Highlighting the important role of cartoons in forming public opinion, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan today called on cartoonists to help society “promote peace and understanding,” while warning that their work can also encourage intolerance as shown by the deadly furore earlier this year over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
Mr. Annan, speaking at the UN’s fifth Unlearning Intolerance seminar, said this dispute showed how “vital and urgent” it is to engage cartoonists in discussion of how their work may be seen and felt by different groups of people, and he suggested some form of self-censorship may be appropriate but no blanket ban by the State on offensive material.
“Cartoonists have a big influence on the way different groups of people look at each other. They can encourage us to look critically at ourselves, and increase our empathy for the sufferings and frustrations of others. But they can also do the opposite. They have, in short, a big responsibility,” he told cartoonists from all over the world gathered in New York.
“We need to engage cartoonists in the discussion. They can help us to think more clearly about their work, and how we react to it. And perhaps we can help them to think about how they can use their influence, not to reinforce stereotypes or inflame passions, but to promote peace and understanding. Certainly, they can help each other to do that.”
Mr. Annan told the seminar, which also included other media representatives, officials and members of the public, that he did not believe the solution lay with State censorship, pointing out that if all offensive cartoons were banned an “important form of social and political comment” would be prevented.
“I am not convinced that the solution to this problem lies in invoking the authority of the State at all. Even if we decided to ban only cartoons that are deeply offensive to large numbers of people, we would still be asking the State to make some very subjective judgements, and embarking on a slippery slope of censorship.
“I would much prefer to leave decisions about what to publish in the hands of editors, and of the cartoonists themselves… Does that involve “self-censorship”? In a sense, yes – but exercised, I would hope, in a spirit of genuine respect for other people’s feelings, not out of fear. Does it involve “political correctness”? Not, I hope, if that means being dull and pretentious. But again, yes, if it means remembering that other people have feelings.”
He also cautioned against the danger of getting into a “cartoon war,” in which one group seeks to retaliate for the offence it has suffered, or believes it has suffered, by publishing whatever it thinks will be most offensive to another group, and instead called for better understanding and mutual respect between people of different faiths and culture.
The theme of the seminar, ‘Cartooning for Peace’, came from French cartoonist Jean Plantu, who has worked with the Le Monde newspaper since 1972, and he suggested it to Mr. Annan in January before the uproar over the Prophet Mohammad caricatures.
“We don’t want war, we want peace,” Mr. Plantu told reporters, as he emphasized the positive role that cartoons can play in promoting dialogue. As part of the debate, UN headquarters in New York is also hosting an exhibition by 18 well-known cartoonists from around the world.