A series of actions taken by Pakistan’s media authorities and those loyal to prime minister Imran Khan indicate that satire in general and cartooning in particular is set for a crisis in the country.
Fellow IFEX members the Pakistan Press Foundation do a superb job monitoring, reporting and challenging threats to press freedom in the south Asian nation. Of late they have highlighted guidance from PEMRA, Pakistan’s national electronic media regulator, that satellite tv channels do not “demean individuals representing various political parties and law enforcement agencies through caricatures, animated characters, photo-shopped images and funny memes”.
Additionally, there have been apparently bogus expressions of mass dissatisfaction with journalists and the ruling PTI party especially has been making proclamations of “treason” concerning journalists that strike a chord with those watching from under the yoke of increasingly authoritarian and populist governments elsewhere. Against this background two very recent attempts at cartoon censorship provide evidence that Pakistani popular opinion is indeed hardening against satire.
Syndicated cartoonist, CNN contributor and 2019 Herblock Prize finalist Clay Jones took to Twitter Saturday to report that an image of a preliminary rough drawing of a cartoon on his blog had been flagged as “blasphemous” in a complaint to WordPress, who host the site. Thankfully WordPress do not intend to take action – they have not always been so reliable in this regard – and Clay says that the finished version of the cartoon on the same October 2015 post was flagged a year ago. Specifically the complaints say:
“It is highlighted that the web pages hosted on your platform are extremely Blasphemous / Hate Speech. The same have also been declared blasphemous under Pakistan Penal Code section 295, 295A, 295B, 295C and is in clear violation of Section 11 and 37 of Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA) 2016 and Section 19 of Constitution of Pakistan.”
“[The PTA is] designated for taking appropriate measures for regulating Internet Content in line with the prevailing laws of Islamic Republic of Pakistan. In lieu of above it is highlighted that few of the webpages hosted on your platform are extremely Blasphemous and are hurting the sentiments of many Muslims around Pakistan. The URL’s mentioned are clearly in violation of Section 37 of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 and Section 19 of Constitution of Pakistan. You are requested to contribute towards maintaining peace and harmony in the world by discontinuation of hosting of these websites for viewership in Pakistan with immediate effect. We will be happy to entertain any query if deemed necessary and looking forward for your favorable response at your earliest.”Complaints lodged with WordPress by “Web Analysis Team, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA)”
The fact that two versions of the same cartoon, one very much unfinished, have both been flagged but with such a space of time between suggests that a human element is involved in the composition of these complaints and they may not be generated by an algorithm. However they betray a severe lack of what might be termed “cartoon literacy”. It should be apparent that Clay Jones is not advocating for blasphemy; in fact, he is criticising those in the USA who would contend that cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad form the ne plus ultra of free speech.
At the same time the leader of the South Asian Free Media Association, Imtiaz Alam was on Twitter, forwarding to his more than seventy-two thousand followers a cartoon by Afghani cartoonist Atiq Shahid originally published on the ToonsMag platform.
Some heated debate on Pakistani television ensured. Alam appeared to apologise for any offence caused but also restated the importance of satire within journalism.
In the intervening time the PTI faithful rallied. ToonsMag is owned and operated by Arifur Rahman, himself a former victim of censorship and unjust imprisonment in Bangladesh. He tells us that in the last twenty-four hours the site has been knocked offline some twenty times due to the influx of traffic. At the time of writing the cartoon was approaching one hundred and thirty-three thousand views; taken together the cartoons posted either side have just seven thousand. Additionally Atiq Shahid reports he has been suspended from Facebook (a common occurrence in his case).
“Hey…you moron ..if I ever meet you ..I will teach you how to respect the prime minster you bastard.”
“Shameful cartoon. This is not freedom of expression but expression of a sick mentality.”
“This cartoon is representing the three heads of states i.e. of Pakistan, KSA and USA and look how filthy the depiction is. If you’ll immediately not removed this cartoon and warned the cartoon maker I’ll sue in court. This is my final warning.”
“Kindly remove this post. This post really hurts Millions of People, very disgusting thing of this man. you can see the Anger vote on this post, Please review post remove it and try restrict people.”
“Cartoons must be funny. And must have not hurt feelings of others. Imran Khan is our Prime Minister. Shame in you act. Show some respect. This shows what your parents teaches you. You must apologize for that publicly.”
“It’s very very humiliating as a Pakistani for us because our national flag shows on a dog,,, freedoms of expression doesn’t mean people’s are free to play with sentiments of 220 millions peoples.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself retard.”Selected feedback posted at ToonsMag concerning Atiq Shahid’s cartoon.
In asking why a cartoon isn’t funny or is so disrespectful to their favourite leader these critics sound like the failed regime in Malaysia; with their threats of court action they remind the reader of the world’s archenemy of journalistic freedom, the president of Turkey; and in their reference to violence they yolk themselves in with the vilest of extremists. In reality there is no workable law that protects an individual from personal offence, no obligation on cartoonists working around the world to observe Pakistani regulations and, most importantly, long-standing articles of international statute that enshrine freedom of expression for all.
Intended homage or not, the scenario of a national leader as a dog, emblazoned with their flag and in a subservient posture to the American president is very redolent of the now notorious cartoon by António Antunes that many allege led to the removal of all cartoons from the international New York Times. Perhaps those making the complaints are aware of how that unfolded and sense a weakness that can be exploited. They forget that ToonsMag is a platform wholly dedicated to the freedom of expression of cartoonists and as such for any one piece there is always another making the counterpoint.