RED LINES: 60 Global Cartoonists Talk Fear And Favour

"If satire is so toothless, then why are cartoonists so often badly bitten?" Ann Lee reviews RED LINES: Political Cartoons and the Struggle Against Censorship by Cherian George and Sonny Liew. The distribution of this book, which examines the boundaries of free speech, has been banned by the Singapore government under its "Undesirable Publications Act".

RED LINES: Political Cartoons and the Struggle Against Censorship by Professor of Media Studies, Cherian George, in collaboration with award-winning cartoonist, Sonny Liew, is something of a sight for sore eyes. 

In humour studies – the academic discipline of subjects from literature to neuroscience that has, ahem, been taken more seriously since the 1970s – cartoons form a very large segment of research, particularly political cartoons and satire. Pioneering scholars that have examined contemporary political satire include Jessica Milner Davis (Satire and Politics: The interplay of heritage and practice; also Humour in Chinese Life and and Culture: Resistance and Control in Modern Times) and Robert Phiddian (Satire and the Public Emotions), both from Australia. 

However, cartoons and satire from the Southeast Asian region are a rare and understudied subject. In the flagship journal HUMOR, less than 1% of 570 papers published since the journal’s founding in 1988 focus on political humour in the Southeast Asian context. Of these four papers, David Yoong looks at ‘The case of humour in the Malaysian House of Representatives’ (sic); John A Lent (acknowledged as a ‘super-connector’ for RED LINES) provides an overview of comics in the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia; Kanjana Jaroenkiatboworn presents a linguistic analysis about compounding word formation in Thai and its contribution to humour; and finally, Chua Yan Piaw considers the effects of humour cartoons in a series of best-selling academic books in Malaysia. These papers reflect sparse analysis about traditions of humour in a region of over 600 million people in 11 countries.

RED LINES then is a welcome addition with nearly 450 pages covering global case studies that include those from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, and Thailand – not only Asia ‘at large’ (China, Japan, and Korea) but also India, Pakistan, the Middle East, South America, South Africa as well as the US, UK, Australia, and Europe. Cartoonists such as Yuyun Nurrachman (for TEMPO magazine) and Tommy Thomdean (for the Jakarta Post) appear in relevant chapters, and specific chapters are devoted to the work and experiences of Malaysian cartoonist, Zunar (‘When censorship backfires’), as also, importantly, the authors’ own experiences of state and self-censorship (‘Gilded cages: Censorship by seduction’).

Within the first 10 pages, George and Liew suitably mock the Western ‘anglosphere’ of political cartoon studies. They offer the reader four boxes to tick from as to whether their book is ‘a tribute to satire from Aristophanes to John Oliver, and how caricature and cartoons fit in that history’ (as if satire is only Ancient Greek/Western, and cartoons a merely incidental genre); second, more explicitly, ‘A Great (White) Man cartooning hall of fame…’, led by renowned 18th century English caricaturist, William Hogarth (time for decolonisation of the canon, folx); third, ‘a formal analysis of the literary and artistic properties of cartoons as visual rhetoric’ (read: academic yawn). Readers are correct if they tick ‘a survey of 21st century restrictions on freedom of expression, as experienced by political cartoonists around the world’. 

That survey is expansive: 60 cartoonists across 6 continents are interviewed. As befits an academic press (MIT), there are detailed notes, a bibliography, and an index. Described as a cri de coeur, RED LINES has a passionate, at times polemical heart. The stated reason for choosing the cartoonists is that ‘we’ve worked with them and love them’. The authors wonder out loud with rhetorical whimsy, ‘why something as simple as drawings on a page can excite such anger in the powerful’. Yet humour’s ‘disarming power’ is acknowledged and how it can ‘metaphorically bring the powerful down to earth’. 

The book’s main arguments look to make sense of the global landscape of modern censorship ‘in all its hues’, and to explore just what ‘forces’ restrain political cartoons’ contribution to a ‘robust public discourse’. Examples of ‘classic’ top-down state censorship (with due online emphasis) substantiate the work of cited scholars such as Margaret Roberts who has coined internet censorship ‘by friction’ (when governments block content, reorder search results, and choke up websites) and ‘by flooding’ (filling the internet with info that ‘dilutes and distracts from prohibited content’). Also identified is ‘proxy censorship’ (by private firms that use algorithms where robots are the ‘agents of censorship’) and ‘market censorship’ (resulting from the diversion of ‘media space, time, money and talent toward content and genres that are financially more profitable and less risky’). The point is well made that red lines and their locations ‘say something about who really counts, who’s in and who’s out’ and can become ‘proxy battles’ in competition for political status – in fact, it must be noted that RED LINES has itself met with a distribution ban from Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority. Cherian George’s blog (written before the ban, then updated after) provides important background to this ‘crossing of red lines’. 

A disclaimer, as shared on Cherian George’s blog in Oct 2021.

