Cherian George: Media Scholar

Annenberg School for Communication doctoral student and Center steering committee member Muira McCammon sat down with Center for Media at Risk visiting scholar Cherian George to discuss the various kinds of pressure that cartooning faces around the world.

You recently organized a symposium with the Center called “Red Lines: Cartooning at Risk.” How did it go? What were some of the highlights for you?

I should first clarify that I wasn’t attempting any comprehensive study of cartooning in the world. The book I’m working towards is primarily a study of censorship, rather than a study of cartooning. Cartooning offers a very illuminating window on censorship, and so my intent with the symposium, as it will be with the book, was to find a stimulating range of cases that illustrates the various kinds of pressure that cartooning faces around the world. Although the cartoonists that we invited were certainly very accomplished stars in their own right, some of the interviews I will be doing won’t necessarily be with famous or accomplished cartoonists. It really is the stories of censorship that interest me more than the art form as such, and that’s what we got at the symposium.

For me, the symposium got at the complexity of political cartoons and by extension the nuances that the medium brings.

I hope what came through the eight speakers’ presentations was the sheer range of restrictions that are brought to bear on cartooning, whether they’re from government or from publishers, or from the community at large.

What I find most interesting is there are several unresolved or maybe even unresolvable issues surrounding cartoon censorship. Because we all know that there are cases of cartoons that are used for anti-democratic purposes, and are used for ill. There are bad actors in the cartooning world. Not all cartoonists are heroes. Not all cartoonists act in the public interest. Cartoons have been used for hate propaganda. They have been used to promote war and genocide.  Between the extremes of cartoons used for liberating, democratic purposes on one hand and cartoons used to incite war and genocide on the other, there is a vast gray area of cartoons that some see as provoking very healthy democratic debate, while others see as wanton cruelty towards the targets of those cartoons. And in some cases, it is quite difficult to make that judgment call as to whether the cartoon did cross a line that society should more stringently police. At what point does mockery cross the line into sadism? At what point does ridicule get egregious? These are genuinely difficult issues.

Your book is focusing on cartoonists who have been censored and I’m wondering if everyone that you’ve reached out to has wanted to reflect on the atmosphere of censorship that they’ve experienced.

As with any qualitative research project that involves in-depth interviews, there will always be reluctance, quite understandable reluctance, on the part of some subjects. In this case, I expect, although I haven’t yet come across such cases, that some cartoonists simply prefer to keep a low profile because they might be working underground and don’t want to draw attention to themselves. There are other cartoonists who, because their work has been so controversial and has created such intense public debate, are just tired of talking about it and see no benefit in talking about it anymore. For example, I was in Paris in August, mainly to look at the Charlie Hebdo case, but did not succeed in meeting any Charlie Hebdo cartoonists — I think because they just don’t want to debate it anymore.

One of the panelists, Rob Rogers, talked about his controversial firing as a cartoonist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and discussed cartoons he opted not to publish as well as those his editor refused to print. The theme of self-censorship emerged multiple times during the symposium. How has your understanding of self-censorship evolved, and what have you learned about the ways in which editors apply pressure to cartoonists?

Well, what has always been quite clear to me is that our language needs to distinguish between, on the one side, very legitimate and necessary editorial judgment, which often results in voluntary self-restraint for reasons of taste, accuracy and so on, and on the other side, what I would call self-censorship, where power and fear are involved. This is restraint that is not quite voluntary. It’s restraint to preempt punishment, or in anticipation of reward from people with power over you.

The killing of Rob Rogers’ cartoons was really a classic case of silencing of a political viewpoint, and a highly legitimate political viewpoint, by a media owner who did not agree with that viewpoint. This, of course, doesn’t end the debate, because the question then arises: don’t media owners have the legitimate right to decide what should go in the outlets they’ve invested in? Conventionally, at least in American thinking, press freedom belongs significantly to media owners, as much as or even more so than it belongs to media workers. One standard answer to a case like Rob Rogers, among those who don’t think it counts as censorship or self-censorship, is that, “Well, you know, Rogers is not shut out of the public sphere. He’s free to publish his work elsewhere. So, why should anyone complain that his publisher chose to restrict access to his newspaper?” I think what’s interesting is that the context has changed. Because we used to be in a situation where there was an abundance of newspapers, and an abundance of cartooning jobs within the newspaper industry. But because of the financial crisis that the industry has gone through, that is certainly no longer the case.

So, now, we are almost at the stage where the city newspaper that is able to speak to an entire community is almost as scarce a resource as broadcast airwaves — and, remember, trusteeship of airwaves has been associated with some public service obligations. The net effect of Rob Rogers’s firing is that Pittsburgh residents now don’t have access to a high-quality, critical diet of editorial cartoons in the course of their print news consumption. And for all the wrong reasons. So that, to me, does sound like censorship.

