Humor and conflict in the digital age
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The Steve Bell case - Political cartoons versus censorship and propaganda: a lost battle?

By Thierry Vissol, Director of the Librexpression centre, Foundation Giuseppe Di Vagno. This article was originally in Italian on Pagina 21.



On October 9, 2023, Steve Bell, famous editorial cartoonist of the British newspaper The Guardian for 42 years, was not only refused a cartoon considered anti-Semitic, but was notified that none of his cartoons would be published until his contract expires in May 2024. A contract which, of course, will not be renewed.

The reason? A satire of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the one that appears at the top of this article. The latter is a caricature in Bell's usual style, if the reader remembers the way he has portrayed the current king of England or British and international politicians and other characters in the Guardian for decades: big ears, big nose. This is demonstrated by reading his latest book The Windsor Tapestry, which I wrote about with admiration in my article on Pagina 21 of 30 September, after meeting Steve Bell in Saint-Just-Le Martel. This drawing has nothing to compare with the satirical drawings of Jews produced by Nazi propaganda. On the contrary, it would rather look like a quite realistic portrait for a caricature, considering the codes of exaggeration and techniques used in this type of drawing. In his right hand Netanyahu holds a scalpel with which he seems ready to cut a dotted line representing the map of the Gaza Strip on his stomach. However, his hands are wearing boxing gloves, which will obviously make the operation difficult. His determined expression shows that he is ready for anything. The drawing is accompanied by the text 'residents of Gaza Get out now!', echoing Netanyahu's order to half the population of the Gaza Strip, which is under total siege.

Anyone reading this cartoon cannot but understand it as a criticism of the hard-line policy of the Israeli government led for years by Netanyahu and his extremist allies, and of the retaliatory measures chosen after the appalling massacres perpetrated by the armed wing of Hamas. Retaliations that endanger the lives of the entire population of Gaza due to the lack of water, food, medicine, health facilities, and incessant bombardments. A policy that has been criticized for years by the Israeli opposition and numerous NGOs. You may remember the film and comic book Waltz with Bashir (2008) by Israeli director and veteran Ari Folman about the massacre in Shaba and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982, during the Operation Peace in Galilee. Or you may have consulted the website of Israeli veterans about crimes committed at the behest of the Israeli army. Similarly, the first measures taken by Israel provoked a wave of both Israeli and international criticism. B'tselem, an Israeli information centre for human rights in the occupied territories, accused Israel of pursuing a 'criminal policy of revenge', claiming that the scale of the air strikes and the blockade constitute 'war crimes openly ordered by top Israeli officials'. Médecins sans Frontières accused Israel of carrying out ‘unlawful collective punishment' against Gaza. In a joint Carte Blanche, first published in the Irish Times and picked up by the Belgian newspaper Le Soir on 19 October, Daniel Levy - former Israeli adviser - and Zaha Hassan - former Palestinian adviser - call on the EU to end Israel's unjustified destruction of Gaza, writing: 'The priority today must be to end the slaughter and destruction of Gaza. Further shelling and a ground invasion will only exacerbate the crisis and increase the risk of the war spreading to the West Bank (where killings of Palestinians by the Israeli army and settlers are increasing), Israel's northern border and beyond'.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, addressing representatives of some 130 countries at the New Silk Roads forum organized by China, called for ;an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to [...] alleviate the terrible human suffering we are witnessing'. He also stated that Hamas' attack on Israel cannot 'justify the collective punishment of Palestinians' in Gaza. Like many other observers, Archbishop Jean-Paul Vesco of Algiers, writing in the French Catholic daily La Croix, expressed what cannot be denied in the light of recent history (including the bombing of Jenin on 3 July, which left 12 dead, 143 wounded and 3,500 displaced because their homes were destroyed or damaged): 'Hamas's barbaric violence is without excuse, but it is not without reason’. Condemning the Hamas crimes cannot be tantamount to supporting Israel's strategy of retaliation. No historical context can justify the slaughter of hundreds of civilians perpetrated by Hamas, and even less the scenes of jubilation in front of them. However, we cannot but agree with Monsignor Vesco that 'In the Muslim world, indignation to the point of unspeakable, sometimes to the point of excess, has been focused for decades on the fate of the Palestinians. It is visceral'. The rift with the Western world on this issue, as on others, is disconcerting and continues to grow. Those in the Western media, who censor any criticism of the Israeli government's policies, should realize that disregarding and not defending the Palestinians' right to a dignified life, to a territory, and sovereign autonomy only serves to further reduce - if there was any need - the credibility of Western democracies and of their rhetoric on humanistic values and human dignity. It leaves the way clear for the multiple dictators demagoguery who criticize democracy and its values, leveraging on this visceral rejection of the West in much of the world to better dominate it.

