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Drawing with kid gloves

April 13, 2012

The trial of four men suspected of plotting an attack on a Danish newspaper that published cartoons considered offensive to Islam begins Friday. The cartoon controversy marked a turning point for political cartooning.

Danish cartoonist Westergaard at his desk
The Danish cartoonist Westergaard became known worldwide for his controversial caricatures of Mohammed Image: Henning Bagger/scanpix denmark/dpa/picture alliance

The editorial headquarters of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Copenhagen resembles a maximum security facility, with plenty of gates, metal detectors and guards intended to keep undesired guests out.

The Danish newspaper has its share of enemies. In the fall of 2005, Jyllands-Posten published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, triggering a wave of outrage. Violent demonstrations broke out in several Muslim countries, leading to the deaths of 150 people.

The broadsheet and its political cartoonist Kurt Westergaard - who depicted Mohammed with a turban in the form of a bomb - have become hate icons for radical Islamists. The paper and the illustrator continue to be targeted by death threats and planned attacks.

This Friday, a trial will begin against four men whom prosecutors suspect of plotting a bloodbath for the Jyllands-Posten newsroom two years ago. The alleged criminals come from various Arab countries and apparently belong to the Islamist scene.

Increased pressure on caricaturists

Had the attack been carried out, Anders Jerichow could have been present - the renowned foreign correspondent works for the Danish newspaper Politiken, under the same publisher that owns Jyllands-Posten.

In Denmark, Jerichow released a book entitled "Cartoonists in the Global Minefield," in which he documents the working conditions of post-Mohammed-era caricaturists in places such as Amman, Delhi and Paris.

cartoon of illustrator surrounded by militant Islamists
Sakurai depicts the changed landscape for political cartoonistsImage: Heiko Sakurai

In his book, Jerichow comes to the conclusion that pressure on political cartoonists has increased since the protests against the Mohammed cartoons. Due to dealing with controversial topics, caricaturists are in a more precarious position than that of typical journalists.

This is apparently not just the case with illustrators critical of Islam - other religious figures, as well as politicians, seek to interfere with the caricaturists' work, Jerichow says.

He says this has been behind increasing self-censorship - and not just in the Middle East, but in Europe as well.

Staying sensitive

Meanwhile, in Germany as well, caricaturists are broaching the topic of Islam more cautiously.

Heiko Sakurai regularly draws political cartoons on current affairs for German newspapers such as Die Welt and Financial Times Deutschland. Although he didn't go so far as to call it self-censorship, Sakurai admits he's become more cautious.

"I think the protests against the Mohammed cartoons represented a certain crossroads," Sakurai told DW. He says since then, he has always considered the consequences while working on his cartoons.

"Am I going too far? Not far enough? Since the cartoon controversy, I ask myself these questions, because in the back of my head I'm considering certain sensitivities," Sakurai said.

He points to a piece he drew about the abuse scandal in the Catholic church two years ago, which he described as making more impartial than the cartoons about Islam.

cartoon of people in building with security forces in front
"Will the chancellor be joining us?" - "No, it's just our political cartoonist coming for an editorial meeting."Image: Heiko Sakurai

Editorial self-censorship?

Newspaper editors, despite touting freedom of expression during the discussion of the Mohammed cartoon, are also approaching certain topics with more caution, Sakurai thinks.

Describing previous political cartoons about Islam published in German newspapers as "pretty harsh," Sakurai added, "I don't know if they'd be printed nowadays."

The standards by which publishers judge an illustration have also changed, says media researcher Teresa Naab.

"Freedom of expression is a basic right. But its boundaries should continue to be discussed," she said.

Naab thinks the caricature conflict could be considered an opportunity to promote such a discussion. The cartoonists themselves would of course play an important role in such a discussion, as they consider which portrayals of Islam are acceptable and which are not.

Defending artistic liberties

Sakurai says he has never faced threats as a result of his own drawings. But there are other German political cartoonists for whom things have gone differently.

Ahead of the World Cup, a colleague of Sakurai depicted the Iranian soccer team as suicide bombers wearing bombing belts.

Although the comic was actually targeting certain German politicians who had put forward an absurd proposal to bring in the army as security during the World Cup, Iranians at home and abroad reacted indignantly.

The illustrator was subject to numerous death threats, and had to retreat from public life for some time.

"That really shocked me," said Sakurai, adding that despite the reaction, he plans to keep exercising his artistic liberties when drawing political cartoons.

Author: Jan Bruck / sad
Editor: Martin Kuebler

Editor's note: On February 7, 2023, a photo showing cartoons from the Jyllands-Posten was removed from this article as it did not meet the latest editorial standards for use of images.