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When cartoons stepped on sensitive toes

City News
                          One of the recent budget illustrations

 Sometime last year local, cartoonists gathered to pay tribute to two of their own – Elijah Gitau and Terry Hirst – who pioneered cartooning in the country. Among the invited guests were Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and Nation Media Group CEO Linus Gitahi.

Gitahi narrated how cartoonists, especially Godfrey Mwampembwa (Gado), always keep him on his toes. He added that many are the times he gets calls from people who have taken offence with the editorial cartoon on a particular day. Granted that these people who raise Gitahi on phone are not exactly ‘small’ people, it goes to show how that small strip in a newspaper has a powerful effect.

During the same event, the CJ remarked how cartoonists ‘never get it right’ when it comes to portraying him. He however singled out John Nyaga, a caricaturist, for being the only person who ever drew him well.

Cartoons by their very nature are supposed to drive home certain messages using humour and satire. This explains why to date, cartoons, especially the main editorial pieces (besides the obituary), occupy the most popular sections of a newspaper. The reaction is almost always heated depending on how different readers interpret it. A case in point was when Gado’s piece on the ‘Hustler’s Jet’ caused uproar in Parliament with some MPs calling for action to be taken against the cartoonist for ‘imputing improper motive’ on their part. What most readers do not know is that apart from the cartoons that give them so much joy and cause so much controversy, there are others that do not see the light of day.

For one reason or the other, editors, who are the gatekeepers, feel that some pieces are ‘too explosive’ to be published.  Most of the times, editors feel that the ‘offensive cartoons’ either fail the test of good taste or might ‘step on some sensitive toes’.

“There are instances where editors feel strongly that some pieces should not be published,” explains Gado. “Of course, you won’t be happy if your cartoon is not published. Naturally, I protest and we have heated arguments, but at the end of the day, the editors have the final say.” He however says that he does not let the non-publication of his cartoons get to him. “There are times when things do not go your way and you have to respect the decision of the editors. You learn to live with it,” he says.

So where does he take the rejected cartoons? “I publish them online,” he reveals. He adds that the censored pieces he publishes online receive ‘normal reaction’ from readers. “Sometimes there is a strong public reaction against them, which is fair enough for me,” he adds.

Paul Kelemba (Maddo), better known for his ‘It’s a Madd Madd World,’ says that the democratic space has tremendously improved and that there is now more freedom of expression. “This is unlike in the early 90s when depicting Moi was totally different from how I draw Uhuru today,” he explains, adding that with the passage of time, some of the bravado he had back in the day is waning. “With the benefit of experience, I know what is likely to be rejected. I work within the confines of editorial policy of course without compromising my principles,” adds Maddo.

That, however, does not mean that his pieces have not faced rejection. He names a senior editor in the early 90s, who he describes as an establishment person. “This man trashed a number of my pieces,” he says.

Still, Maddo believes that cartoonists need to push the limits of freedom of expression. Before 1992, you couldn’t depict the then President Moi as a cartoon. Maddo was the first ever cartoonist in Kenya to cross that line, when he caricatured Moi on the cover of Society magazine, published by Pius Nyamora. Contrary to what had been feared earlier, no action was taken against him. It is then that the dailies started caricaturing the president.

On his part, Nyaga says that as much as there is freedom of expression, artists should also take into consideration the feelings of those they satirise. He gives the example of Spear of the Nation, a piece by a South African artist who depicted South African President Jacob Zuma with exposed genitals. “As much as Zuma might have done bad things, you do not correct that by doing the same,” he explains.

“This might seem cowardly, but then freedom comes with responsibility. If I have absolute freedom, I might find myself infringing on other people’s rights,” he says. About the piece that was praised by the CJ, Nyaga thinks that the CJ takes criticism well. In that piece, he had drawn the CJ walking on the dusty plains of Kitui on his way to Nairobi. It was in response to Mutunga’s call to for the judiciary to purchase helicopters for judges.

“The CJ was so impressed by that piece that he asked to see me. He later bought a framed version of that piece,” says Nyaga. He recalls the time he caricatured Kakamega Senator Bonny Khalwale based on his passion for bullfighting. “After doing the piece, I feared that it might be rejected as I had depicted a bull with oversized testicles with Khalwale’s head. I was surprised that the editors loved it.”

“I knew the piece was controversial, but I was confident that I could defend it if called upon to do so,” he says. “My advise to artists is that they should critique their work before submitting their pieces.”


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