By Tanvi Jadwani, Theja Ram and Vinayakk M.
“You do not have to carry free speech so far as to be stupid,” said N. Ram, former editor-in-chief of The Hindu group of publications, referring to how the Charlie Hebdo cartoon on the Prophet and the subsequent terror attacks could have been avoided with a little bit of editorial restraint.
Ram, drawing on his experience of dealing with cartoonists as editor of The Hindu, said, “Cartoonists rarely face trouble. They have lot more freedom than the writers and editors.”
As long as the publications knew what to publish, cartoonists did not face pressure, he said at a symposium on political cartoons organized by Asian College of Journalism on April 6.
“Cartoonists are pretty well-protected. Until you draw the Prophet,” said N. Ram pointing out that good editors knew instinctively when they saw a good cartoon and would do their best to back the cartoonist.
Speaking about the threat to free speech globally and the status of editorial art under new social realities, Ajit Ninan Matthews, Chief Graphic Consultant with The Times of India, said that there were a few sacrosanct issues that every cartoonist would do well to avoid.
“In India, cartoonists are always careful when it comes to the four national symbols and the President,” he said adding that the role of a cartoonist was like a center forward dribbling across the hockey field and overcoming obstacles in the form of editors.
The panel discussion, which was moderated by Sashi Kumar, Chairperson of ACJ, also touched on how much should cartoonists worry about being politically correct and the lack of space for editorial art in today’s media.
Sashi Kumar also brought up the issue of India regressing and not progressing in terms of free speech and cultural identity in the light of the recent developments over censorship involving the Tamil author Perumal Murugan and the Nirbhaya-documentary, India’s daughter.
Describing how “anything can become a sensitive subject” in a complex society, E.P. Unny, the Chief Political Cartoonist with The Indian Express called for revamping archaic laws that had been misinterpreted and implemented in ways that made them tougher than they were meant to be.
Unny said that if ever political cartoons became extinct from the mainstream media, they would remain strong in a corner of the internet.
Ram said that it would be naive to think new-age cartoonists had immunity on social media.They would do well to know that the social media was being watched, he added.
“In a high platform of newspaper journalism, there is an in-built safety for a cartoonist,” said Ajit Ninan adding that cartoonists of the future should still be sensitive when it came to offending religious sentiments.