Cartoonists’ Rights Network International (CRNI)

by Terry Anderson


Following an international conference co-chaired by the UK and Canada, UNESCO established a Global Media Defence Fund in 2019 (more details can be found here).

CRNI made a submission to the GMDF’s first call for partnerships in 2020. We did so because a survey of our regional representatives indicated that criminalization had supplanted terrorism/fundamentalism/extremism as their chief concern. This sentiment was echoed at last September’s Press & Cartooning Global Forum (held virtually), where all delegates regardless of their point of origin expressed concerns about erosion of democracy and civil liberties in their respective countries.

We wanted to establish a discrete mechanism by which cartoonists could receive legal guidance in an emergency (e.g., their sudden arrest). At the time of UNESCO’s decision, I made the statements found here.

We have since used the support from GMDF to establish the Cartoonists’ Legal Advisory Network.

Naturally the strength of the project will be in the quality of guidance given. To that end we have spent the past year recruiting a new panel of experts that includes practicing lawyers and academics specializing in human rights and most particularly freedom of expression as well as journalism and media, digital rights, and security. In addition to personnel from several leading NGOs we have also secured experts from a broad geographical spread and ensured gender balance.

Our colleagues’ shared anxiety about the threat of criminalization is real and well founded. I feel that CRNI is duty-bound to respond and with this new mechanism we’ll help cartoonists get swift and relevant guidance.

Of course, I am well aware of the excellent work already being done by other free speech and journalism NGOs and know that many cartoonists have enjoyed first-class legal support in the past; indeed, some of our recruited experts have been responsible for their defence. We are not alone in this battle and will continue to work in partnership with others.

But of most concern to me are the cartoonists who have never had cause to use a lawyer before and who suddenly find themselves taken to a police station or in receipt of a court summons without a clear idea of what will happen next or who they might rely on. I hope that they come to think of this network as their first contact when it is needed.


Cartoonists reserve the right to criticize in terms that are blunt, even vulgar. A caricature is “reductive” or, perhaps more accurately, a distillation; the mere act of rendering a powerful person as a cartoon character could be perceived as an affront to their dignity, even more so when exaggeration is employed to make an editorial point.

There are exceptions – most obviously those who make the kind of longform cartooning with which GJRA is often concerned – but in general CRNI’s clients make a contrarian or at least a negative point; opposition to policy, scepticism about a particular public figure, despair over perennial social problems, sadness in the wake of a tragedy, anger over a scandal and so on. It is a mistake, I feel, to assume that the primary purpose of a cartoon is to be funny; when political, editorial, or satirical cartoonists do tickle us the result is more often a rueful chuckle than gales of joyful laughter.

Instead, their work’s primary purpose is an emotional connection. One hopes the reader (or a least a good proportion among the potential readers) feel the same way as the cartoonist and seeing that opinion deftly and succinctly expressed in a cartoon causes a kind of relief. “Yes, others are as angered, or saddened, or frustrated as I am. I feel better.”

An authoritarian government that relies on projections of strength, or a populist movement that characterizes all criticism as an agenda propagated by enemies of the people, or a tyrant who fosters a cult of personality will each have their own difficulties in comfortably shrugging off satire, especially if it comes from a cartoonist who can command a large following, whether through the press or social media.

A cartoonist may therefore be accused of sedition (as was the case with Zunar of Malaysia) or “insulting” the police, military, or ministers (as we have seen with Aroeira and others in Brazil, or Nime in Algeria) or the nebulous but increasingly common charge of “cybercrime” (as most recently demonstrated in Tanzania and the case of Optatus Fwema). Of course, a truly corrupt regime may pin any crime at all on any person they wish to persecute; memorably, Ramón Nsé Esono Ebalé went to prison in Equatorial Guinea on a wrap of counterfeiting which was eventually shown to be comprehensively false.

Challenging Times

All these trends are intensified in the pandemic age when criticism of government may be very easily conflated with disinformation and material that ultimately endangers public health. At the outset, we were among the organizations warning that the emergency could provide a pretext for those governments already curtailing free expression to crack down harder. Such was the case in Bangladesh, where Ahmed Kabir Kishore was jailed and allegedly tortured for cartoons about “Life in the Time of Corona”.

Of course, an editorial cartoon is not a piece of prose. It is not a medium in which a long, nuanced argument can be set out. And it is opinion, not reportage. Hence there are many who will disagree with the point made and may find the apparent impudence of the format – cartoons arrive quickly in the mind, consumed at a glance – doubly disagreeable.

It is for these reasons that cartoonists often get in trouble, most obviously on matters of religious sensibility, racial prejudice and so on. A book that very intelligently analyses (among others) the Jyllands-Posten/Charlie Hebdo cartoons has been banned entirely from Singapore as the ministry responsible feel that their sparing and contextualized inclusion presents too great a risk to the population. This despite the careful rationale of the authors.

Our mission continues unabated, and we are very open to new recruits. If any member of the GJRA would care to add their expertise to the panel then please feel free to get in touch for more details.

Disclaimer: “The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this article do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. The authors are responsible for the choice and the presentation of the facts contained in this article and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.”

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