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The Impact of Laughter

Interview with Robert Russell, director of Cartoonists Rights Network International
By Tjeerd Royaards

Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) fights to protect the human rights and the personal and creative freedom of editorial cartoonists around the world under threat, arrest, or intimidation because of the power and influence of their professional work. They are the only organization in the world that is dedicated to helping cartoonists in danger because of their work. We talk the director of CRNI, Robert Russell, about the impact of laughter, the value of helping cartoonists and the DIY-cartoons.

Why are editorial cartoons considered so dangerous by some regimes that they have to censor the work or jail the cartoonist (or even execute them)?

The most obvious reason is that the despots hate to be laughed at.  Laughter of course is an integral part of what it is to be human.  But to a regime that depends on fear, intimidation, lack of information and the submission of their populations, laughter elicited by smart, well-informed cartoons, is extraordinarily alarming.  In such a regime, filled with danger, trauma and tension, laughter is a mechanism that relieves such tension as it empowers the person laughing.  If you can laugh at your problems, they suddenly seem more manageable.  For the ruthless, and let’s face it, the incompetent, who have to rely on censorship and the gun to maintain power, laughter is an especially difficult force to crush.  

Magnasciutti    I Do Not Jump - Fabio Magnasciutto

CRNI is the only organization specifically for helping cartoonist in trouble. Why are you guys the only one? 

 With my good friend the late Sri Lankan cartoonist Jiffry Yoonoos, I founded the organization exactly because there was no other organization that was exclusively dedicated to the human rights and free speech of editorial cartoonists.  Then, as now, editorial cartoonists needed someone looking out for them.  And at least back then most human rights organizations didn’t even know what box to put editorial cartoonists in.  Are they artists, or, are they journalists?  As a result, these cartoon journalists frequently slipped through the cracks, especially since many of them were working as freelancers.  Jiffry in fact was one of those victims who slipped through the cracks.  I encourage your followers to read Jiffry’s heartbreaking story on our website.

While we remain the only organization exclusively dedicated to the human rights and free speech rights of editorial cartoonists, we have seen a welcome increase in civil society organizations that have become aware of the importance of editorial cartoonists and the threats to these cartoon journalists.  Many of these organizations like Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, Freedom House, and others have even opened up editorial cartoon pages on their websites where they keep their readers aware of the censoring of editorial cartoons throughout the world.  While we can't toot our own horn too loudly over this as we can't draw direct lines between our 20 years of work, I do feel that we were the pioneers in this area.  Jiffry and I understood long ago how much impact on public opinion an editorial cartoon can have and consequently to what terrible extremes tyrants and other thugs will go to in order to silence these cartoonists.  Today I am extremely glad to see other nonprofit organizations joining us in tracking the fate of cartoonists who are making political statements about their societies and cultures.  I am also very pleased to work closely with some of these same organizations to help endangered cartoonists and their families.  Given the exponential increase in attacks to editorial cartoonists since the Danish Cartoon Controversy and the advent of the Internet, and, given the unique challenges to protecting these very high profile opinion makers; there is plenty of important work to do. 

CRNI has been actively trying to help cartoonists in trouble for a long time. What have been the developments during that time? Do you feel the profession of cartoonist is getting safer, or have there been a growing number of cartoonists that are in danger because of their work? 

There have been a myriad of developments.  Each country, and in many cases each province or principality, has its own human rights story.  In some countries encouraging strides are being made while in other countries dangerous reversals are being implemented.  But in general I would say the profession is getting more dangerous because of the rise of religious extremism and because of the rise of digital technology which facilitates both the spread of free speech and the tools of repression.  The impact of the Internet and the other related technological advances is having an impact parallel to the impact of the Gutenberg movable-type.  For instance, governments, fundamentalists and terrorists are now mining our personal Facebook pages, websites and blogs to find any evidence whatsoever of what they, in their infinite wisdom, consider disrespectful.  In short, we live in an interesting time with lots of change and danger.

Gouders    A Dictator's Nightmare - Jean Gouders

What has the impact of CRNI been? What are some of the most memorable moments in the history of CRNI?

