MANILA – A drawing can cost you your job, or worse, your life.
For cartoonists in the Philippines, defying censorship by publishers means getting kicked out of work, while for those in Europe, being “censored” by outraged readers could mean a deadly attack such as the massacre in the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris early this year.
At the “Cartooning for peace” forum held in the University of the Philippines, Diliman on May 8, local and foreign cartoonists discussed how they all put themselves at varying degrees of risk because they use art to express an opinion.
“Violence is no means of censorship,” said Bob Katzenelson, a freelancer and vice president of the Danish Cartoonists, as he decried the attacks against cartoonists. “At the end of the day, each cartoonist has his own limit. You ask yourself, are you willing to stick your head and have it chopped off?”
The Cartooning for peace project, held May 6 to 8, brought together five cartoonists from Europe, and six of their Filipino counterparts, for interaction with local newspapers and journalists. The 11 cartoonists also held workshops with Fine Arts students at the University of Sto. Tomas, De La Salle University and UP.
The project was sponsored by the European Union National Institutes for Culture (Eunic Philippines), in coordination with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
While the European cartoonists are still reeling from the Charlie Hebdo attack and similar threats, their Philippine counterparts talk about a less violent, but just as threatening censorship.
“You can’t attack certain institutions and people because they own the website or the newspaper, said Manix Abrera, famous for the popular Kikomachine strips. “Editors will tell you, ‘You can’t do that,’” he said.
Philippine Star’s Rene Aranda recalled an editor telling him: “Do you want to lose your job?”
“You can’t hit sponsors, we can’t do anything because they are our lifeblood, you have to tow the line,” Aranda said.
Manila Times’ Steven Pabalinas said a cartoon he drew of the First Gentleman Mike Arroyo was pulled out in the newspaper that he used to work for, because the editors were afraid that it might anger Arroyo. He said the editors were okay with attacking then President Gloria Arroyo, but taking potshots at her husband was a different matter.
“They’re afraid of libel suits even if it (the cartoon) is not libelous,” Pabalinas said, adding that it’s still a form of harassment.
Roni Santiago, 70, Manila Bulletin’s head of the cartoon section who was known for the Martial law-era comic strip Baltic & Co., recalled an incident in the 70s when he was reprimanded by his editors for drawing a cartoon of the First Lady, Imelda Marcos with a double chin. They did not pull out the cartoon, but the editors were so afraid that the First Lady might complain. Thankfully, she didn’t, he said.
“If you are going to be a political cartoonist, there are repercussions,” said College of Arts and Letters Dean Elena Mirano. “Art as political commentary is considered dangerous by the state,” she said.
She said that, historically, the artist’s work has a “dangerous nature, and is “subversive.” She said many Filipino artists in history were part of movements against the state, “who use irony, attack the state through writing, poetry, propaganda and visual art.”
German cartoonist Thomas Plassmann, stressed how the task of editorial cartoonists should not be hindered by anything. “Satire is set out to do everything,” he said.
Aranda observed that the free-lance European cartoonists have more freedom in the kind of cartoons they make, while it’s different for Filipinos, who are employed. “We are held hostage by our employment, so you censor yourself,” he said.
The cartoonists, however, all agreed that “self-censorship” is applied with respect for human dignity.
“I censor myself at some point because I don’t want to insult anybody, I don’t want to take the dignity of anybody,” Plassmann said.
Miriam Wurster, a German and the only female cartoonist in the group, said it’s harder for free-lancers, because publishers can refuse to accept your work, if you are critical for something they stand for. She said cartoonists can still post their rejected works in the social media, but then “nobody pays you.”
Plantu, founder of the Cartooning for Peace and cartoonist of Le Monde since the 70s, said editorial cartoons that criticize human rights violations by Muslim fundamentalists are not meant to attack the religion, but those who misrepresent it.
“Our job is to make cartoons not of religion, but of human rights,” said Plantu.
“The news is mostly pessimistic,” said Philippe Baumann, of the Swiss satirical newspaper Vigousse. He said cartoonists, however, can draw the news “in an optimistic way” – through humour.
“Humour is a way of communicating thoughts to open people’s minds,” said Katzenelson. “The smile is the shortest distance between two strangers.”
Abrera proved this as the audience sniggered as soon as he started flashing some of his works on the LED projector.
Plassman said that although humour is important, not all issues may have a funny angle. “Some cartoons may not have humour but are still good,” he said.
“To make people laugh is a good way to get the message across, but it’s not the first point when I draw. I have to find a way to get the topic across,” said Plassman. (bulatlat.com)