In an interview with Sabrang India, Acharya spoke about the current trend of attacks on journalists, freedom of expression and the BJP IT Cell, after his cartoons were dropped from Mail Today.
Interviewed by Preksha Malu
Prominent cartoonist Satish Acharya quit Mail Today as the editor decided to drop his cartoon on Modi and China. Acharya rose to prominence as a cartoonist for Midday tabloid and enjoys a wide reach among the masses and even politicians. On Sunday, he said in a Facebook post, that has since gone viral, that the editor chose to carry a photo instead of his cartoon titled ‘Claws!’, which showed China’s red dragon talons spreading across South Asia while Modi stands listlessly.
In 2015, Acharya was featured as one among 24 thinkers named by Forbes India as the best India-based intellectuals who are well regarded outside India. His cartoon on the Charlie Hebdo attack was carried by many popular international media houses.
In an interview with Sabrang India, Acharya spoke about the current trend of attacks on journalists, freedom of expression and the BJP IT Cell.
“I don’t know if the editor was influenced by the BJP IT Cell where people monitor the media but I have seen a pattern in editors rejecting cartoons pertaining to cows, lynching, Modi, Amit Shah and more,” he said.
He also said that when he made similar cartoons on the UPA government, something on this scale never happened. “I made many cartoons on the UPA regime when they were in power and something on this scale never happened. The amount of abuse I have received online is nowhere close to some criticism I used to receive back then. Maybe it is because Congress did not have an IT Cell. The attacks are very organised on social media. They pick someone and target them relentlessly. I have blocked so many abusers and reported countless others on Facebook and Twitter, but they come back with different names and id. When you’re living under surveillance state, you’re being watched all the time,” he said.
Vicious and relentless social media attack
Acharya blocks many abusers but they always seem to come back with different id’s.
“Ever since my Modi-China cartoon went viral, they have now begun to discredit me by calling my work plagiarised. They said you copied a 1959 cartoon which had red communist hands on Nehru. Their lie inventing factory doesn’t relent,” he said.
He added that just how ABP journalists were targeted, many others are facing the same. “They have to face a lot of abuse online. I want journalists and cartoonists to speak up about this infringement on their freedom of expression,” he said.
I have contributed to many papers, but so many prominent papers are gagging journalists and cartoonists. We work within the Laxman Rekha we have made for ourselves. We have boundaries that we don’t cross. We don’t go out of control, offend people and some issues cannot be drawn. We don’t want to start riots or make people kill each other. Many unwanted social media elements morph our artwork, attach different heads on figures and share it with our signature. If a problem is caused, it is linked to us. The modifications could become a serious matter. We are unable to take a recourse in such matters. The makers are untraceable. We need stricter online media security guidelines.
Extreme self-censorship in the Media
“I received a lot of messages after I wrote that post but in private. A lot of people are going through the same censorship and attack. There aren’t many jobs for cartoonists and what they do have, they don’t want to lose that. It seems that cartoonists who wish to influence or please the government follow their opinions and apply it to their work,” he said.
He added that he did receive a lot of support from viewers, peers and colleagues and many shared their own experiences but privately.
“The masses don’t trust the editors these days but they do place a lot of trust in cartoonists. There are very few political cartoonists in India today. The constitution guarantees us the freedom but it is not reflected in reality. The editorial decides what they want to publish and the cartoonists are helpless. I still make cartoons for many other publications. We have differences of opinion but they have still protected my freedom of speech,” he said.
He added, “I wish for more journalists to come forward with their stories of censorship. Many are suffering silently and they should speak out. Making political cartoons is a difficult profession. May are scared to draw and parents wont encourage their kids to do this. Even though Amit Shah’s own personal facebook account carries my art work on him, editors are not. They crawl when asked to bend. R. K. Laxman was lucky he did not have to face this in his time.”
He also shared other cartoons that were rejected on his Twitter profile.
Dwaipayan Bose, the Mail Today editor, responded to the controversy. “Satish Acharya’s cartoons have been carried everyday and this is the first time it was dropped (do check back issues of Mail Today),” he said. “As to why this has been done – please note that editorial decision-making is an internal exercise and the prerogative of the Mail Today editorial team. Our editorial freedom is absolute, and it stays unaffected by false allegations and unjust insinuations. We are under no obligation to carry content that fails to pass our editorial filters,” he said to Scroll.
The list of journalists that are being censored, gagged and fired is growing in the Indian subcontinent and the controversy surrounding the independence of the media and editorial freedom refuses to die down.
Full text of what transpired:
DROP THE CARTOON AND CARRY A PHOTO!
That’s how my cartoon column with Mail Today ended yesterday. That’s how the editor looked at a cartoon and cartoonist’s opinion. That’s how the editor chose to shut a voice!
The cartoon he rejected was about how China is surrounding India by spreading influence in countries like Maldives and others. The editor said the cartoon is ‘Very defeatist and the China problem is being overplayed’
I thought it’s how a cartoonist looked at the growing influence of China around Indian interests.
So I said it’s debatable and cartoonist’s opinion should be valued.
And in response, he asked the news desk to drop the cartoon and carry a photo.
I have been battling to protect my freedom, to protect the sanctity of a cartoon column, for many days. May be for the editor it’s just three column space, but for a cartoonist it’s a whole world. A world where the cartoonist is free to express his opinion. A world to challenge his own creative boundaries. A world to voice protest, criticise, lament, cheer etc.
-First they rejected a cartoon showing cow saying ‘The editor is not too happy with the cartoon with cow’
-For a cartoon on lynching I received this message ‘There’s a bit of an issue. India Today Group has decided not to come out with any community based cartoons.’
-For one cartoon on Modi, they asked ‘if I can replace Modi’s character with any general BJP character’
-And then ‘ Editor is not comfortable with Muslim angle in the cartoon’
-And ‘editor didn’t like the demonetisation link with 100% electrification’
-And more of ‘this doesn’t make sense’, ‘this is unacceptable’ etc etc.
(And many of these rejected cartoons were used by other clients and some of them went viral, shared/retweeted by even many journalists)
It was very difficult to do a cartoon, as too many barriers were installed around me.
Out of desperation, I approached many senior journalist friends for feedback. They sympathised with me, some asked me to wait, some asked me to stay strong.
Giving up is easy in such situation as I’m a freelance cartoonist contributing to other clients too. I thought I need to fight for my right. I thought I need to do justice to the cartoon space that goes with my name.
But at the end, I was rudely reminded that, that space is owned by the editor, the paper.
And they could just drop my cartoon and carry a photo!
Of course, there’s a strange relief. Now there’s a thought that when I sit to draw a cartoon, I don’t have to worry about, what my editor thinks/says about the cow in the cartoon, lynching in the cartoon, Modi in the cartoon or a Muslim/Hindu guy in the cartoon.
But this humiliating experience is hurting.
As a cartoonist I expect my editor to respect my opinion and also trust the boundaries I have drawn for myself. Cartoonists are not bound to mimic editor’s voice. Cartoonists are supposed to and expected to express independent voice.
Of course, editor is within his right to differ with a cartoon and inform the cartoonist. But he should be open to discuss, without being dictatorial.
My cartoons used to appear in Op-ed page of Mail Today, where I thought some of the columnists enjoyed more freedom than my cartoons.
Luckily I have few other clients, where the editors respect my opinion and trust my cartoons, even when they don’t agree with me. Hope we will have more such large-hearted editors.
And I also have social media, where independent voice gets an audience.
Ironically, the personal website of BJP chief Amit Shah carries most of my cartoons featuring him, many of them are very critical of him!
As famously quoted, when they are asked to bend, they chose to crawl!