We are exceptionally proud of the fact that there is a group of cartoonists in the world who have been deeply empowered and in a few cases whose lives have been saved because of our intervention. Our interventions range from writing letters of protest and giving personal advice, to helping endangered cartoonists find safe haven countries in order for them to avoid jail, beatings or worse.

Very often when journalists escape a deadly future in their own country, they find themselves as refugees in a strange land.  The trauma of this experience can easily become too much for them. The common image is that of the journalist who finds himself in a new country suddenly having to drive a taxi to put bread on the table.  We are proud to be able to help cartoonists transition through this incredibly traumatic experience and come out the other end as productive as they were when the problems began.  Each survivor becomes an incredible asset in his or her new country.

One of our most dramatic rescues was that of Iranian cartoonist, Nik Kowsar.  He had been arrested and threatened with death for a cartoon that he drew of a powerful and important mullah.  Nik was facing a long jail sentence for merely expressing a political opinion.  Based on our advice and leadership he left Iran for safe haven in Canada.  The process took five years but eventually Nik was reunited with his wife and daughter and the family is now developing new lives in relative safety.  He reestablished himself as a blogger and cartoonist in Canada and is now considered one of the most important sources of information on the Iranian Diaspora.  He is also one of our Board Directors. 

Each year we also give one cartoonist, or as is the situation this year, two cartoonists our annual Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award.  The Courage Award provides a protective spotlight to a cartoonist who has stood up to censorship and repression.  It signals to the cartoonist’s repressors that the world is watching.     

But what we are most proud of is the impact our work has had on the communities in which our clients struggle for the right to freely express their political views.  As deserving of protection as these brave cartoonist are, ultimately our work is not about the free speech rights of cartoonists.  Ultimately our work is about the free speech rights of every individual.  We chose to focus our efforts on protecting editorial cartoonists because they are always one of the first individuals to be targeted when a society takes a turn towards intolerance.  They are without exception the first or second, but never the last to be silenced.  Coming to their defense is our way of exposing and hopefully preventing emerging threats to free speech.  Let me give just one example.  This year one of our Courage Award recipients is Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi.  He is being targeted for daring to criticize the prevalence of corruption and government-enforced intolerance.  We are extremely proud that the attention we have given Aseem has inspired his fellow countrymen to fight back against India’s rising tide of censorship.       

How do you see the future of political cartooning in general?

Tjeerd, that question is perhaps best answered by some young, bright and wired person like yourself.  But it seems to me that political cartooning is becoming more and more the arena of the citizen journalist.  While anyone can write a blog, it is not yet anyone who can draw complex ideas into simple one-panel humorous, satirical and powerful images.  But even this is changing. There are many websites now that enable any citizen journalist with a sense of humor to produce an animated or a still cartoon using stock images taken from an inventory already established on the website – do-it-yourself cartoons, if you will.  While this is still in its early stages on the web, web developers and programmers are making cartooning easily available to the general public.  Professional, paid cartoonists are still a critical political and economic part of daily and weekly print newspapers and magazines (and probably will be for the foreseeable future).  But citizen cartoonists may soon emerge to reveal a new generation of powerful thinkers and humorists.

Sabaaneh   Freedom of Expression - Mohammad Saba'aneh

How has the Internet affected political cartooning, especially for cartoonists in dangerous places?

The anonymity of social media, like Facebook, twitter and all the other social media programs available to the global population is both a blessing and a curse.  Like any tool, it depends on the user.  It is disturbingly common now for political hacks and enforcers to exploit the online statements by bloggers and Facebook users, conversations we all expect are private messages between friends.  More and more we see examples of Facebook users being arrested for things that they are saying to their friends online.  While we should all be aware that what we say on Facebook is public, it's not the same as publishing in a newspaper.  Now regimes and fundamentalists alike are mining Facebook pages looking for people who are saying anything less than flattering about them.

There's another thing about social media we must keep in mind now.  Will Facebook be forced to monetize the information from its Facebook clients in order to generate income for its stockholders?  Remember, it's not just the biographical information that we put down on our profiles on Facebook that can be marketed.  Rogue regimes might offer Facebook money for them to mine the statements left by others on an individual's Facebook page.  People are already in jail because of statements taken from Facebook and blogs.  If the information is valuable enough to put someone in jail, it's probably valuable enough to be paid for.  Will social network corporations with their vast reserves of raw data be able to resist this temptation? 