A good number of people at the symposium seemed to take the opinion that the real way to protest would have been to refuse to let anyone take Rogers’ job. That really got at the heart of the political economy of our current moment. It goes beyond just cartooning and also gets at the core of the current plight of modern journalism.

It’s not unique to cartooning, and it’s not unique to the US, that one of the challenges for press freedom has to do with solidarity. Professional solidarity. Anywhere in the world you look, it is extremely difficult to find the kind of solidarity that you would need to mount a vigorous, collective defense of press freedom. The powers that be, whether political or economic, everywhere in the world, have been very, very successful at the divide-and-rule of media workers. And of course, this is part of a larger story that goes beyond the media. It’s about labor generally. The function of the media unions, for example, has changed over the decades. It’s rare to find a journalistic union that places the defense of press freedom near the top of its agenda. Most unions are simply fighting for better terms of employment, better pay, and so on, and hardly think about press freedom issues.

To what extent has being a journalist with The Straits Times in Singapore impacted how you engage with the world of journalism, as a scholar?

First of all, it’s given me a very deep love for journalism that has never gone away. I love journalists as well. I’m married to one. Throughout my adult life, I’ve had this unshakable conviction that journalism should and can be a force for good in the world. So it upsets me when it fails to live up to that promise.

Second, I spent my career in a setting that was soft-authoritarian, semi-democratic, nothing close to the First Amendment context that’s enjoyed in the US, but neither is it as repressive as many other societies. I’ve always been intrigued by these in-between societies like Singapore.

Singapore’s not the kind of society where the repression is so visible and outrageous that a lot of people get upset about it. People know that the media are not particularly free, and don’t particularly care, because it’s not as if journalists are being arrested or killed. It’s not as if Singaporeans lack choice in their general media diet. They enjoy many, many different ways to entertain themselves. And what I’ve seen over the last ten years or so is that such contexts are multiplying. We have situations where journalists and cartoonists don’t enjoy the freedoms that they should. But restrictions are often only semi-visible. Most people don’t know about them and don’t care about the fact that they have been denied the complete diet of information and ideas that they deserve. So, one common theme in my research has been to try and understand this. How do power structures apply censorship in ways that have been quite effective, but under the radar?

What advice do you have for the next generation, my generation that is, of researchers who are trying to grapple with structures that are not always seen?

It’s a challenge to expose the way power works. Especially the workings of power that are not immediately obvious, because those workings are embedded in the structures through which society operates, and because they are wrapped in ideology. It’s always been the role of critical scholarship to try to strip away that ideology and to expose structures for what they are.

Personally, one thing that I’ve found stimulating is to look at the margins, alternative media, marginalized groups, dissident cartoonists, and so on. Because they’re not only interesting in themselves; they are the evidence that different ways of thinking and expression are possible. And if it is possible to think in these different ways, then why are those alternative ways of expression, those alternative worlds, not part of mainstream discourse? Is it simply that they deserve to be on the margins because they’re not very good ideas? Or is it because these ideas have merit but are excluded for other reasons? Excluded because they’re not in the interest of those at the center of power to have them circulated?

At the symposium “Red Lines,” Ted Rall was talking about his own legal battles. What advice do you have for cartoonists who are at risk but specifically facing legal battles? There are so many instances of censorship that are happening globally and in spheres where the First Amendment is not applicable.

You know, there’s a political economy of communication. There’s also a political economy of dissent and media protection. So, unfortunately, it’s only certain cases that get flagged by free speech groups and international human rights groups, or get adopted by pro bono lawyers and activist groups and so on. We’ve got to assume that for every battle that gets our attention there are probably many more cases that we just never know about.

Sometimes it is for self-preservation that people keep quiet about censorship. To make an issue out of it might compromise their ability to find their next job. Certainly in more controlled societies, that dynamic is routine. Fortunately, there is a small number of organizations that are dedicated to helping cartoonists, journalists, human rights workers, at risk. As citizens we can support their work.

Within the media sector, cartoonists have been neglected more than other media professionals, more than writers. It’s more likely that we would know of reporters in trouble than cartoonists in trouble. The reporters probably work in brand-name news organizations – with lawyers on retainer. But most cartoonists are freelancers. It’s the other side of the coin of the simplicity of their work. What makes satirical cartooning such a potentially radical and powerful medium, and a centuries-old art form, is that you don’t need much to do it. Just a piece of paper or a wall and something to scratch it with. You don’t need a lot of capital or an organization behind you. That makes cartoonists the guerrillas of the media — but it also makes them more vulnerable.

Cherian George is Professor of Media Studies at the Journalism Department of Hong Kong Baptist University, where he also serves as Director of the Centre for Media and Communication Research. He researches media freedom, censorship and hate propaganda. He is the author of five books, including Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and its Threat to Democracy (MIT Press, 2016). He received his Ph.D. in Communication from Stanford University. Before joining academia, he was a journalist with The Straits Times in Singapore.