Politics is deadly subject in world of Arab despots

Sunday 21 July 1996 23:02

It is no laughing matter, being a political cartoonist in the Arab world. Earlier this month, Chawki Lamari, a cartoonist on the Algerian French language daily, La Tribune, was arrested at home and hauled off to Serkaji, a top-security prison which gained notoriety after 100 Islamist prisoners were killed when the authorities re-established order after a riot.

Publication of La Tribune was suspended. Police took in the publisher of the newspaper, Kheireddine Ameyar, and the editor, Baya Gacemi, for questioning. A judge later ordered them to report to the police twice a week. The three men will stand trial together on 29 July.

The issue was a cartoon showing Algerian flags strung between houses along a street. One asks: "Is this for 5 July?" (Algerian Independence Day, a date central to the armed forces' claim to legitimacy).

An examining magistrate ruled that the cartoon was in breach of Article 160 of the Penal Code. This stipulates prison terms of 5 to 10 years for "anyone who deliberately and publicly tears up, defaces or defiles the national symbol".

A statement by the Algerian journalists union, the Assemblee Generale des Journalistes, which denounced the legal proceedings, said the move would not stop journalists from "continuing their struggle until their colleague Amari is released and legal action against La Tribune dropped".

In some respects the case was distinctively Algerian. But the case is symptomatic of the dangers cartoonists face when they cross the line in ridiculing the authorities in an Arab world ruled largely by despots.

The golden age of the political caricature was the pre- revolutionary period in Egypt. This permitted Egyptian irreverence for authority, and satirical genius, to find expression in weekly news magazines. The British were easy targets, but so were the political leaders, although the king was off-limits.

Nasser's coup in 1952 banned parties and limited freedom of expression. Thereafter the number of subjects which could be tackled in the press without risking the censor's blue pencil (or worse) shrank.

Today Egyptian cartoonists can allude to corruption in high places, which cannot be proved but which everyone knows about, more easily than can columnists, who would have to name names. In a culture where the rate of illiteracy is high, cartoons still have great power.

Censors are well attuned to the influence that a well- wrought political caricature may exert. Such was the popularity of the Moroccan satirical magazine Akhbar al-Suq (News from the Market) that it was banned.

In the most celebrated case, the Palestinian cartoonist, Naji Ali, was gunned down in London in 1987, apparently for alluding to Yasser Arafat's Egyptian mistress.

In some parts of the Middle East, editors commission cartoonists to send a message they dare not convey in writing. The Arabic press with most freedom is found in London, but most of it is owned by Saudi interests which do not tolerate discussion of subjects sensitive to them.

Jihad al Khazen, editor of Al-Hayat, says that when the paper was published in Beirut "the tradition was that the editor and the cartoonists would discuss ideas together". Since the paper moved to London, the cartoonists' consultation with the editor has diminished.

Although there is no heavy-handed political authority exercising the censor's scissors, the ownership of the paper instils a measure of self-censorship which ensures that no anti-Saudi material is covered.

"We deal overwhelmingly with Arab political issues, such as Israel's attack on south Lebanon, not with domestic terrorism, human rights, or democracy," he says.

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