On the other hand, the Internet is an amazing tool for cartoonists to reach a broader audience and, when in trouble, to get help and rally support.  Your platform for cartoonists around the world and your support of our mission is the perfect case in point. 

You recently received a grant from the DOEN Foundation. What are you planning to do with this money in 2012?

Yes, we've recently received a grant from the DOEN Foundation in Amsterdam.  We are really excited to be working with them. Their grant to us involves two elements.  The first is to strengthen our relationships and our services to cartoonists in the Middle East, North Africa region.  Coming as this grant did on the cusp of the Arab Spring movement, this grant has become all the more important to us.  Political cartoonists and graffiti artists, who we are also seeing as our clients, played a very big role in the communications networks that supported the Arab Spring movement.  The second element of our project with the Foundation is the creation of a safety manual for cartoonists.  Many free speech and human rights organizations produce safety manuals for human rights workers and journalists in trouble.  However, both of these populations don't have exactly the same kind of problems that a local political cartoonist has when under attack.  We felt it was necessary to develop the safety manual specifically for the local in-country political cartoonists.  We plan this manual to be an important resource for any cartoonist who feels that his or her work in any way might trigger some kind of legal or extralegal attack.   

What are the plans of CRNI for beyond 2012?

Cartoonists Rights Network International for most of its 20-year history has been a very small organization.  When we started the organization most of our cases involved failing regimes attacking cartoonists through very broadly worded libel laws.  Now cartoonists are being attacked from many more quarters.  Because of many of the things mentioned in this interview, it is necessary that our organization grows and becomes more established.   The threats to free speech are growing.  We hope to meet these challenges.

Army Of God, Part 6

Today we publish the latest installment of Army Of God, David Axe and Tim Hamilton's book-length comic journalism on the Congo. (Read previous chapters here.)

This chapter tells the story of Patricia and her harrowing abduction by, and rescue from, the Lord's Resistance Army. When her father was shot on the spot, Patricia and her brother were taken to a camp where children are forced to kill and girls become "wives" of soldiers. It's a powerful chapter where we see the true depravity of Kony's army through the eyes of a child who survived it.


News Roundup

Dan Carino at Comic-Con 2012

CM contributor Dan Carino will be present at Comic-Con 2012 in San Diego. He is a panel member in a session titled Serious Pictures: Comics and Journalism in a New Era, held on Sunday July 15, 3.00-4.00 pm.

Eisner Awards

Also at Comic-Con, the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards will be presented on Friday July 13. Josh Neufeld's Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand is nominated in the category Best Digital Comic.

Joel Pett on Cartooning in China

PRI's the World has interviewed US cartoonist Joel Pett, who recently traveled to China to meet cartoonists there. According to Pett, there are two types of cartoonists in China: 'older men employed by established state-run media outlets who adhere to the party line and younger Web-savvy cartoonists whose work appears in the commercial media and on blogs, Facebook and Twitter.' Listen to the interview here.

We've Got Your Summer Reading

Monday's comic by Luke Radl was only the opening salvo in a month of material we've got lined up for July. So if you are looking for good reads this Summer, we've got you on the comics journalism front.

First up is the next installment of Army Of God by David Axe and Tim Hamilton, running on Monday the 9th. This chapter tells the story of Patricia and her harrowing abduction by, and rescue from, the LRA. When her father was shot on the spot, Patricia and her brother were taken to a camp where children are forced to kill and girls become "wives" of soldiers. It's a powerful chapter where we see the true depravity of Kony's army through the eyes of a child who survived it.



On July 18th we're running a collaborative project between Cartoon Movement and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Coming off the heels of Obama's announcement on immigration policy, reporter Ryan Schill and artist Greg Scott tell the story of Jessica Colotl, an undocumented immigrant and college student who was arrested for driving without a license and faces deportation.

Picture 6

Two Cartoon Movement reporters will also be returning this month with new stories. On July 30th, Susie Cagle will examine the federal vs. states rights battle around medical marijuana taking place in America, centered on Oakland, where Feds have recently raided a dispensary and the nation's first pot trade school.

