Drawing the line: Cartoonists under threat

Sandhya Eknelygoda, the wife of Sri Lankan cartoonist Prageeth Eknelygoda, calls for U.N. help in 2013 in discovering what happened to her husband, who disappeared in 2010. (AFP/Ishara S. Kodikara)

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The freedom to draw also comes under fire in conflict situations, CPJ research shows. The disappearance of Prageeth Eknelygoda, a Sri Lankan cartoonist and journalist who vanished on his way home from work in January 2010, is a case in point. The cartoonist went missing amid then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s military campaign to subdue an ethnic Tamil insurgency in the island nation’s northern region.

In one widely circulated sketch, Eknelygoda portrayed a half-naked woman sitting before a crowd of smiling men with the words “preference of the majority is democracy” written on the wall behind her. The image conflated two taboo topics: the Rajapaksa government’s widely documented human rights abuses, including allegations of the use of rape as a weapon, and the marginalization of minority groups under ethnic Sinhalese majority rule.

According to Eknelygoda’s wife, Sandhya, he was investigating the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons in Tamil areas at the time of his apparent abduction. He was also scheduled to exhibit a collection of cartoons entitled “Cave Art of the 21st Century” in the commercial capital, Colombo, days before an election that Rajapaksa won. Before he went missing, Eknelygoda, who reported for the independent Lanka E-news website, had been kidnapped by unknown assailants and received threatening phone calls over his writing, CPJ research shows

Sandhya said although she cannot pinpoint a particular image that may have led to her husband’s disappearance, she believes his cartooning “triggered a response.” “Going through his collection of cartoons one could understand the political and economic situation of the country in that time,” Sandhya told CPJ by email. “His intention was to wake up the people who were sleeping, afraid of the Rajapaksa regime, through his cartoons since everyone could easily understand them.”

While some political cartoonists deliberately hide their meaning, satirists have also faced persecution when their intentions are misinterpreted. Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani was imprisoned and driven into exile in 2007 over a cartoon of a child conversing with a cockroach. Part of a humorous series of images for young readers in the government-run magazine Iran-e-jomee on how to repel insects, the cartoon was perceived as an insult to the Azeri minority group because the anthropomorphized roach was portrayed as speaking a word in their dialect, Neyestani said. The reaction led to him being held in detention for “publishing provocative materials and fomenting discord.”

“Protesters considered the cartoon part of a governmental conspiracy against Azeris. The government accused me of disturbing national security. Some people called me a racist; some others called me a social security disturber. My narrative was totally absent,” said Neyestani, adding that the image was taken out of context. “I think the Azeris used my cartoon as a pretext to demonstrate and show their anger to the government over their historical humiliation” through discriminatory laws and behaviors.

At the end of 2014, Neyestani published An Iranian Metamorphosis, a book of illustrations retracing, in Kafkaesque detail, his treacherous voyage from three months in an Iranian prison to five years in international limbo while applying for political asylum, followed by life as a cartoonist in exile in France. The turbulence, Neyestani said, has afforded him a unique perspective from his new home, Paris, on the Charlie Hebdo killings.

“It showed wherever you live as a cartoonist you would not be safe—even in the heart of democracy and liberty you could be killed because of your job,” said Neyestani, who now draws cartoons for critical Iranian exile-run news sites IranWire,Radio Zamaneh, and Tavaana. “I always say that a cartoonist is like a parachutist: we jump out of a plane even if we have high anxiety. It is our job and love, so we jump and hope that we’ll land safely.”

 

Originally Published at https://cpj.org/reports/2015/05/drawing-the-line-cartoonists-under-threat-free-expression-zunar-charlie-hebdo.php

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