The recent murder of five cartoonists (and six others) in their offices at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and the attempted murder of Lars Vilks in Denmark, has brought the issue of cartoonists’ rights and safety to the center of public discourse.

The Northern Virginia-based Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) has been defending cartoonists for decades. Some of its recent concerns: Malaysia’s Zunar has been arrested, Ecuador’s Bonil is being censored, and Palestine’s Mohammad Saba’aneh has been suspended from his job. Pulitzer-winning Politico cartoonist Matt Wuerker, who’s on the CRNI board,  spoke with Arts Desk about the organization’s biggest success stories, current fundraising campaign, and commitment to free speech.

Arts Desk: What is Cartoonists Rights Network International and why is it necessary?

Wuerker: We’re an Amnesty International-type organization—-we’re just more graphic, cartoonish, and a heck of a lot smaller. It functions very much the way Amnesty International functions, in that when someone gets in trouble with their government or other political forces in their country, it helps raise their visibility. Raises it in a way we hope will somewhat inoculate them from really, really bad things happening, ideally. That doesn’t always happen, but a lot of the time, if the government is aware that people around the world are watching, it can help cartoonists who are in pretty dire situations.

Is CRNI purely meant to respond to government actions, or is there a component of watching out for others who may infringe civil rights of cartoonists? It’s not always the government.

Majda Shaheen (self-portrait)

Yes, it’s not always the government. One of the things that CRNI always does is, every year at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists’ convention, we give out a Courage in Cartooning award. It’s a way of recognizing someone who stood up to intimidation and threats. That’s not always coming from the government. This year there were two winners. The prize was split between Majda Shaheen, a Palestinian cartoonist who was brave enough to do cartoons in Gaza criticizing Hamas and came under fire.

The other winner was Kanika Mishra. She’s a classic case of how the award and this kind of attention can be helpful. She’s part of a new breed of cartoonists that are starting to become clients for CRNI. She published most of her cartoons on Facebook in Mumbai, although she calls it Bombay. There’s a political twist—-if you’re not a pro-nationalist, you go back and call it Bombay. So she’s based in Bombay and was doing cartoons about a local religious leader who was getting away with sexual harassment and worse among his followers. His followers then threatened her on Facebook. It was a non-governmental threat. She came to the AAEC convention this year and got the award and went back to India. At home, there were a lot of newspaper articles about her visiting the States and getting an award. It can cause problems in some situations, but here the visibility helped elevate her work and also gave her a little bit of protection because it made it obvious that people were watching.

By Steve Benson

CRNI was founded over a couple of decades ago…

Twenty-five years ago is what our website says. It was founded by Dr. Robert Russell, whom most of us know as ‘Bro,’ and it’s my understanding that he was doing foreign aid work in Sri Lanka and he had befriended a local cartoonist who got in trouble with the government. Russell realized he could be helpful to cartoonists and he started following similar cases in other countries.

When and how did you get involved?

I blame cartoonist Joel Pett for getting me involved. Joel talked me onto the board about eight years ago. It’s a D.C. NGO kind of thing. The board tries to help raise money and work on the mission, and decide who to give the award to. Things like that. But CRNI’s really been piloted by Russell for its 25 years.

I know cartoonists Ann TelnaesKevin ‘KAL’ Kallaugher, and Dr. John Lent have been involved. Who else is on the board, or on board?

Joel Pett and John Lent are currently on the board. The current board has Chris Bliss, a stand-up comic and a local educator Carol Lange, who’s been a big help writing grant applications. We also have very active volunteer support for Nik Kowsar as well as Dan Murphy in British Columbia, who helps with the redesigned website. There are many others, some former board members and friends of CRNI who bring crucial support and volunteer their time and energy.

By Joel Pett

CRNI logo by Matt Wuerker

Why is CRNI fundraising now, on Indiegogo?

We realized that we need to raise some money to meet one of the challenges for CRNI, which is evolving into the current new media age. Indiegogo lets us do both of those at the same time. We’ve been slow to build the social network part of the work. Pre-Facebook and Twitter, it was all about sending letters to prime ministers and ambassadors, but now so much happens on social networks. We’re just starting to really build that capacity. This stuff is very effective.

People have sort of a chauvinistic idea [that] the U.S. [is] ahead of the world technologically, but there’s a lot of the world that does a lot more on social media than we do. Countries that you wouldn’t expect—-Bangladesh is extremely wired and on Facebook. India is the same. We need to migrate a lot of the work and rabble-rousing that we do into those realms. So Indiegogo lets us build that network a little bit, and with the money we’re raising, we’re hoping to use that way. We just redid the website, with Chris Bliss taking the lead on that, so it now has more social network tools. Things can be shared more easily. The current case of Malaysian cartoonist Zunar is an example. We posted something on the website that ideally people can share on their Facebook pages, and the word spreads so much faster than it used to. We’re trying to build that type of capability.

In the past, if you’d sent a letter to a prime minister on Zunar’s behalf, would that have been taken more seriously than 15,000 Facebook likes from people Malaysia has never heard of?

