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Jun 29

Kal talks Cartoons in Azerbaijan

Category: News, azerbaijan


Press conference at the opening of Kal exhibition in Baku, Azerbaijan

During the cold war there was this joke about two cartoonists, a Russian and American. The American says:


“ In the USA we have the freedom to express our opinions. So in my cartoons, I am free to criticize my president whenever I want”.


The Russian cartoonist responds:


“ In Russia, we have the very same freedom.  In my cartoons I am free to criticize your president whenever I want”.


Funny but sadly true. Political cartoonists in much of the world today work with serious constraints. Drawing their head of state is a definite No-No. If they dare to use their cartoons as tools for domestic commentary they risk dangerous consequences. These cartoonists are the foot-soldiers in the battle for freedom of expression in their countries.


You would expect to find suppression of free thinkers like cartoonists in authoritarian regimes. But there are many new emerging democracies that are also struggling with issues of freedom of expression.


Many of these young democracies are former soviet era protectorates. After decades of Communist single party rule they have no tradition of robust, healthy and open political debate. These nation’s powerbrokers are skeptical and distrustful of criticism. These new countries struggle to embrace political dissent in the media and cartoons.


Azerbaijan is one of these countries.


Azerbaijan is a small secular Islamic nation of enormous potential. It is blessed with a literate population, a strategic location and an important resource: oil.


It is also a democracy… of sorts


In 2005, a highly irregular Presidential election placed Ilham Aliyev in office (others would say on the throne). He succeeded his recently deceased father and the “father” of modern Azerbaijan Gadar Aliyev.


In his short time in office he has consolidated his power and has shown iron- fisted “Putin-esque” tendencies when dealing with public criticism. Some suggest he is planning to be “re-elected” indefinitely until his 12-year-old son will be ready for succession.


It is into this political environment I ventured during a recent visit to Azerbaijan. I was there on the invitation of the US embassy to hold an exhibition of my cartoons and meet with diplomats, journalists, artists, filmmakers and citizens. Our discussions would center on political cartooning and its valuable role of free expression in western democracies.


Bringing a political cartoonist to Azerbaijan was a smart and effective initiative for the US Embassy. My exhibition was chock full of hard hitting cartoons targeting US Presidents of both parties. These were your typical fare for American audiences familiar with the long tradition of political satire and lampoonery in western media.  To the Azerbaijani audience, the exhibition was a revelation.


National television and press gave ample coverage to my exhibition and my visit. The consistent question posed to me was “ Do I ever get in trouble for portraying my leader in such negative light?” 


To their surprise my answer was no. I would tell the audience that not every one of my readers agreed with nor enjoyed the cartoons. I often received criticism from readers and political supporters of my targets. I told my questioners that my role as a cartoonist was not to make people laugh but to make them think. My cartoons are mini commentaries whose goal is to provoke discussion, not hostility.


There was plenty of discussion and laughter. Cartoons are great tools for engaging, entertaining, and addressing serious issues.


I have to commend the US Embassy in Baku.  My visit, my exhibition of cartoons, and my meeting with citizens created the perfect opportunity to partake in a conversation on the western tradition of freedom of expression in a vibrant democracy.


I have always thought you can judge the maturity of a democracy by the amount of satire it can endure. Azerbaijan is a young democracy. There is still hope that it can mature into a secure and representative nation. However, it will only be welcomed into the community of modern nations when it can tolerantly endure an environment of open debate.


An environment where no one fears to draw their head of state.


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