To highlight some of the 15 chapters in more detail, the introduction, entitled ‘The power and precarity of the pencil’ defines freedom of expression in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among other Western texts. While these set the framework for the book, they are not the only texts that have bearing. (See for example, Mohammad Hashim Kamali’s informative Freedom of Expression in Islam). The chapter ‘We know where you live: Intimate invasions’ focuses, among others, on the life of Cuban cartoonist, Gustavo ‘Garrincha’ Rodriguez, who has had to keep his cartoons ‘imprisoned in his mind’, and Ecuadorian cartoonist, Vilma Vargas, whose house in the mountains was broken into, apparently a coincidence after a series of pointed cartoons, including one of then-President Correa as a Kafka-esque spider. In ‘Democratically rejected: The X’ed Files’, cartoonists and editors recall debates with one another in spaces they regard as democratic, but where nevertheless, cartoons and cartoon ideas are still ‘edited, killed, or go down a black hole’. 

By presenting case studies of cartoonists’ experiences of censorship, in relation to theories and comments by a wide range of scholars and writers, RED LINES fits in with the second main theme of political humour studies alongside the literary – namely, ‘effects’, or political satire’s ability or inability to have any larger effects or changes on society. Except that emphasised here are the ‘chilling effects’ of censorship upon cartoonists themselves, from violence and murder to character assassination, self-censorship, and indeed, humourless self-aggrandisement. This focus on ‘chilling effects’ effectively undermines the common scepticism about the ‘effects’ of satire. After all, if satire is so toothless, then why are cartoonists so often badly bitten? Perhaps the most important point about the power of satire and censorship is that argued elsewhere by Catherine Keane, among others – i.e. ‘the reputation of satire’ or its potential to spark trouble matters most, even when a cartoon has not been proven to directly start a riot, or when politicians buy the original caricature of themselves. 

It is not possible to take up other arguments in the book such as the ‘impulse’ or irrationality of the artist and censor for which latest studies in neuroscience are shedding new light, due to limitations of space. However, if there is one most noteworthy misgiving about the book, it is about representation generated by the chapter ‘The Boys’ Club: Gender-based censorship’ in comparison with the book’s ‘bookends’ case study about the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. In ‘The Boys’ Club: Gender-based censorship’, Iranian artist and activist Atena Farghadani gives an account of her ordeal with censorship. After her male partner visited her in jail and they shook hands, Atena was subjected to a virginity and pregnancy test by the authorities. This is but one example of routine physical assaults on women, especially women of colour and dis/ability, in many parts of the world. That a cartoonist has had to suffer this too is, of course, also infuriating if not also ridiculous. 

However, the larger point is that in RED LINES, a virginity test highlights dramatic but not systemic gender-based censorship. Having earlier enthused about Southeast Asian cartoonists in the book, none are women. Critically, while there is judicious use of images from the case study about the Danish newspaper Jyllends-Posten-published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, the same care is not given to multiple images of gender-based violence. Particularly galling are the images and layout of the ‘horrific rape and murder’ of 8-year-old Asifa Bano in Jammu and Kashmir. The use of the threat of rape, and nakedness of women is a knee-jerk visual metaphor of ‘the weak’, and its vulnerability and abuse by male cartoonists, editors, owners, and readers, is demonstrated in RED LINES. The apparent ‘blindspot’ of not seeing gender-based violence and censorship in the same light as religious-based or race-based violence and censorship may arise from a valorisation of the (male) cartoonist within a David versus Goliath allegory. The cartoonist is the underrated young David with his ‘mere’ catapult and stones (cartoons) while Goliath is the giant ‘cruel world’ of censorship to be slain. The attendant rhetoric about ‘fighting’ censorship is also gendered. We should be clear that repeated images of women naked or held down by men, whether as central or background to ‘add to the discourse’ is an old con. There might even have been trigger warnings for those not already numbed by the everyday gender censor.

Overall, a principal virtue of RED LINES is that it strikes an artful balance between academic and accessible, if those are seen as polar opposites. There is theory but none too heavy. Secondly, as might be expected in the hands of celebrated, three Eisner award-winner and winner of the Singapore Literature Prize (Liew), RED LINES is itself another stunning cartoon graphic book. Liew’s drawn portraits of cartoonists are exceptional in their detail and likeness, if gentle on exaggeration. The design and layout demand to be read, not just as a backdrop but integral to the overall analysis. In this, RED LINES can well be said to be the most comprehensive, readable, and certainly stimulating academic book about political cartoons available at the present time. 

RED LINES: Political Cartoons and the Struggle Against Censorship by Cherian George and Sonny Liew was published by MIT Press in 2021.

About the author(s)

Born in Tawau, Malaysia, Dr Ann Lee, PhD Southeast Asian Studies (NUS), is a playwright, and a researcher of humour and indigenous satire. She is a past Fellow of the Asia Leadership Fellow Programme, and is currently member of the External Advisory Committee (Creative Arts and Media) of a private university in Malaysia.

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