‘Cause for concern: court cases against cartoonists in Europe’


More than 500 cartoonists from around the world have joined the online platform Cartoon Movement. Besides promoting professional cartoonists and their work, its founder Tjeerd Royaards works to safeguard freedom of expression. ‘As a last resort we help threatened cartoonists flee their country.’ Cartoon Movement has been working together with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs for ten years.

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Image: ©Tjeerd Royaards

What makes the cartoon such an important medium of expression?

‘It allows you to condense complex messages into a single, meaningful image. A single powerful image can highlight problems in society and pinpoint the sore spots, especially when it comes to issues like human rights, climate problems and income inequality.’

What made you decide in 2010 to create a platform for cartoonists from around the world?

‘Newspapers were in crisis, and there weren’t many options for political cartoonists to get their work published. Together with an American cartoonist, we wanted to explore new possibilities for publication. In doing so we came into contact with cartoonists from countries where media freedom is under pressure. That soon gave us a second aim: we wanted to support cartoonists who are experiencing problems. We recently helped two young cartoonists from Cuba. Things seemed to be improving on the island. A young generation had stood up, and was drawing cartoons about the government. Now that the country is experiencing an economic downturn, repression is on the rise. The cartoonists had two options: either go to prison or leave the country. Together with Cartooning for Peace we helped them flee to France.’

The list of countries where media freedom is under pressure is getting longer all the time.

‘Indeed it is. Take for instance Iran and Afghanistan. Or Russia, where there isn’t a single active cartoonist left now. A worrisome development. I was in Hungary for a project recently, and the stories I heard there were not encouraging. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has control of almost all the media. Three court cases are currently under way against a cartoonist working for the last independent newspaper. The government is suing him for defamation and insult. It’s unbelievable that this is happening in a country that is a member of the European Union.’

Do you ever feel limited in what you can draw?

‘I’m in a privileged position because I work in the Netherlands, so I have little to fear from the government. But these days the responses on social media can be very harsh. It’s difficult to predict how the public will respond to satire. How they will take a particular joke. I certainly keep that in the back of my mind.’   

What needs to be done to better protect cartoonists?

‘We keep our ear to the ground: where are journalists experiencing problems? We work together with Cartoonists for Peace and Cartoonists Rights Network International. If things go wrong, we make sure to spread the word. Or we decide not to, because sometimes this can backfire, in which case silent diplomacy is better. Fleeing their country is a cartoonist’s last resort. What they really want is to continue working in their own country so they can reach their audience and make an impact, so that things will change. But if they fear for their life, leaving is the only option. The Netherlands has several good temporary programmes, like Shelter Cities, but we can do better in terms of taking in political refugees. I often refer cartoonists to Norway and France, which have special programmes for political refugees.'

Cartoon Movement has been working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 10 years now. What are you doing around the world?

‘We team up ambassadors with local cartoonists, and they teach guest lessons at schools. The ambassador talks about freedom of expression and how political cartoons contribute to the public debate, and the cartoonist gives a drawing workshop. We also organise cartoon competitions. Drawings submitted by schoolchildren are adapted into cartoons by professional cartoonists, and we exhibit the cartoons at the Peace Palace and at embassies around the world. Last year the Just Speak! cartoon exhibition highlighted worldwide problems.’   

Can cartoonists earn enough with their work at the moment?

‘It’s still difficult. The cartoon scene is faced with two threats: media freedom is under pressure, and it pays peanuts. Newspaper circulation is declining. It’s difficult to publish a cartoon and get paid a decent amount for it. Online publications pay far less. So we’re seeing very few young cartoonists emerging.’

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Tjeerd Royaards (on the right).

And what about the number of women cartoonists?

‘Around 90% of cartoonists worldwide are men. Our platform has 70% men and 30% women. And we’re certainly open to women cartoonists. If I see a woman who’s producing amazing work, I write to her to ask if she wants to join us. Since the Arab Spring, more young women cartoonists have emerged in the Middle East and North Africa. That’s encouraging.’

Cartoon Movement is led by award-winning cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards, whose work has been published by The New York Times, BBC, CNN, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Courrier international, France 24, Internazionale and POLITICO Europe. Tjeerd is also on the Board of Advisors of Cartoonists Rights Network International and a member of Cartooning for Peace.