The question most frequently asked about Cartoon Movement is if there are any limits to what we will publish. Of course we have a quality standard; we only publish the work of professional cartoonists that have passed our board of review. But in terms of content of the cartoons, it has always been our goal to allow our cartoonists to submit anything they want to our newsroom. There is a difference between cartoons that we publish (which are featured on the homepage), and cartoons sent to the newsroom; the newsroom is an ongoing public editorial meeting, where the editors, cartoonists and audience debate cartoons, and decide on the ones fit for publication on the homepage.
Cartoonists are natural champions of freedom of expression, because editorial cartoons would not exist without this right. But there are two sides to cartoons. On the one side, cartoons provide powerful visual commentary, boiling down issues into a single panel, making you think, and generating debate. The other side, however, is darker. Because cartoons simplify issues, they use visual tools that allow them to be understood by a broad audience. These tools are the same that are employed in the making of propaganda. Stereotypes can enforce prejudice, caricatures can demean, belittle and degrade.
Some of the more controversial topics include the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and religion, in particular Islam (or more in particular, how Islam is perceived in the West). Up until now, we have been fortunate that any controversy gave rise to a constructive and meaningful discussion, and not to threats of violence or worse. Most of our cartoonists (in fact, most cartoonists in general), tend to be liberal in their outlook, and more interested in understanding other perspectives than in being enraged.
But two cartoons (both shown below) that were uploaded recently to the website had us seriously debating if there are limits to what we allow in our newsroom. Recently joining our network, Russian cartoonist Igor Kolgarev is a Christian, whose views reflect the opinions of many Russians. The cartoons in question concern gay marriage and the law that was passed through Russian parliament recently, that forbids any 'propaganda' on homosexuality.
This post is meant to explain why we decided not to remove the images in question, and also to explain our editorial policy in general. There will no doubt be other images in the future that will spark controversy:
-Freedom of opinion is one of our (if not the) core value of Cartoon Movement, and any form of censorship on our part would seriously and irredeemably breach that value. We much rather discuss why something should be censored, than actually censoring it, thereby removing all possibility for discussion. We trust our community to weigh these images, and to discuss them. Censorship avoids controversy, but it also removes the possibility for people to change their opinions. In this case, that potentially could mean people seeing the images and involved in the discussion could be moved to agree with Igor's point of view, but, equally, the discussion could serve to change Igor's perspective on things.
-Our motto 'there is more than one truth' would be a rather empty tagline if it only applied to those perspectives that are not in any way controversial. It is important to note that perspectives must be based on facts. Because we consider ourselves if not exactly journalists, then at least part of the professional field of journalism, our code of conduct calls for comics and cartoons that are based on checked facts. This is a more complicated policy with cartoons than it is with (comics) reporting, because cartoons are opinions. In this case, we could ask Igor to prove that gay marriage will damage traditional marriage, but he would be equally justified in asking us to provide proof that it won't.
-These images serve a purpose. They fuel the discussion on what is legitimate social criticism, and where criticism veers into the realm of hatred. For instance, compare these two cartoons by Kolgarev (1,2). Both oppose gay marriage, but cartoon 1 merely visualizes the criticism that gay marriage would be a bomb under the institution of marriage. Cartoon 2 goes a lot further, depicting gay people as angry and mean, deliberately out to hurt ordinary families (in this case literally slinging mud or filth). With cartoons, how an issue is visualized is as important as what issue the cartoon deals with. To understand the tools a cartoonist can use, and how these can be used in good and a bad way (and what these good and bad ways are), you need discussion. And for this discussion, you need controversial cartoons.
Amr Okasha on the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
-Opposing perspectives can provide valuable self-reflection. As mentioned earlier, many of our cartoonists tend to be liberal. To convey their liberal opinions, they will sometimes rely on the same tools that are used in the images above to portray gay people as the bad guys. Examples of this can be found in the work of Egyptian cartoonist Amr Okasha. Amr works for the party newspaper of the liberal-democratic neo-Wafd party. In his cartoons, Amr is very critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he depicts members of the Brotherhood as dim-witted bearded zealots. This representation (which he uses to symbolize religious extremism in general) is not controversial, because the vast majority of the people on our website agree with Amr's perspective (outside of the website is another matter). In the case of Igor's cartoons, the majority of our audience vehemently disagrees. But if we examine both Amr's and Igor's cartoons, only looking at how they depict their subject (and not what they depict), is there really that much difference? Food for thought.
