“This is a key to realms of wonder, but it’s also a deadly weapon, a weapon of mass distraction,” UK cartoonist Martin Rowson said, describing a pen, as he opened a discussion about censorship and repression of political cartoonists.
The event had planned a video link-up with Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, the Malaysian cartoonist better known as Zunar, but he was unable to attend. There have been reports of his arrest. Zunar uses his art to take a stand against corruption in Malaysian politics. The cartoonist is facing 10 sedition charges which are still pending trial. On these charges, Zunar faces 43 years in prison.
In his absence, a video of the cartoonist was shown in which he states, “you can ban my books, you can ban my cartoons, but you cannot ban my mind”.
The Westminster Reference Library hosted a discussion on 28 November, during an exhibition of political cartoons: Gagged. Speakers included Index on Censorship’s Jodie Ginsberg, UK cartoonist Martin Rowson, Sudanese cartoonist Khalid Albaih, and Cartoonist Rights Network International’s Robert Russell.
Cartoonist Rowson and Albaih, currently based in Copenhagen, expressed the responsibility they feel working from a safe environment. They acknowledged the oppression of their colleagues and cited them as inspiration for the cartoons they continue to publish.
“I feel so guilty that I’m here doing this but at the same time, I have a lot of friends who are in jail, who were arrested, and who are really fighting that fight to say what they want to say … It’s something that hurts me everyday”, Albaih said. “Everyday that I’m walking down Copenhagen. It’s a beautiful city but I can’t enjoy it because most of my friends can’t even get a visa to go to the country next to them … People like Zunar, they’re incredible and they’re powerful and I look up to them. And I hope one day I can go back to my country and be able to do that without being scared that something will happen to my kids, you know?”
Ginsberg spoke on the importance of freedom of expression in the face of adversity and the reality of censorship in countries that believe they have “free speech”. “Censorship isn’t something that happens ‘over there’. It happens here and it happens on our doorstep.”
“I genuinely believe that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I also think … that many pens and many voices are even better. Oppressors win when they think their opponents are alone,” Ginsberg said. “We succeed when we demonstrate that it’s not the case.”
**The exhibition has now been extended to 7 December.