Cartoonists outline death penalty issues

Political cartoonists Patrick Chappatte (left) and Jeff Danziger agree their profession has become tougher since the Mohammed cartoon controversy

Illustrators Patrick Chappatte and Jeff Danziger talk to swissinfo about the death penalty and their own 9/11 – the 2005 Mohammed cartoon controversy.

This content was published on February 26, 2010

The Swiss and American artists were in Geneva this week to present a capital punishment cartoon exhibition on the sidelines of the Fourth World Congress Against the Death Penalty.

Around 1,000 government representatives and activists gathered in the Swiss city to discuss and draw up national and international strategies for the universal abolition of the death penalty.

Activists hope to give fresh momentum to a trend that has seen four countries a year, especially in Africa and Central Asia, join the ranks of abolitionists in recent decades.

On Wednesday Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero called for a global moratorium on executions as of 2015. Spain, which holds the European Union’s six-month rotating presidency, plans to set up an "international commission against the death penalty" to examine this question. How can cartoons change public perception of the death penalty?

Patrick Chappatte: I don’t think a cartoon has ever made anybody change their mind, but they can concentrate an idea. They are a very powerful communication tool, so they can say a lot of things in very simple strokes of a pen. Is your exhibition simply a propaganda tool for abolitionists?

P.C.: It’s a good cause, not propaganda. Of course the death penalty is not an issue here in Europe, so people might wonder what the point is.

But if you look at the exhibition, it’s not just cartoons with the same idea. You have No-rio from Japan, who is actually in favour of the death penalty. I have one making fun of the idea of Europe being shocked at the execution of Saddam Hussein, while all around is death and destruction.

There’s another by a Chinese artist who is caught between the audience, which is mostly for the death penalty, and the government, which is not open to press freedom. It’s very interesting to see how in a repressive context you can still express yourself with very simple, beautiful images. You describe the Mohammed cartoon controversy in Denmark as the illustrators’ “9-11”. What impact has this had on your own work?

P.C.: I’m tempted to say none for me in my daily work and contacts with editors, but we just found out that with the death penalty exhibition we had problems bordering on censorship with Geneva University [which hosted the exhibition]. This is the last place in the world I would have imagined that.

They sort of apologised and explained that it was one person in an office who had this strange idea of censoring cartoons dealing with burqas and stoning. It’s hard to believe.

It would be so ridiculous to have an exhibition on the universal abolition of the death penalty only if it doesn’t shock certain people.

The real consequences and risks [of the Mohammed controversy] are self-censorship. Newspapers are also dying and there is less of an appetite among editors for provocation.

Jeff Danziger.: The profession is getting tougher but also much better, as anything can go on the internet. I have stuff on the Huffington Post and New York Times sites.

Newspapers have had budget cuts and are losing circulations as they are trying not to anger anyone. It’s just hard to make money but that’s the same for everyone, not just cartoonists. Do you put limits on your work or is freedom of expression an absolute for you?

P.C.: With a sheet of paper and a pen you can do whatever you want. You can shock someone very easily with what comes out of your mind. But that’s not the aim of political cartooning.

The thing is to reach your audience and hit the target not necessarily with provocation. Angry cartoons are not always good cartoons.

J.D.: The only limit I put on my work is whether I would personally agree with what I was saying. Congress participants are upbeat about seeing an end to the death penalty soon. What’s your feeling?

J.D.: The question of people on death row being released via DNA testing through the Innocence Project organisation is a major story in the US. But otherwise the death penalty is not a big issue in the US right now due to economic problems.

P.C.: I don’t think justice issues or abolishing the death penalty are very popular right now. My feeling is the trend is actually the other way round as there is a crisis and people have other problems and worries. I wouldn’t be so confident.

Simon Bradley in Geneva,

Death penalty

Switzerland abolished capital punishment in 1942.

On October 18, 1940 a Swiss man was guillotined in Sarnen, canton Obwalden, for killing a policeman, becoming the last person to be killed under the Swiss death penalty.

Two-thirds of UN member states have already abolished, or are in the process of abolishing, capital punishment. Another 25 countries continued executions in 2009, of which 95% took place in China, Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

According to Amnesty International, at least 2,390 executions were carried out in 2008 in 25 countries. But the actual number is believed to be much higher.

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Patrick Chappatte and Jeff Danziger

Patrick Chappatte publishes his cartoons in the French-language Le Temps newspaper and the German-language Neue Zürcher Zeitung as well as the International Herald Tribune.

Jeff Danziger is a political cartoonist and author who publishes in numerous English language newspapers, magazines and websites, including the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.

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Cartooning for Peace

On October 16, 2006, Kofi Annan, then UN general-secretary, and Plantu, journalist-cartoonist with the French daily Le Monde, organised a conference entitled “Unlearning Intolerance”. It brought together 12 of the best-known newspaper cartoonists from all over the world at the UN Headquarters in New York.

The “Cartooning for Peace” initiative stemmed from this conference aimed at promoting better understanding and mutual respect among people of different faiths and cultures via newspaper cartoons. Cartooning for Peace organises press cartoon exhibitions and meetings between professional cartoonists from all over the world and the general public to encourage discussion on free speech and better recognition of their work. It also serves as a support network for cartoonists.

The organisation operates as an association in France and a Swiss foundation was created three weeks ago. A branch of Cartooning for Peace is also being created in Atlanta, United States.

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