/ 10 July 2012

Boundary issues: When should satirists just sit down?

Cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro has sparked controversy once again.
Cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro has sparked controversy once again.

Many, including fans of political cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, were not amused by the Zapiro cartoon published in the Mail & Guardian last Friday.

The cartoon, which portrayed President Jacob Zuma as a penis and included a limerick referring to him as a "dick", again raised questions about the limitations of free speech and satire.

Veteran satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys said that unlike comedy and humour, satire is brutal and is only appropriate as "topical, hard-hitting and without apology".

"Nothing is beyond satire," he added.

"The more lines crossed the better. Satire is meant to offend, upset, challenge, horrify, humour and force opinions for or against. It is a democratic right to cross a line of opinion," he said.

But Tom Eaton, founder of the satirical website Hayibo, said things stop being funny when they reveal personal bitterness.

"For me, the latest cartoon starts to reveal a type of bitterness and anger. Satire can be angry but then it stops being funny. The moment it stops being funny it stops being effective," he said.

Eaton said that by resorting to insults, Shapiro had made himself look powerless.

He said that, in his opinion, the M&G should not have published the cartoon because it was conceptually weak.

"Publishing it was a tough call because [Shapiro] does have a huge reputation and you doubt yourself and your reaction to the cartoon. But I think in this instance it was a weak cartoon," he said.

Unisa's Dr Julie Reid, a freedom of expression advocate who also does research in visual media and pop culture, said there are always limits when it comes to satire.

"Even if we're not talking about the legal limitations or an attack on someone's dignity, there are ethical limitations, moral limitations, there's something called blatant insult," she said. "It's a matter of decency and good manners."

Reid said she also didn't think the cartoon was very good.

"If artists and cartoonists in the country need to make comments about the president, there are many more intelligent and responsible things to say than talking about his penis."

But Reid said that if she were the editor, she would still have published the cartoon.

"It's a fine line when you're an editor, between curbing your journalists or cartoonists and censoring them," she said.

"I would have published it [but] I would have told the artist or perhaps written in the editorial that I didn't think it was very good."

Anton Harber, an executive board member of the Freedom of Expression Institute and former M&G editor, said that editors have to take account of the law and ethics as well as good taste and the nature of their publication and audience.

"Editing is about a careful choice of friends, enemies and targets, a judgment of what is important and what is appropriate. An editor who does not exercise their judgment on taste, appropriateness and likely impact is not doing their job," he said.

Harber added that just as one would defend the right of a cartoonist to be provocative, rude and even offensive, one would defend the right – or emphasise the obligation – of an editor to make the necessary choices.

M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawes has defended the decision to publish the cartoon.

"Zapiro is a very important social and political commentator and we give him a lot of space to play that role, that includes the space to produce work that may have varying degrees of effectiveness and may produce very different and polarised responses from people," he said.

Dawes said that where one draws the line in relation to someone like Zapiro is different to where one would draw the line for a staff reporter, who has very little leeway for expressing opinion, and where one would draw the line for a columnist, who has more.

"[Zapiro] has probably got the widest latitude of anyone that we would publish," he said.

Dawes said a complex judgment had to be made when considering whether to publish a cartoon or not.

"If the offence it might cause is completely out of proportion to the point [Shapiro] was trying to make, then we would debate very seriously whether it was appropriate to run or not," he said. "A cartoon that causes grave offence would still be appropriate if it tackles a very grave issue."

He added that he believed there would be an outcry if readers perceived the paper was seriously limiting the space in which Zapiro operates.

Despite the calls to have the cartoon removed, the newspaper has no plans to do so.

The cartoon comes just weeks after there was a national outcry over a painting, exhibited at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and reported on first in the City Press newspaper, which depicted Zuma in a Leninist pose, with his genitals exposed.

The ANC took the artist, the gallery and the newspaper to court but the charges were dropped after the painting was defaced by vandals and subsequently removed by the gallery.

City Press editor Ferial Haffajee later removed images of the painting from the City Press website – a move which she later said she regretted.