Gerald Scarfe and grotesque offence

Sunday Times editor Martin Ivens yesterday issued an apology for publishing a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe depicting Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The cartoon, which appeared in the paper as Britain marked Holocaust Memorial Day, showed the Israeli leader building a wall, and crushing Palestinians in the process. With its blood splashes and thuggish, brawny depiction of Netanyahu, the cartoon was, in the words of a Sunday Times spokesperson (before the apology), a “typically robust” piece of work by Scarfe.

The editor’s apology came after public criticism from his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, who tweeted “Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times. Nevertheless, we owe major apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon.”

It does seem slightly odd to apologise for a “grotesque, offensive” cartoon. As Martin Rowson (who draws strips for Index on Censorship magazine) points out in this article, and this Free Speech Bites podcast, cartoons are usually, by their very nature grotesque, and often offensive (to borrow a phrase from Woody Allen, at least if they’re done right).

Did this cartoon, however, cross a line? Lord Sacks, the chief rabbi, put out a statement, saying:

“The deplorable cartoon published in The Sunday Times on Holocaust Memorial Day, whether antisemitic or not, has caused immense pain to the Jewish community in the UK and around the world. Whatever the intention, the danger of such images is that they reinforce a great slander of our time: that Jews, victims of the Holocaust, are now perpetrators of a similar crime against the Palestinians. Not only is this manifestly untrue, it is also inflammatory and deeply dangerous.”

But Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer at Ha’aretz says that, while it may have been unpleasant, it did not contain any of the anti-Semitic blood libel and Nazi imagery that characterises genuinely Jew-hating cartoons.

Moreover, Scarfe has not notably singled out the Israeli leader for special treatment — a glance through the cartoonists archives shows portrayals of many equally blood-spattered world leaders (take, for example, this horrendous but riveting image of Bashar Al Assad, drenched in the blood of children)

Scarfe has apologised for the timing of the cartoon, though some, including Pfeffer, will say that Israeli leaders should not be immune from criticism on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Context is crucial in any debate over free speech and offence.

In 1981, far-right cartoonist Robert Edwards was given a 12-month sentence for “”aiding and abetting, counselling and procuring the publication of material likely to incite racial hatred”.

Robert Edwards’s work was unsubtle to say the least. The conviction came after the one off publication of a comic aimed at children called “The Stormer” (I did say he was unsubtle). The comic contained such delights as “”Billy the Yid”, and “Dresden and Auschwitz — The Facts!”, as well as strips targeting black and Asian people.

More recently, in 2009, Simon Shepherd and Stephen Whittle were convicted for several offences including pushing a leaflet entitled Tales of the Holohoax through the door of a Blackpool synagogue.

It is clear that Scarfe’s blood-spattered commentary on Netanyahu was quite different to the output of Edwards, Whittle and Shepherd (and there is another discussion to be had about free speech in those cases).

As such the intervention by 20 MPs writing a letter demanding an apology from the Sunday Times is a dismayingly knee-jerk reaction. As was Murdoch’s tweet.

At Index on Censorship’s Taking the Offensive conference yesterday, hundreds of artists discussed their fears of expressing themselves, lest they fall foul of local politicians, commercial sponsors, community leaders or even a Twitter mob. The censorious will always tend towards the literal, a mindset rather unsuited to the reading of the exaggerated, ironic world of art, including political cartooning.

Brazilian paper censored for 1,200 days and counting

One of Brazil’s largest daily newspapers claims that it has now faced censorship for 1,200 days, due to a court ruling prohibiting it from publishing news about a police operation that could incriminate a media tycoon — who is also the son of a former President of the country.

In 2009, daily newspaper O Estado de. S.Paulo had access to information and tape recordings related to a Federal Police investigation the previous year in the northeastern state of Maranhão, one of Brazil’s poorest areas. The newspaper alleged that business people from the region were involved in various crimes, including money laundering, tax evasion, and corruption. One of the individuals investigated was Fernando Sarney, who was head of a media conglomerate at the time, as well as the son of former President José Sarney — one of Brazil’s most influential politicians, who currently serves as president of Brazil’s Senate.

Brazilian daily newspaper O Estado de. S.Paulo claims that it has been censored

Fernando Sarney was indicted by federal police on 15 July 2009, and accused of favouring private businesses in contracts firmed with state companies. He was accused of being behind the scheme, but he denies all allegations. On 31 July 2009, a Federal District judge forbid Estado from publishing any more news about the police operation, because of a lawsuit filed by Sarney against the newspaper. His lawyers claimed that Estado committed a crime and damaged Sarney’s family reputation by publishing their taped conversations, even if they were made with the consent of the Judiciary.

The ruling drew harsh criticism from other newspapers and media-related organisations including Associação Brasileira de Imprensa (Brazilian Press Association), with most of them claiming that the ruling violated Brazil’s constitution.

At the same time, Sarney issued a statement where he claimed that publishing news about an ongoing police investigation was an “injustice” and “a violent act” against him and his family. He also denied that the press was censored, and claimed to be defending his rights as guaranteed by the constitution.

In December 2009, Sarney said he would drop the lawsuit. However, the newspaper decided not to accept desistance, and requested that Sarney also relinquished his right to represent the complaint — meaning that the lawsuit would go on even without him as the suing party. Estado also expressed its preference to have the case judged by the Supreme Court, in order to generate a legal precedent that would apply to all similar cases in the future. However, the case was sent back to the Federal District state court, which has yet to set a date for the trial. Since a final verdict has yet to be reached in the suit, Estado is barred to this day from publishing any news about the police investigation in Maranhão, or its consequences.

Roberto Gazzi, the newspaper’s director of Editorial Development says that this is a clear-cut case of censorship.

The information published by the newspaper at the time — and that have been prevented to be published ever since — were not of a private sort. These were facts involving public money and public agents, inside the limits of which we consider to be the right of the free press to publish, standing for society’s interest.

Estado had its 138th anniversary on 4 January last year, and has an average daily circulation of 260,000.

Sarney could not be reached for comment, and his lawyers had no comment on the case.

Rafael Spuldar is a journalist based in São Paulo