- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

At first glance, the image looks like any other political cartoon. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is shown flying through the air like a large bird. Atop him, clearly enjoying the ride, is a man carrying the Hindu symbols of a bow and a trident. The latter is a Cabinet minister, Lal Krishna Advani, who is the leader of a Hindu revivalist organization.
The cartoon is a takeoff on the rapid movement of India's once-secular government toward Hindu nationalism. But the outcome was anything but comical. In March 1999, cartoonist Ifran Hussain was carjacked, tortured, then slain in New Delhi.
A copy of his famous cartoon sits in the Burke home of Robert Russell, 59, founder of Cartoonists Rights Network International, which agitates for creative freedom for the world's political cartoonists. He calls creativity like Mr. Hussain's "art to die for."
In 1999, Muniru Turay, a cartoonist in Sierre Leone, was killed for his cartoons satirizing the Revolutionary United Front, the rebel militia that has overrun the country. His life's work was destroyed along with him. Friends managed to reconstruct one of his cartoons as a memorial.
A decade ago, an Algerian cartoonist who drew anti-government cartoons died under mysterious circumstances in Paris.
Turkish cartoonist Seyit Saatci was arrested for portraying the dilemma of the country's persecuted Kurdish minority by drawing a grieving mother. Where her heart should be is a hole with a blood-covered billy club pushed through. The ring on the hand holding the club carries a Nazi swastika.
Such situations are incomprehensible for cartoonists in the West, where press freedom is a given and heads of state are routinely caricatured. For example, the late Pat Oliphant showed President George Bush carrying a purse, and this newspaper's Bill Garner portrayed President Clinton with lingerie hanging out of a trouser pocket.
Mr. Russell has 50 cartoonists in his files who have experienced the gamut: threatening phone calls, jail time and death.
Exile is another possibility. Sara Seneviratne, a Sri Lankan cartoonist who drew anti-Tamil Tiger cartoons, was forced to flee to Hong Kong. When he continued satirizing the Tigers for another newspaper, he got a new warning.
"While most editors are used to reader complaints about their reporters and cartoonists, death threats are a form of reader feedback they are not normally prepared to handle," Mr. Russell says.
"I say 'violence works.' It's a very effective social-management tool. If something happens to them, these cartoonists get so traumatized, their work is changed forever." The new Chinese government in Hong Kong has caused its formerly outspoken press to start censoring themselves, he noted. As a foreigner, Mr. Seneviratne's days are apparently numbered at his newspaper, which has been reducing his salary in an apparent attempt to get him to quit.
Cameroonian cartoonist Paul Ntoogue, who depicted the head of state's wife as a prostitute, says he got a phone call from government security informing him he was to be killed. Did he, the voice asked, have a preferred method?
"He went into hiding [in South Africa] and stopped the cartoons," Mr. Russell says. "He tried to emigrate to Canada, because he spoke French, but got no response. The Canadians have a very liberal policy toward political asylum-seekers until you plan to use it."
Unable to locate him, security forces then threatened his younger sister.
"Usually, they go to your home, and if you aren't there, they'll take another member of your family as a hostage," Mr. Russell says. "And they'll stay there until you show up."
Mr. Ntoogue has since returned to Cameroon, come what may.
"I'd rather be buried by friends than continue to live in fear among strangers," he told Mr. Russell.
Families are traumatized in other ways. When a Nigerian cartoonist learned a government goon squad had come to get him, he jumped out the bathroom window of his office and lived on the streets for a week to escape detection. His wife, who was pregnant at the time, was traumatized and had the child early.
Because political cartoonists are often free-lancers, they are not protected under newspaper contracts or given health plans and other benefits. Mr. Russell struggles to find journalism foundations interested in supporting some of these lone rangers.
"Some of these guys are lucky just to have shoes on their feet," Mr. Russell says. "When an international journalist like Daniel Pearl [of the Wall Street Journal] gets arrested, a hue and cry goes up. But when a local gets attacked, that's not judged newsworthy."
None of these men overseas, female political cartoonists are unknown other than in Hong Kong belongs to an organization such as the 300-member Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, manager Wanda Nicholson says. Even in the United States, political cartooning is a shrinking occupation, she adds, because of the huge use of syndicated cartoons and newspapers' reluctance to hire a full-time cartoonist.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which listed 37 journalists as killed last year and four so far this year, does not monitor cartoonists.
"The misconception we see is that people think journalists are killed in a cross fire during a war," spokeswoman Abi Wright says. "But most are killed at home for something they've written."
One problem, Mr. Russell says, is that many cartoonists are seen more as artists than journalists.
"They are not trained to be journalists," he says. "They take sides. In Africa or Asia, they are connected to political parties. Typically, they are irreverent, humorous, brave, artistic, childish, mischievious, intuitive, moody, tempermental, proud and jealous."
Mr. Russell, who travels the world as a private contractor doing international development projects, visits these beleagured cartoonists and organizes training workshops. If he hears of a journalist in trouble, he contacts the human rights attache at the nearest U.S. embassy. Sometimes foreign pressure works: He knows of an Egyptian cartoonist released from jail because of publicity from several human rights organizations, including his.
Middle Eastern countries, he says, are the worst toward cartoonists.
"Their worldview is that Islam is the only true religion," he says. "Also, Islam does not do representations of human beings and cartoonists run counter to that." The aforementioned Egyptian cartoonist, he said, got in trouble after he portrayed a garbage can bearing a verse from the Koran. His point: Extremist Islamic preaching is garbage.
"In Christianity, the individual is sacred; in Islam, the community is all-important," he says. "In our Western culture, we value the opinion of the individual. We write history through the names of individuals, not committees or groups."

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