If you would like to share your thoughts on our editorial policy, feel free to comment here (comments are audited, but that is because so far, it's our only way to effectively fight spam on the blog), or shoot us an email. In everything we do, we aim for openness, inclusiveness and fairness, and we are definitely open to your input on how to make our policies more effective.
We're not sure how many cartoonists there are in Cuba, but many of them are keen to join Cartoon Movement. This week we welcome Fabian Sotolongo. Who knows, Cuba might be the first country in the world where every professional cartoonist is also a member of our community.
This year, we were pleasantly surprised to get an application from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). This fledgeling democracy is not a place where you would expect to find policital cartoonists. All the more reason to talk to Burmese cartoonist Kyaw Thu Yein to find out more. We talk to him about the way he works, and also about censorship and the importance of cartoons.
When and why did you become a cartoonist?
'I started drawing cartoons in 2000. In our country, there is no institute or colleagues specialized in cartooning. I wanted to be a cartoonist, thus I sent my cartoons to newspapers (at that time, our country was ruled by the Military). But, my cartoons were not published in government newspapers. I participated in various cartoon contests, either local or abroad and I joined a local humor magazine (Yee Sa Yar Magazine).
After 2010, democratic reform was geared up and media freedom was developed compared with the past. Local news journals focused more on editorial cartoons and Myanmar cartoonists gained a chance to draw cartoons with a political aspect, under the censor board. I draw as a freelance cartoonist. There are no staff jobs for cartoonists in Myanmar. But, some editors request cartoonists to draw cartoons in their media. I contribute my cartoons in Weekly Eleven News, Voice Weekly, Irrawaddy Magazine and other local newspaper and magazines.'
How do you make cartoons?
'How I make cartoons is very simple. I am always thinking on ideas for new cartoons. But, most of the best cartoons come from accidental idea. Sometimes, I think of an idea based on news, sometimes, it based on humor. I sketch or write down in my notes whenever I get a new idea. Then, I modify this idea to draw on paper.
In our country, it is difficult to buy tools for cartoon drawing. I use A4 80 gm paper, water color drawing paper for cartooning. I use a calligraphy pen (used in Arabic writing in my country), soft pen (Uniball 1.0, 0.8, 0.5 and 0.1) and a paint brush. I always scan my cartoons and save in my computer. I use simple scanner, Canon LiDe 110. If it is required, I edit my cartoons with Photoshop.'
Are there many cartoonists in Myanmar?
'In Myanmar, there are many cartoonists. The number of cartoonists has grown a lot in recent years, because the government allows more newspapers and they use more cartoons. Nowadays, Myanmar people are interested in news and editorial cartoons. Most of the cartoons are drawn in simple way, like two guys talking to each other; this is the popular style/technique of cartoon drawing in Myanmar.
Personally, I admire Saya Aw Pi Kyeh, who is famous cartoonist in Myanmar, who got MBA from Harvard but earn his income as a cartoonist.'
Is there a history of cartooning in Myanmar?
'Cartooning and caricaturing were developed in Myanmar since 1900, when Myanmar was a British Colony. The first Myanmar cartoonist was U Ba Galay (Shwe Yoe). But, multiple factors such as civil wars, economic and political instability, censorship, lack of newspapers and poverty, lead to the decline of cartoons. Under military laws, cartoons disappeared for decades. Most cartoonists moved to other professions. Many of them started to draw children comics.'
Is it difficult to be a cartoonist in Myanmar nowadays?
'For economic reasons, it is difficult to be a cartoonist in Myanmar. We get a maximum of 10000 Ks (about 10 USD) for each cartoon when it is used in press. Most of the cartoonist draw illustrations, and some earn as graphic designer.
Media law in Myanmar
Apart from economic aspect, there are other difficulties for cartoonist, because there is always risk for him, to be arrested, if his cartoons make the government angry.
