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Cartoons, caricatures and offence

Some of the complaints we receive from readers have an element of surprise: they tend to expand the role of the newspaper and of the news ombudsman into relatively uncharted territories. Last week, the Tamil Nadu police arrested the cartoonist G. Bala. His offence was creating and posting a cartoon that was an “obscene” portrayal of the Chief Minister and other officials. There were reports in this newspaper about the arrest and the subsequent bail given to the cartoonist. However, some readers, who felt that the cartoon in question was objectionable, said that the newspaper failed to evaluate the quality of the cartoon but chose to report the statements issued in Mr. Bala’s favour in the name of freedom of expression.

Spotlight on the cartoon

The readers are conflating two different issues here: the quality of the cartoon and the action of the state. With reference to Mr. Bala’s cartoon and his subsequent arrest, my opinion is unequivocal: his cartoon is immature, but that does not warrant an arrest. Before looking at the standard of Mr. Bala’s cartoon, it is important to realise the futility of the high-handed action. The cartoon was supposed to be an indictment of the Chief Minister, the Tirunelveli Collector, and the city police commissioner for failing to protect a family that was ruthlessly pursued by usurers, forcing them to self-immolate. The arrest for a cartoon, whatever its taste, reflects poorly on the state. This has given undue publicity to a protest cartoon that was buried in the labyrinth of cyberspace. If the action was supposed to protect those depicted in the cartoon from public ignominy, the arrest has only helped magnify the failures of the men in question. This is indeed a story which no newspaper should miss.

A fine cartoonist and a regular contributor to the Economic and Political Weekly, N. Ponnappa, explained in a measured tone in a Facebook post the problems with Mr. Bala’s cartoon: “Tragedy is an extremely difficult subject to portray as a cartoon. It has to be subtle if portrayed at all. Bala’s cartoon in question here is direct. He has shown the child, a victim, burning. The cartoon shows three officials, warts and all, nude, covering their private parts with tiny amounts of cash, hopefully new demonetised notes. This is a no-no as far as cartoons go.”

Editorial judgment

Mr. Ponnappa’s observation on the ills of posting something directly on social media without going through the processes of editorial judgment is a vital lesson to young angry activists who have embraced cyberspace not only to vent their anger but also to galvanise people. He wrote: “Posting cartoons directly on social media is a different, and new kettle of fish. The comments and retorts, criticism both constructive and mindless, are immediate. The followers need not necessarily be kind and appreciative. It is a free-for-all situation. No holds barred. While there is far more freedom on social media than in print, there is also considerable danger for a careless cartoonist, and rightfully so.” He rightly laid emphasis on having a good editor to vet the cartoon.

There is also a tendency to assume that every cartoon controversy has the potential for harm, as was the case with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. We need to retain our sense of proportion while dealing with the challenges we are confronting. If we were to ask whether Mr. Bala’s cartoon would have appeared in a major newspaper, the answer would be a strict no.

Cartoons published in newspapers are examined by editors and go through the same editorial process as the text. The power of additional pairs of eye helps to smoothen rough edges, flag issues that the cartoonist might have overlooked while drawing, and ensure that the cartoon stays within the overall values that govern the newspaper. Cartoonists understand the crucial difference between good editing and censorship.

V. Ramamurthy, a retired civil servant, recently took objection to Surendra’s cartoons in this newspaper. He said that the cartoonist applied tilak to political leaders who don’t wear them. He also took exception to the use of the colour saffron. This seems to be a criticism that verges on curbing creative freedom. Cartoons need breathing space and leeway to retain a sense of humour while delivering a political opinion. An ironclad prescription to a cartoonist may produce good drawing but poor humour.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 12:12:13 PM |

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