Arab Cartoonists Get Freer Hand as Governments Ease Censorship

Once a no-fly zone for caricaturists, region’s leaders now get skewered
By David E. Miller - The Media line

When Saudi political cartoonist Abdullah Jaber drew a caricature of Libyan leader Muammar Al-Qaddafi four years ago, his editor at the Al-Jazirah daily refused to publish it. Never mind that Al-Qaddafi ruled a distant country with no particularly close ties to Saudi Arabia. Cartoonists didn’t make fun of the region’s leaders.

But even in places like Saudi Arabia, where the anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East have failed to gain traction, red lines are rapidly fading. "There is no law prohibiting such caricatures, but editors would simply not approve them," Jaber told The Media Line. "But last week I published four caricatures of Al-Qaddafi and no one said a word.”

His caricatures have shown the Libyan leader giving a speech calling for the death of traitors and terrorists, only to find guns pointed at him in the next panel. Another shows Al-Qaddafi as a statue holding a tablet declaring “I shall not leave” while an ordinary Libyan carries the stone image away. A third depicts a television anchor reading a news bulletin, “Satan calls on Al-Qaddafi to show restraint.”

The winds of change blowing through the Arab world have brought about a dramatic breakthrough in the liberties granted to the Arab media, and political cartoonists are no exception. Once banned from depicting the image of their leaders, today Arab cartoonists have a free hand to mock untouchables like Egypt's Husni Mubarak or Libya's Muammar Al-Qaddafi.

The only rule that remains is imposed by the region's conservative monarchies, like Saudi Arabia, which now let cartoonists portray other Arab leaders but not those in their home countries.

But even that restriction doesn’t do much to dull the pens of cartoonists: After the port city of Jeddah was flooded again this winter, resulting in 11 people drowning to death, Saudis protested the lack of adequate infrastructure by exchanging a cartoon depicting the royal seal’s crossed swords over a palm tree as crossed mops over a bucket.

Nidal Hashem, a Jordanian cartoonist, has documented the cartoon revolution via, an Internet site he manages that features political cartoons from around the Arab world.  Starting with cartoons portraying the popular uprising in Egypt from its beginning on January 25 until February 15, a few days after the resignation of President Husni Mubarak, Hashem showed the quick transition.

From cautious, often non-existent coverage, political cartoons quickly evolved into full-fledged Western-style criticism, as editorial constraints were removed in Arab newspapers.

"At the start of the Egyptian revolution there was a degree of heightened sensitivity in Jordan to cartoons about the revolution, with editors fearing comparisons between Egypt and Jordan," Hashem, who publishes his own cartoons in the Jordanian daily Al-Ghad, told The Media Line. "But after the success of the Egyptian revolution, there is more openness."

Drawing Jordan’s king, Abdullah, however, is still legally strictly off limits.

Hashem says government agents didn’t directly interfere with the work of Jordanian cartoonists, but they did put pressure on newspaper editors to refrain from publishing certain political cartoons.

"Once, a cartoon of former Prime Minister Nader Al-Dahabi was published by Imad Hajjaj in Al-Ghad," Hashem said. "The prime minister called the editor and expressed his anger. It was quite unpleasant."

Abdullah Jaber, the Saudi cartoonist, says change has occurred in the kingdom more slowly, but that both the media and ordinary people were enjoying more freedom of expression than a year ago. King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, who came to power in 2005, has encouraged the loosening of restrictions, he said, but ordinary Saudis have been slow in taking advantage of their new freedoms.

"When you're used to walking under a ceiling one meter high, you can't stand up straight even when the ceiling is raised," Jaber said. "The people haven't yet fathomed the increase in freedom of expression." 

Jaber added that he was among the signatories of a recent petition calling for political reform in Saudi Arabia.  "If my relatives knew I signed, I'm sure they would be fearful and cry, but the fact is no one harmed me as a result," he said.

He says that some of the cartoons he draws are still banned from print, so he distributes them through his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts. "The thing is, you get paid only for cartoons published in print, not those displayed on-line. I also know that if I cross the red line in print, I have the editor to back me up. If I do so online, I'm on my own."

In his research into the cartoon coverage of the Egyptian uprising, Hashem of, noticed that certain publications, mainly in Syria and the Palestinian Authority, completely ignored the unrest in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, or treated it negatively. But when Mubarak was forced out of office three weeks later, there was a small thaw.

"The Egyptian revolution was an opportunity to examine the treatment of a specific event by Arab cartoonists," Hashem wrote in

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions – the first to break out -- were largely "untouchable" to cartoonists, but by the time Al-Qaddafi came under attack from the opposition in the second half of February, the environment was already changed. The Libyan leader, who is often portrayed as silly and eccentric in the West, was depicted and mocked by Arab cartoonists from day one.

In the Saudi-owned daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, cartoons were published showing him as a crazed suicide bomber or like a modern-day Samson toppling the pillars of a building on himself, suggesting that Al-Qaddafi is destroying Libya in his determination to fight the opposition.

"It all depends on the country's politics towards a given state," Jaber says. "Not a word was said about Saudi Arabia's hosting of [deposed Tunisian President Zine Al- Abidine] Ben Ali in the local press."

Following the return of King Abdullah to Saudi Arabia on February 23 from three months of medical treatment in the U.S. and Morocco, Jaber published a risque cartoon in Al-Jazirah depicting the king's limousine driving through ruined streets in the kingdom, with two assistants running alongside the car and hiding the view with large signs reading "welcome.”  An image of the king himself doesn’t appear in the cartoon.

Although Jaber insists that freedoms granted to cartoonists in Saudi Arabia are greater than people usually believe, he says it is still not enough.

"I drew a cartoon criticizing the limits of freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia just two days ago," he says. "But I still demand full freedom. I want the liberty to criticize a prince or even the King just as I can criticize a lowly civil servant."  

The Media Line