There’s lot of different ways to help now. In Zunar’s case, Russell is sending a letter to the prime minister of Malaysia, and he’s also trying to get the American ambassador in Malaysia, through contacts at the State Department, to weigh in. The more influentials you can get to weigh in, the better, but also having a big buzz on social media makes a difference. In Zunar’s case, in Malaysia, he has a big Facebook page of his own.

Zunar’s cartoon tweet that got him arrested

In fact, he was arrested for a Twitter cartoon.

Right. So if CRNI can wire up our supporters to his page, it amplifies how much support he has outside the country. It’s back to the Amnesty International model of “you really don’t want to put this guy in jail or do worse to him, because people are paying attention.” It also lets the cartoonist know that they are not alone. There’s an international tribe of cartoonists, and we’re now more aware of each other’s work thanks to the Internet.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre in France killed five cartoonists. There’s obviously nothing CRNI could have done about that in advance. Are you doing anything about it after the fact? Did the Charlie Hebdo massacre raise the urgency of your fundraising campaign?

We started to work on the Indiegogo campaign last fall, and we were hoping to have it launched for the winter holiday giving season. We failed to hit that, but oddly it may have worked to our benefit because the Charlie Hebdo killings made people more sensitive to the issues now. The thing about CRNI is that we’re completely apolitical and non-partisan. For instance, in the case of the Danish cartoon controversy back in 2005, the Courage in Cartooning award was given to Fleming Rose, the editor of the magazine who commissioned them. It was really controversial within the cartoon community at the time.

People were wondering if he was a provocateur.

Right, and he was, and continues to be. The point can be difficult in the modern digital age, but free Western democracies are completely dependent on completely unfettered free speech, and it’s something that most people in the United States and France are utterly clear on. That’s what got the 3 million people in the streets of Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Some may have been fans of the cartoons, but the march was really about unfettered free speech and not backing down to threats and intimidation, which is exactly what CRNI espouses. The West is relatively clear on that—-the rest of the world, not so much. Zunar’s problem is that he’s being tried under relatively new sedition laws in Malaysia. The other thing that’s popping up in the Muslim world is blasphemy laws. A lot of countries are making it punishable if you insult religion. This is apparently also true in the Israeli press.

Palestinian Mohammad Saba’aneh’s cartoon 

There’s a Palestinian cartoonist who’s gotten in trouble for drawing a Muslim who some have taken to be Muhammad. Is CRNI involved in that?

That’s an interesting example about how these cases can get touchy. He says he didn’t draw Muhammad. He was trying to draw a human figure that represented the Muslim people. He draws on the West Bank, and he’s a very mild-mannered guy who’s very brave. Two years ago, he spent five months in an Israeli jail, so the first time CRNI was working with him, it was trying to get the Israelis to let him out of jail. He drew this cartoon which basically sounds like it misfired. It’s just a man wearing Arabic clothes standing on a globe, taking water or seeds out of a heart-shaped purse. It misfired because the metaphor was misunderstood. He’s been trying to explain that it’s not Muhammad and that’s not what he intended, but he’s been suspended from his job in the meantime. These kind of situations are hard because maybe it’s not necessarily helpful to him to have Americans take a thing which could settle down on its own accord, and instead turn it into a big international incident. If we politicize it, perhaps the cartoonist isn’t just suspended but loses his job. Right now, he’s probably keeping his head down and hoping his editors realize it was a misunderstanding and give him his job back. The point is to be helpful to the cartoonist and not add to his or her troubles.

Does CRNI provide any direct monetary assistance to cartoonists overseas?

We have. Russell has been good at taking some cartoonists and getting them into touch with other organizations that are in better situations to help them monetarily. In the case of a Bangladeshi cartoonist who got in trouble with fundamentalists, Russell got him in touch with a Norwegian City of Refuge, and the cartoonist now lives in a small village in Norway. But he’s much better off. Another case like that is Nik Kowsar who is not on the board, but has been really active in supporting the organization. He’s an Iranian cartoonist who fled the country, transited through Canada, and now works across the street from me in Rosslyn.

Dan Murphy on Syria’s leadership

What’s the money you’re fundraising for now going to be used for?

It’s so we can pay some bills, stabilize the organization, and expand our social networks and our website.

Finally, why should Americans care about cartoonists overseas? 

Because freedom of speech is such a cornerstone of open societies, and editorial cartooning is an interesting juncture between politics, free speech, and humor. Those things are all doors to start conversations about civil society and getting along with each other. I think that CRNI could evolve into—-who knows what? We could end up based in England or Malaysia. It’s an international idea and movement that’s not an American idea. We just happen to be based in Northern Virginia.

But perhaps it’s not about working toward some big, global, high-minded goal. Maybe the most important aspect of the work is that it can make such a difference on the individual level. It comes down to helping individuals who bravely put out their cartoons despite threats and intimidation. Being there and supporting them is really what it comes down to in the end.