The red lines in Myanmar (subjects you cannot draw about) are the military, religions and Aung San Su Kyi, the Nobel Prize winner. When a cartoonist draws a cartoon that criticizes the military, he might be arrested. Drawing anything critical about Aung San Su Kyi is difficult for another reason; it is because most of the people love her. Other red lines include religion, sex and nudity.
We hope for true political reform, and media freedom. Burmese people are interested in political reform, and they enjoy reading political cartoons. Cartoons in Myanmar point out various aspects, such as peace, corruption, crimes, political reform and so on. Until now, less change is seen than we would like.'
Payam Boromand lives and works in a country that's not often associated with political cartoons: Iran. And, admittedly, when you look at Payam's work, it is more focused on broad societal themes such as migration, conflict and the environment than on the politics of Iran. We talk to him to find out what it's like to be a cartoonist in Iran, and also to learn more about the way he works.
Could you describe the process of how you make cartoons and the materials that you use?
'I usually read news online before drawing a cartoon. Then I try to find a humor on the topic. Afterwards I sketch it in my mind. This helps me find the best composition of my cartoon. Sometimes I cannot find an appropriate idea, but I still pick up my pencil and paper and start drawing without having a specific target.
Another method that helps me come up with ideas for cartoons is that I think of the words related to the subject about which I am going to draw. For example, when I think of the word newspaper, I can review things related to it in my mind, such as freedom of speech, censorship, and other things.
Experience has shown me that the first idea is not necessarily the best idea. I can decide what I want after drawing several different sketches, and then I draw the final sketch. The process of converting the idea into cartoons starts by sketching on paper by pencil, after that I use pen for highlighting lines. Sometimes I use highlighters or brushes and ink for this purpose. The last step is to paint the cartoon using Adobe Photoshop.
Are there many cartoonists in Iran?
Yes. Iran is one of the countries which has so many cartoonists. I think the main reason for this is that Iranians like humor and cartoons are very demanding. They love to humorize serious things. Even if people don’t have the time to read a newspaper or magazine, they still have the time to see their cartoons. This high demand, I guess, arouses interest among artists to take up a cartoonist career.
Is it difficult to be a cartoonist in Iran? What are the red lines (subjects you cannot draw about)?
I think the main problem for Iranian cartoonists is that the pay rate is very low compared to universal standards. Cartoonists are not usually financially supported by an organization and they have to work independently.
Iranians are very traditional and religious so I, as a cartoonist, have learned not to draw cartoons with these subjects.
Do political cartoons play an important role in Iranian society?
Yes, indeed. I think cartoonists can picture things that cannot be expressed verbally. Political cartoons can play an important role in criticizing. Cartoonists can influence people with the humor in their work and highlight hidden things. I think that visual media, in general, is very much appreciated among Iranians. With all these problems, Iranian cartoonists try to speak out, criticize, and picture good and bad in their cartoons.
Interview with Mohammad Saba'aneh about his experiences in prison
Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Saba'aneh was released from prison on July 1st. He was arrested in February, and sentenced to five months in prison for 'contact with a hostile organization'. We asked him a few questions about his experiences over the past few months.
How were you treated while in prison?
'It was a very harsh situation, they treated me as other Palestinian prisoners. A delegate from the Red Cross has visited me, and he would like me to talk to the people about the suffering of the prisoners inside isolation, because they never get to visit these prisoners to see the conditions of their imprisonment.'
Do you think you were arrested and charged because you are a critical cartoonist?
'Allegations were raised against me by the Israeli court. They didn’t detain me for being a cartoonist but they did question me about a number of my works that were unacceptable to them. These works were related to the prisoners and settlements and other Palestinian issues.'
Were you aware of all the international protest against your arrest? How do you feel about it?
'I didn’t receive anything inside the prison, because there was no communication to the outside, but after being released I saw all the works that supported me. I am very proud of that and of the support campaign. This makes me sure that my message as a cartoonist is important, and with all this support I can succeed in raising my voice.'
You were able to send some cartoons from prison. How did you do this?
'Sending cartons from the prison wasn’t that easy, and some of the cartoons my lawyer advised me not to publish.I used to send the cartoons with the released prisoners without text. There wasn’t any drawing material inside the prison so I had to use primitive tools. I am preparing a cartoon exhibition on the subject of Palestinian prisoners that will feature some of the cartoons I made while in prison.'