How come Steve Bell's criticism of this Netanyahu government policy could be considered anti-Semitic by the Guardian? It interpreted the cartoon as a reference to the 'pound of flesh' demanded by the vengeful moneymaker Shylock, the Jewish father, in Shakespeare's play « The Merchant of Venice ». The editor-in-chief sent Steve Bell, to justify the censorship of his cartoon and of the author himself, the simple and sibylline message: 'Jewish bloke; pound of flesh; anti-Semitic trope'.

Now, Bell's reference was not to Shakespeare nor to Shylock's 'pound of flesh', but to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Vietnam. Bell's cartoon reads 'After David Levine', a clear reference to the famous New York Review of Books cartoonist. In 1966, Johnson posed for the cameras, revealing a foot-long scar from a gall bladder operation. David Levine satirized it, depicting the scar in the shape of Vietnam. It was one of his most famous cartoons (see the cartoon below). And, in fact, it is a pertinent analogy: Netanyahu will be defined by what happens in Gaza just as the American president was by Vietnam. A somewhat complex and over-educated reference? Perhaps. But many Guardian readers, certainly those of the print edition, would have understood it. But undoubtedly not the uneducated fanatical users of social networks, feared like the plague by the media to the point of being their succubi and becoming their puppets.

The Guardian in its editorial from 8 January 2015, the day after the deadly terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo wrote: 'We continue to inform, to inquire, to interview, to comment, to publish - and to draw – about every subject that appears to us legitimate, in a spirit of openness, intellectual enrichment & democratic debate. We owe it to our readers. We owe it to the memory of our assassinated colleagues. We owe it to Europe. We owe it to democracy'. An increasingly forgotten profession of faith since the Guardian changed its direction in 2015, causing some of its best editors such as Suzanne Moore or Hadley Freeman, who no longer shared its editorial line, to quit.

439574The controversial cartoon by Antunes that caused the NY Times to stop with political cartoons altogether.

All this is reminiscent of the case of the Portuguese cartoonist Antonio Antunes. The international edition of the New York Times published on 25 April 2019, one of his satirical cartoons of Trump and Netanyahu, after the American President's visit to Jerusalem. It depicted a blind Trump wearing a Kippah, black glasses and holding in one hand the white stick of the blinds and in the other the leash of a dachshund with Netanyahu's head and at the colo a Star of David - that of the Israel flag. This cartoon critical of Trump's policy and of the hazards he was ampifying in the region had been published in the Portuguese newspaper Expresso a week earlier (on 19 April) without causing any problem. After its publication in the American newspaper and the negative reactions on social networks, the NYT decided to qualify this cartoon as anti-Semitic. It apologised to readers and at the same time fired the editor who had decided to publish it, the two cartoonists paid by the paper (Patrick Chappatte who had worked there for years and Heng Kim Song) and promised never to publish satirical cartoons again. L'Expresso instead took up the defence of both Antunes and the satirical cartoons, stating that : 'We have always defended freedom of expression and opinion, principles we will never renounce'. He rejected claims that the cartoon was anti-Semitic and called Antunes 'an internationally awarded cartoonist'.

According to Daryl Cagle, editorial cartoonist and director of Cagle Cartoons, the leading syndication service for newspaper editorial page editors, which distributes cartoons and political columns to more than 800 subscribing newspapers: 'Forty years ago, in the United States, there were about 1,800 newspapers and 150 salaried cartoonists; today (2019), there are 1,400 newspapers and 24 cartoonists employed by a newspaper'.
The contribution of editorial cartoons is as important, respectable and indispensable for freedom of expression and media credibility as that of columnists, whom no newspaper worth its salt - but one may ask if they still exist - would decide to eliminate from its columns. Jason Chatfield, cartoonist and president of the National Cartoonists Society, wrote to the management of the New York Times, after its decision to remove the satirical cartoons: 'We are at a critical moment in history, when political lucidity is needed more than ever. If we stifle the voices of our most respected cartoonists, our most respected artists, we lose more than our ability to debate: we lose our ability to grow as a society'.

An enlightened thought on which all the Western media, those at least who still consider themselves champions of democracy and of its freedom of expression values, should meditate before propaganda and demagoguery definitively replace democratic and therefore by definition contradictory information.

If you want to read more about Steve Bell, check out last week's editorial by Emanuele Del Rosso. You can read our thoughts (from 2019) about the NY times' decision to stop running cartoons here.


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Dave Cherry

Bell was scapegoated for telling the truth. Shame on the Guardian!!!

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