Why pinch when you can punch? The philosophy of a Cartoonist for Peace

By Carol Azungi Dralega , NLA Universisty College, Norway

«If you can’t beat them, you laugh at them»

These were the words of a hardened political cartoonist Zunar (Zulkiflee Sm Anwar Ulhaque) from Malasia. According to Zunar, who has been jailed 5 times, banned from travel and has had 5 of his cartoon books banned among other trials and tribulations of being a government critic in Malaysia, «telling is not a gift, telling is a responsibility. It is my job to use cartoons to highlight bad governance».

Zunar was one of several members of the global network of ‘Cartoonists for Peace’ who honoured The Youth Times, the WPFD2019 Youth Newsroom, with a visit today at the UN Economic Commission for Africa. The Cartoonists for Peace delegation are attending the 2019 World Press Freedom Day events going on in Addis Ababa between 1-3 May. The WPFD events are organised by UNESCO, the Government of Ethiopia and the African Union under the theme “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation”.  

The cartoonists will also exhibite their work at the African Union Headquarters in commemoration of the WPFD2019 celebrations.  

The cartoonists for peace network founded by Plantu, has about 184 members from around the world who, like Zunar, are using their pens and talents as powerful ‘subjective’ tools in the fight against oppression, inequality, bad governance and social injustice.

“It takes courage” Zunar shares, because in his line of business and hostile political context, ‘if you do not go to jail, you have not done your job’ – reflecting what research has shown to be particularly true for kleptocratic regimes and their low tolerance for (internet) political criticism.

The aim of political intimidation, harassment, imprisonment and even death is to create a chilling effect which ultimately ends in muffling press freedom, something Zunar articulates as the real enemy in the fight for democracy, he says; “jail is not the enemy, harassment is not the enemy, intimidation is not the enemy – the real enemy is self-censorship”.  

For his courageous and artistic expressions in defence of democracy, Zunar has won several awards including  the 2016 Cartoonist for peace award; the Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award 2011 by the Cartoonist Right Network International and the Hellman/Hammett Award for 2011 and 2015 by Human Rights Watch and the International Press Freedom Waward by the Committee to protect Journalists in New York in 2015 among others.

Zunar (as do the other cartoonists) reminds and inspires us to laugh at them if we can’t beat them – despite the consequences but more importantly, as media practitioners, we need support structures or umbrella networks that are local, national and/or international to have our backs when we pick courage and do the laughing!