Tunisian Cartoonist Lilia Halloul
Drawing Tunisia’s New Freedom of Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) was the first cartoon-focused human rights organization when it was founded in 1992. Created by Sri Lankan caricaturist Jiffry Yoonis and development consultant Robert Russell, CRNI collaborates with a network of cartoonists from around the world. These affiliates keep the organization informed on what is happening to their colleagues in their respective countries. Sampsonia Way spoke to four of CRNI’s affiliates, located in the most dangerous countries for political artists. In this series we present these affiliates and a slideshow of cartoons from their country. Today we present Lilia Halloul, a cartoonist and children’s book illustrator from Tunisia.
Prior to Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, Halloul never considered herself a political cartoonist. She was an illustrator for children’s books and when she did draw cartoons, she made sure to avoid any political themes, including any depiction of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. As a freelancer, she feared that anything political could, at the very least, blacklist her from being published by Tunisian media. Then, as the whole world watched, Tunisians overthrew President Ben Ali and his government. As freedom of expression in Tunisia expanded, it became safer for Halloul to turn her pen on politicians.
In this interview Halloul discusses the improvements in Tunisia’s free speech, what still needs to change, and why some cartoonists still don’t feel safe.
- Lilia Halloul is an illustrater, painter and cartoonist from Tunisia. From 1991 to 2001 she worked as a cartoonist for several Tunisian newspapers. In 1994 she received her Masters in Science and Applied Arts. From 2001 to 2011 she worked for IRFAN, a children’s magazine, as an illustrator and cartoonist until the magazine was suspended.
Are cartoonists considered important social commentators in Tunisia? Can you give an example of a recent event where cartoons or cartoonists have been influential?
Since the revolution, most cartoonists have begun criticizing politicians. Cartoons have played a huge role in the most shocking event of the last few months: The assassination of Chokri Belaid, a lawyer who criticized the new government. Three months later the investigation into Chokri Belaid’s death is still open. Many cartoonists, like most Tunisians, are very angry, and they have used cartooning to express their opinions.
What are the most popular themes Tunisian cartoonists cover?
The biggest political theme right now is demanding when the constituent assembly will finish drawing up the new constitution so that elections can be held. This is all the more relevant in the light of the country’s economic and social crisis. Another popular theme for cartoonists is speaking out against any social or political divisions of the Tunisian people.
Is it becoming more dangerous or less dangerous to be a cartoonist in Tunisia? In what ways?
In the two years since the revolution, making cartoons has become less dangerous, and depicting politicians is no longer legally prohibited. Increased freedom of expression is the biggest gain of the revolution; this is evident in the discussions occurring in the media and on the streets. But those in power, especially politicians, criticize the media and accuse them of not being objective.
Like any journalist, these kinds of criticisms can cause problems for cartoonists; however, so far no charges have been brought against any cartoonist in Tunisia.
But some Tunisian cartoonists, like Z, continue to hide their identities from the public. What would need to change in Tunisia for cartoonists to feel safe revealing themselves?
The reason for this is that there is an anti-defamation law that can be used against the media when politicians feel attacked. So with this law a cartoonist could go to jail for two years. A good example of this is the case of TV producer Sami Fehri, owner of the television station Ettounsiya, who is still in prison for having criticized the former government.
So even though no cartoonists have been charged, they could be, and the reason for hiding their identities could be fear of this law.
The good news is that cartoonists and journalists are committed to protecting and defending their freedom of expression despite whatever difficulties they face in doing journalistic work.
Is there enough support for this commitment to free speech?
After the revolution and following many years of dictatorship, cartoonists don’t want to lose their new freedom of expression, and they are receiving some support from cultural centers, magazines and newspapers.
What about religion? Can you criticize Islamists?
In our country, we can criticize the Islamists but not Islam, which is sacred for us Muslims. Islam is the primary faith of the Tunisian people; therefore, we can’t criticize the religion − it’s sacred. But cartoonists should have the right to criticize individual Islamists.
At the end of 2011, a group of 14 cartoonists published Koumik, a collection of cartoons and comic strips. Is this indicative of a general boom in cartooning in Tunisia?
These new cartoon publications demonstrate that support and creativity in cartooning clearly exist. But when it comes to creating more cartoon publications, we still need patience because right now only the elites are most interested in these kinds of books.