The Olympics begin in London at the end of this month and as we've seen in previous host cities, there are many winners and losers when it comes to a production this size. Just before the Olympics start, on July 25th, Tom Humberstone takes a look at the increased commercialization, police actions, and surveillance as London "cleans up" for the games.


Republication Without Compensation

Daily newspaper Al Nas (Iraq) publishes a daily cartoon from our website, without telling us.

Cartoon Movement has a simple objective: to promote professional editorial cartooning and comics journalism by publishing high quality cartoons and comics for a global audience. What sets our platform apart is that we pay cartoonists for the work they publish with us. When we started Cartoon Movement one-and-a-half years ago, we anticipated that reselling cartoons to other media would be one of our main sources of revenue. We have built what we feel is an impressive client list including the Guardian, the New Internationalist and Amnesty International (Denmark).

We also anticipated that we would have to be vigilant with regard to our content being used elsewhere on the Web without us knowing about it. From the outset we decided we did not mind people sharing our cartoons on their blogs or on Facebook (what we define as personal, non-commercial use in our FAQ), but that we wouldn't allow companies or organizations to use our content for free.

In most instances when our content is reposted without our permission by another commercial organization, no credit or link to our site is provided, making it difficult to find. Our network of cartoonists has proved invaluable in tracking where our content is used, keeping  an eye out in their respective countries. But as our site grows, so does the unauthorized use of our content, and the tools available to fight it are meagre.

This weekend, Iraqi cartoonist Saad Murthada informed me he had seen one of my cartoons in Al Nas, a daily newspaper in Baghdad. After some investigation, it turned out that Al Nas has been publishing a daily cartoon from Cartoon Movement for at least the last two months. We publish cartoons at 800 X 560 pixels, which is not sufficient for print, but is apparently good enough for this publication.

In a case like this, our options are limited. Realistically, the only option we have is to write a polite letter asking them to stop (which we have done), and offering them a subscription so that they can use our content for a certain monthly fee. If they decide to ignore us, there is not much else we can do. As a small organization, we lack the time and resources to pursue any form of legal action.

Our experiences  with online and offline media using our content without our permission are reasonable good for the most part; often they will apologize and pay our invoice without protest. Some have even made this (dubious) process into official policy: L'Espresso in Italy often posts cartoon slideshows taken from various websites, only paying a republication fee when the website(s) in question find out about the use of their content.

In some cases the organizations in question will just ignore our pleas, and continue to publish our content without any reference to us. The most blatant example of this is ToonsOnline, a website that steals cartoons from artists around the world. They have even put '© All Rights Reserved' on the bottom of their website. I'm not sure about their business model, but I do know they’ve managed to build quite a fan base over the backs of hard-working artists. Another example is, a site that publishes a cartoon daily. They make money with advertising, and have published our cartoons without our permission on more than one occasion. I sent them several messages, but have yet to hear back.

I have no doubt Cartoon Movement will survive, and I have no doubt this practice will continue, but it is sometimes frustrating not to be able to take decisive action against it.

Tjeerd Royaards

Chicago Is My Kind Of Town by Luke Radl

Today Cartoon Movement publishes "Chicago Is My Kind Of Town" by Luke Radl, a multimedia report on the protests against May's NATO Summit in Chicago. Radl takes us into the days of street protests from inside the crowds, as veterans discard their medals and police beat back protesters, embedding audio interviews, video, and photos into the pages to make it one of the first comics of its kind.

"Rendering all my text with html makes this (I think) the first comic report to be really search engine friendly," Luke says. "You can also explore each panel revealing asides, photos, audio, etc in a way that makes it more participatory. I wanted to put people in the shoes of someone who was there, and the multimedia aspects are kind of a way of saying "walk around."

Picture 6

"Being there was mostly running around with my camera trying to take as many pictures, audio, and notes as I could without getting arrested," Luke says about his reporting process.  "I wasn't sure what would be relevant when all was said and done so I wanted to have a robust timeline to work from."

"The best I can hope is that it gives people a unique perspective on the NATO summit protests in a way that's coherent and engaging," Luke says. "Events like this can sometimes end up reduced to a lot of statistics in our minds, and hopefully I'm able to humanize it a little without losing sense of the scale."