/ 15 April 2008

Zapiro: ‘Strange things happening’ in media freedom

Freedom of expression, says cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, better known as Zapiro, should only be limited when exercising it would cause physical harm or death.

A self-confessed ”freedom-of-expression junkie”, Zapiro pushes the boundaries with his satirical, often controversial, take on South African politics and society.

Speaking at a discussion themed Cartoonists: Where Do We Draw the Line?, hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand journalism department on Tuesday, Zapiro said his personal ”red line” is when his work can potentially cause physical harm or death.

He operates in what was described by fellow cartoonist Andy Mason as the ”jester’s space” — that given to cartoonists to do their satirical work. This, according to Mason, is the space where cartoonists ”let off the steam that builds up in society’s pressure cooker”.

In Zapiro’s work, which satirises those holding the highest office both at home and abroad, it is clear that everyone is fair game to the award-winning cartoonist.

”The line stops when you make a tangible connection between what you are saying and instances of people going out and doing violence or causing physical hurt or death because of what you say,” he said.

”It’s about taboos … about whether a cartoonist has the right to go beyond a certain point … I am a freedom-of-expression junkie; I don’t gratuitously go out of my way to piss people off.”

Among those who Zapiro has ”pissed off” are the apartheid government prior to 1994 and, more recently, African National Congress president Jacob Zuma, who initiated a R15-million lawsuit against Zapiro for damage to his reputation, the largest against a cartoonist in South Africa’s history

This followed Zapiro’s depiction of the ruling-party president during his rape trial.

Zuma with a shower fixed to the back of his head has now become an almost permanent feature in South African newspapers — during the trial, Zuma made controversial comments about showering to diminish his exposure to HIV.

The lawsuit has now been changed to damage to Zuma’s dignity and the sum reduced to R2-million.

Zapiro described Zuma as a man who always played the victim. ”He is a master at changing any kind of oppression … any kind of attack that he makes as a powerful person on someone that is not powerful, he changes it into something that looks as if he is the underdog, he is the victim.

”He is the powerful politician, he is the one that’s getting the African National Congress to try to act in ways to curb the press and he acts like he is the victim of this rampant press that is oppressing his rights.”

Zapiro also expressed concern on Tuesday over the state of media freedom in South Africa, saying there are some ”warning lights flashing”.

”I am concerned, but let me get this straight, I don’t think we are backsliding to the extent that some people say … but there are some very strange things happening,” he said.

He cited pre-publication censorship, such as that described by the Films and Publications Amendment Bill, and the ANC’s proposal for the establishment of a media tribunal as examples.

”Pre-publication censorship is something that wasn’t there in the apartheid era and now it’s done under the guise of preventing child pornography?” he said, adding: ”I think it is an appalling idea [the tribunal] … absolutely appalling.”