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Spokes in the pencils. Protecting the hand behind the drawing


By Emanuele Del Rosso

It is a Sunday in January. My wife and I have just returned home to Amsterdam from our usual end-of-the-year trip to Italy. It is evening, almost ten o'clock. The doorbell rings. I answer the intercom.

It's the police. "It's the police," I tell her. She looks at me worried.

I open, and a middle-aged officer comes up, introduces himself, apologizes for the late hour, and then tells me that he was told I published a drawing in a French magazine, the week before.

I nod, "Charlie Hebdo." The name doesn't seem to tell him much. He scribbles some notes, snaps a picture of the magazine, which I produced for him – I had gotten it through friends –  and hands me a business card of the Dutch police.

"The Iranian government has very long arms," he tells me, with a serious expression. He expects me to contact them at that direct number, written on the business card, if I notice anything strange. He hopes, for himself and me, that there will be no need for that. And he leaves.

My cartoon had been published on that January 7th in Charlie Hebdo, in a special issue, dedicated to Iranian mullahs, after the death of Mahsa Amini and the protests that followed it. Forty works from cartoonists around the world, as well as from the staff of the French satirical magazine.

After publication, Iranian religious and government authorities threatened the magazine and, by extension, all published cartoonists.

Without protections

This was just a short, unimportant story. A small scare and nothing more. Fourteen months after that Sunday visit, nothing has happened to me yet.

But the cartoonists who encounter a different, far worse, fate are dozens. And you have to count them one by one, case by case, because there are no reports that give precise numbers.

The organizations Cartooning for Peace, Cartoon Movement, and Cartoonists Rights stated, "2020 could see the global community of cartoonists irrevocably damaged. In part the circumstances are unavoidable; the economic depression will lead to the loss of many, and we have seen that attrition is already underway. But far worse, deliberate repressive action will silence yet more." This was 2020. Things have certainly not improved in the past four years.

If we want to give a few examples, take Gábor Pápai in Hungary. In May 2020, after a cartoon pointed out as blasphemous, Gábor and the newspaper he works for, Népszava, were fined, with the obligation to publish an apology, signed by Gábor, in the same box where the cartoonist publishes his work.

Or, outside the EU, in Jordan, Emad Hajjaj, who again in 2020 was arrested without even knowing why, and then found out that the reason was a simple tweet with one of his cartoons, which apparently could damage Jordan's diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates.

Or in Turkey, Zehra Ömeroğlu, accused of obscenity for one of her drawings, who faces more than six years in jail if found guilty.

And these are just the lawsuits, filed against cartoonists to get them to stop drawing, or against the newspapers that publish them. To push them to fire the cartoonists. To make political satire become a liability.

Then there is the violence. The online trolling, the death threats, the illegal arrests, the disappearances, the kidnappings, the beatings, the torture. The murders.

Such is the case of Pedro Molina, who in 2018 found a stranger trying to write "plomo" on his front door. Plomo means "lead" in Spanish, and it means "death" in Nicaragua, because you angered someone powerful and criminal. Pedro fled to the U.S., on Christmas Day, because there are fewer controls at the airport on December 25.

Worse still was Ali Farzat’s fate. Ali, Syrian, had his hands broken by President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 so that he would stop drawing his subversive satire.

His colleague and countryman Akram Raslan, instead, did not survive torture. He died in prison in the spring of 2013.

These are just some of the many stories of cartoonists unprotected, neither by the newspapers they work for, nor by the authorities, nor by public opinion.

So much success, so much precarity

But why don’t we care about cartoonists? We need to take a few steps back and look at the bigger picture. The fact is that political satire is like a dying person who has never been better. A real oxymoron.

On the one hand, the number of cartoonists employed by news outlets continues to decline. In the U.S. alone, one of the places where "newspaper" political satire was born, it has dropped from about 150 cartoonists in 1997 to about 20 in 2023.

But at the same time, social media gives a lot of visibility to cartoons, which go viral, passing from eye to eye, from click to click, and going around the world. It happens because satirical cartoons are such a powerful medium. They make us smile, laugh, get angry, and most importantly, they make us think.

The problem is that, if all it takes to attract the anger of the satirized is to be talented and to go strong on social media, deciding who is a cartoonist and who is not becomes problematic – although to me, "cartoonist is, who cartoonist does."

And so it also becomes complicated to define cartoonists as journalists.

What is certain, however, is that cartoonists encounter the same risks as journalists. And journalists have it pretty rough.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 78 were killed in 2023, and nearly 800 were detained, according to Reporters Without Borders. This year instead, in Gaza alone, 95 journalists have already lost their lives, again according to CPJ numbers.

As we said, there is no exact data on cartoonists, but one only has to look at all the cases that Cartooning for Peace or Cartoonist Right cover to see that there are so very many emergencies.

When I attend some event related to the world of journalism – and I often do, since I work for the European Press Prize – I'm always there in the third or fourth row raising my hand to ask the same question to the speakers: "You've talked about the safety of journalists. But what about cartoonists?" And when I then talk to the speakers privately, I realize that the cartoonist category is losing pieces: you see cartoons galore online, but cartoonists are always talked about very little, and those of them who work in the newsroom, on a regular contract, are replaced by freelancers when they retire. Freelancers are easier to dump, in case some drawing sparks controversy-which it certainly can.

This weakens the profession. And if it then happens that someone tries to write “plomo” on the doorstep of the house of a cartoonist, or they arrest another without explanation, or they break his or her hands: who will defend them, if they don't have a newspaper behind their backs, and if they don't have official data to illustrate the dangers they face?

The next time we see a cartoon

I am under no illusion that an editorial is enough to convince us, but if I had to decide where to start I would say: the next time we see a cartoon on social media, or read about some satirical cartoon that has angered someone powerful, let's think about who drew it.

Behind a cartoon is always some cartoonist, sitting in his or her little room, paid perhaps, certainly often alone, even more often precarious. Whether they are journalists or not, cartoonists deserve to be protected when they are doing their job and someone is trying to put spokes in their pencils.

I, meanwhile, continue to raise my hand at events about journalism.


This editorial originally appeared on March 21, 2024, in the Italian newspaper Domani.

Partnership with Khartoon Magazine

Cartoon Movement  and Khartoon Magazine are joining forces to spotlight Sudanese cartoonists and shed light on the forgotten war in Sudan through the power of visual storytelling. provides a platform to showcase the unique perspectives of Sudanese artists and their poignant commentary on the ongoing conflict.

We are proud to show the resilience and creativity of Sudanese cartoonists, who continue to use their art as a form of resistance and social commentary amidst being displaced across the lands.

Together, we can amplify marginalized voices, raise awareness of forgotten conflicts, and work towards a more just and equitable world.

This week, we'll showcase some of the powerful cartoons published by Khartoon Magazine.

Workshop/The Cartoonists Table at IJF 2024

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Next month we'll be at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia! Whether you are there or not, you can join our workshop The power of editorial cartoons (in person or via live-stream) on Thursday April 18 at 11am CET.

We are also hosting a side event we have named The Cartoonists Table. If you are in Perugia, come hang out with Tjeerd Royaards and Emanuele Del Rosso as they raw live every day between 4 and 6pm at the bar of Hotel Brufani.