to research existing human rights organizations devoted exclusively to cartoonists. He found that there were no such international organizations. This led to his and Yoonoos’s creation of Cartoonist Relief Network, which later became Cartoonists Rights Network International.

Jiffry Yoonoos passed away in 2003; however Russell still runs CRNI as its executive director. In March he spoke with about how the human rights field has been influenced by this organization to pay attention to cartoonists, why cartoonists are so vital to citizens and so threatening to governments, and what the three most dangerous topics are for a cartoonist to draw.

CRNI collaborates with a network of cartoonists from around the world. These affiliates keep the organization informed on what is happening to cartoonists in their respective countries. In the following installments of this series, Sampsonia Way will present interviews with CRNI affiliates in Bangladesh, Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt along with slideshows of cartoons from those countries.

You founded Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) with Jiffry Yoonoos, a Sri Lankan cartoonist, in 1992. How did the idea for CRNI begin?

Robert Russell. Photo: Malie Russell.

I’m not a journalist or cartoonist. I have been an international development consultant my whole life, working as a community development organizer and institution-builder in developing countries.

In any country that I found myself in, I would read all the editorial cartoons I found. After a while, I made it a point to meet the cartoonists as well. I discovered that they were a very put-upon and ignored part of journalism; the other journalists in an editorial room were usually under contract or full-time employees covered by insurance or protected by ethical guidelines, but cartoonists were usually just paid per cartoon. They could draw for a newspaper for ten years, but they would never get a contract or be protected. They would be paid five bucks for the cartoon, and that’s it.

Despite this, the editorial cartoonist is the most cost-effective agent of change in society. An American embassy political officer in Uganda told me that during her diplomat training she was taught that the first thing you should do every day is read the daily political cartoons. Then you will know what every bus driver, ditch digger, office worker, and common man, for example, will be talking about that day. That hit me like a two-by-four. Who in society can have more impact on people’s opinions for so little cost? This may not be true in western societies, but in developing countries, you can’t find a single person who has more influence and more efficiency as a social change agent than a cartoonist. This realization made me want to work with cartoonists and ultimately that commitment became CRNI when I was in Sri Lanka working with Jiffry Yoonoos.

He and I did some research on other organizations, and we decided to start CRNI because there was no free speech or human rights network dedicated exclusively to the problems facing political cartoonists.

Why do you think there wasn’t an international organization exclusively devoted to cartoonists before?

I found that cartoonists were looked down upon even by the print media; Journalists, and particularly editors and publishers often don’t take cartoonists terribly seriously. This is despite the fact that when newspapers do research on what readers like and want, a large portion of the readership say they enjoy the political cartoons the most. It seems to go over their heads.

You have affiliate cartoonists from 14 different countries. How do they collaborate with you?

They’re just affiliates, not members or employees. There is a chapter organization in Bangladesh. We have about twenty-five volunteer affiliate cartoonists who give us information and alert us to cartoonists in danger, so they’re more like stringers.

Of these different countries where you have stringers, which countries are most dangerous for cartoonists?

Bangladesh. Iran. Pakistan. India, to name a few. We’re without a representative in India right now because our Indian representative got angry at our support for a particular cartoonist he didn’t like. We don’t want our representatives to exercise their own editorial choice over who they want to help. They of course can have their own opinions about the quality of any cartoonists work, but when you’re working in the field of human rights you don’t represent a cartoonist so much as you represent the law. Our exception is that we don’t represent cartoonists who advocate racism or violence.

The danger will arise in any Islamic country where a cartoonist draws a cartoon related to the Prophet or a reference from the Koran. Exercising a sense of humor when dealing with anything religious can be very dangerous. Tunisia and Egypt are dangerous for cartoonists. One of our Egyptian clients, Doaa El Adl, drew a cartoon of Adam and Eve being talked to by a politician. It had nothing to do with the Bible, but she was charged with insult to Islam. She’s in serious trouble for that and has had to back down on her other work. There’s a young Tunisian blogger in prison right now who was charged with blasphemy because of a cartoon he posted to his blog site. He’s very close to death because the doctors won’t treat him or feed him properly. No one will protect him from the other prisoners who want him dead because he’s a a declared atheist.

There’s a Syrian cartoonist, Akram Raslan, who has disappeared. We’re trying to find him and get him out of Syria, which is just a quagmire. Those are high on the list for dangerous countries for cartoonists.

Besides religion, which, in your opinion, are the other two most dangerous themes for a cartoonist to address?

Another topic that is generally taboo for cartoonists would be criticism of leaders in societies and their governments that are starting to fail . The failing government’s first reaction is not to improve or ask why they’re failing, but to shut down the press and take over the justice system. Cartoonists are very often the first ones to be attacked because of what I mentioned earlier: practically no one reads the editorials but everyone reads the political cartoons.

A very dangerous time for cartoonists is election time . Anywhere there’s an election that won’t be free or transparent the political goons on one side or the other might choose to attack a particularly popular cartoonist if their opinions aren’t in line with the political objectives. Of course this is also when political cartoonists are at their best. A really challenging cartoon about the incumbent, two or three weeks before the election, is going to change votes, and that becomes dangerous for the incumbent if they have to publicly steal the election.

