We cannot deny the power of images and symbols to affect and often disturb people. But in today’s reality the power of the cartoonist to provoke extreme and violent reactions can no longer be denied, just look at what happened in France recently following the publication of a controversial cartoon by the newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Two terrorists affiliated to Al Qaeda opened fire in the premises and killed 11 people, injuring 11 others. Several other attacks related to the same issue also took place around the region in France. So, being a political cartoonist is becoming an ever more dangerous job, as our GADO described at TEDxNairobi 2014 event. What makes an artist decide to “speak truth to power” – provoking the forces of entrenched power or dominant ideology to dig beneath the surface and expose the dark underbelly of systems, forces and powerful personalities.
The price of freedom of speech is high – it can cost you your life, not just in France, but also recently more recently in Copenhagen, where a cartoonist Laks Vilks missed the attempts of another terror attack, having been placed on the Al Qaeda most wanted list, for a picture that he drew in 2010. He has been marked with a $100,000 bounty on his head, not to speak of the eternal glory promised the killer.
For Gado here in East Africa, the repercussions of poking fun at the antics of regional leaders are also becoming harsher, as the shadow of intolerance spreads across all media coverage in Africa at this time. Recently the East African Newspaper of January 16 – 23, 2015 was banned from circulation in Tanzania, 20 years after it was launched to cover the region due to a provocative cartoon which depicted a frail looking President Kikwete being attended to by a harem of 8 scantly clad women named Corruption, Incompetence and Cronyism, performing salacious acts on him.
The international press and community rallied around to support the cartoonist, who retains the support of his editor at The Nation group, but the ban still remains. It is interesting to note that Gado is actually a citizen of Tanzania and not a Kenyan as many believe, although he has made Kenya his home for many decades. The Director of Information of Tanzania commented that the ban was instituted because they believe that the cartoon “demonstrated bad taste and disrespect to the person and office of the president.”
But what actually gives this cartoonist the courage and the insight to even dare to raise the red flag against the highest office of government in this way, and should this work be admired? I think so…….if we do not speak to others who will speak for us when our time of struggle comes. remember the famous words of Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)? He was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Listen to Gado’s talk at the TEDx2014 and judge for yourself. You may be surprised at the humility of the man behind that powerful pen.