Religion, failed governments, and violent political transformation periods are all risky for cartoonists.

Cartoon by Ana Von Reuber, courtesy of CRNI.

And what about the internet… Can it be a threat for cartoonists?

We all know that the Internet is just another tool. The laws of push and push-back are operating at much deeper levels in society because of the internet. Cartoonists, like other journalists, initially thought that the internet might provide a great new place to expose their work and make money. Cartoonists have discovered that while the internet is not a great place to make money, it is a great place to expose their work to an entirely new and broader audience. However in response to bloggers who use cartoons to illustrate their opinions or to cartoonists who are posting their cartoons which would never be accepted by an editor, the government can hire a whole office building full of hackers and track down these cartoonists and bloggers. They can open or shut down a Facebook and other social media pages almost at will.

I’m glad that governments will have to spend more and more money to shut down free speech. But I’m also afraid they may get more vicious and intolerant, like in India and Ecuador.

Besides having all these affiliates and supporting their right to draw any topic they decide to, you also find safe asylum for cartoonists in danger….

We try to. A lot of human rights and free speech organizations have funds for journalists in trouble, and we are usually able to tap into funds from other organizations for cartoonists who need it. We also work closely with the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) and are working on a couple of cases right now with them. We’ve helped one guy from Bangladesh, and two guys from Iran as well as a Somali cartoonist who was a refugee in Egypt. We also partner closely with the Cartoon Movement, which is a new website that helps unknown cartoonists find a market for their striking and powerful cartoons. They especially look for cartoonists and countries where censorship has shut down many of the traditional outlets for a cartoonist.

As an organization we are horribly terribly overburdened right now. Twenty years ago we might have one new client a month . Today we have at least two new clients a week. Because of the rising awareness on the part of both terrorists and tyrants of the power of cartoons, attacks against them are getting more serious. Right now we have to pick and choose the cartoonists we can help based on the amount of imminent life-threatening danger and the very precious available staff time the two of us have. We would like to hire another two people to deal directly with cartoonists just in the Middle Eastern countries who are in trouble. We’re desperately in need of donations to support the efforts of the two people running CRNI and I and hopefully hire another multilingual person to fill out our staff requirements.

You also started the “Art to Die For” exhibit, the world’s only archive of cartoons which precipitated a human rights attack against the cartoonist. Can you tell me more about that?

We have been archiving these unique cartoons for about ten years. The archive consists of about 25 cartoon panels. People get upset by cartoons like these, but our exhibit also humanizes and personalizes the individual cartoonist in trouble. Alongside the cartoon we show a picture of the cartoonist and give a short explanation about what happened to him or her.

Because we don’t have the resources to market the exhibit it doesn’t get around very much. But when I go to a convention, I always bring it with me. It’s always available for exhibition wherever anyone wants it. We’d love it to get around much more, and we really don’t charge much more than the reproduction and shipping costs. It would be great in cartoon museums, colleges, and universities, it would be a great class project on human rights. We put it up in the gallery here at nearby George Mason University, and it was very popular. Art classes came to look, as well as social science, journalism and history classes.

After starting CRNI and developing all the activities we mentioned before, have you seen any change in the United States or even on an international level of how cartoons are viewed or respected?

Absolutely. I would love to say it’s because of our work. I know a lot of human rights organizations’ webpages now have cartoon-centric sections because of CRNI’s early and consistent work. The biggest change in attitude of the development of the human rights organizations came after the twelve Danish cartoons were published in 2006. The world exploded in anger because of those cartoons, and suddenly the journalism world sat up and said, “Whoa, whoa. What’s going on here?” Those little images have caused an incredible amount of resentment and strife, but also demonstrated the absolute power and influence of political cartoons.

It has become a vastly changed environment for cartoonists in the last five to ten years. Cartoonists in India and Bangladesh and all over the Middle Eastern world are now being attacked, reviled, and charged with hate or insult crimes. One cartoonist in India was charged with sedition, punishable by many years in prison, for cartoon that featured the country’s national symbol.

A young American cartoonist is now in a modified FBI Witness Protection Program because of her cartoons about the Prophet Mohammad. We keep in touch, but I have no idea what her new name is now. Her life is upside down. Many Americans don’t know there’s a cartoonists hiding in the U.S. because of a fatwa issued by a recognized terrorist.

What is one of your most memorable moments from working with cartoonists?

I remember working with Sandhya Eknaligoda, the wife of missing cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda from Sri Lanka. There is no one else in the world like her. No one will fight harder for a missing cartoonist or a cartoonist in danger than a family member, and she is a dog with a bone when it comes to finding out the truth of her disappeared husband. We gave her an award a couple of years ago for her steadfastness and hard work for helping a missing cartoonists. She was able to stay at my house, and we went to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) convention, where she gave a talk. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

About the Author

Olivia Stransky is an editorial assistant and video editor for Sampsonia Way. She received her B.A. in literature and film from Bard College at Simon’s Rock. While a student, she worked as the editor-in-chief of Glacial Erratic, Simon’s Rock’s literary and arts magazine. After graduating she received a grant to serve as a Fulbright Scholar in Slovakia, where she taught English literature and conversation at Univerzita Komenského in Bratislava.

View all articles by Olivia Stransky

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