A cartoon’s footprint

The Network of Women in Media, India called it “a new low point for misogyny in the print media”. The Women and Media Collective said that it had allowed “for gross sexism and crudity to override any form of civility in journalistic communication” and that it was “derogatory to women and women politicians”. The focus of this outrage was a cartoon, published a week ago in a leading Sunday newspaper, depicting Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Jayalalitha with sari hitched up, gesticulating at Sri Lanka. This by itself would have been fine, were it not for the depiction of India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, directly under her hitched sari, looking up with consternation.

By Monday, as such things quickly become in Sri Lanka, the furore had turned into farce. On Sunday night, the official Twitter accounts of the Indian External Affairs Ministry’s spokesperson, the Indian PM as well as some of the most influential activists and leading journalists in India had picked up on the cartoon or were directed to it (and through them, party officials of Jayalalitha’s AIADMK as well). There was unequivocal condemnation. The Acting Editor of the newspaper the cartoon was published in wrote two tweets in its defence, though because of sheer syntactic incompetence, key interlocutors on Twitter didn’t see these tweets at the time. The two tweets were followed up by a longer, more reasoned defence of the cartoon on Monday, published online and in print. The Acting Editor asserted, inter alia, that vulgarity was subjective and that the cartoon only carried a “subtle sexual connotation”. He ended by flagging the jail term meted out to cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in India as a marker of growing intolerance in that country. Perhaps the attempt was to enhance his paper’s artistic credo. It failed to convince, not just many in Sri Lanka, but his own paper’s management. While the staunch defence of the cartoon and inviolable principles of free expression were postulated by the Acting Editor, the newspaper’s management had quickly, and it appears, without informing the Acting Editor, deleted the cartoon off its online edition

To date, the Acting Editor has not explained why his take on the Freedom of Expression isn’t shared with his paymasters, or more generally, why newspaper owners in Sri Lanka, without any Editorial oversight, have near total control over published content.

The cartoon is already a case study for students of journalism. No doubt, a healthy debate will ensue over the merits of the cartoon’s publication in journalism schools and elsewhere. Your columnist, by carefully delineating the initial responses to the cartoon on Twitter in an article published online earlier in the week, observed some remarkable trends.

One, the speed with which information flows on Twitter alone defies critics who suggest new media has no power to influence national, regional and international agendas. There were two key inflection points in the Twitter debate – one when it was first flagged by a leading Indian correspondent, two when outrage over it was re-tweeted by a well-known Indian Tamil activist. The original tweet was from a marginal voice, but re-tweeted by this leading activist to her network, the outrage spread like wildfire.

Two, mainstream media in Sri Lanka and especially our foreign service simply do not understand the nature of social media and how to engage in real time with official accounts of elected officials, diplomats and other influential voices, especially over contentious issues. Social media is, to them, an extension of broadcast media – say whatever to scatter wherever. We are supremely ill-advised and inept to deal with new media’s interactivity, impact and influence. Voices, both in Sri Lanka and abroad that are more agile and shrewd, and not always better informed, distinctly have the upper hand.

Three, the complete absence of the Sri Lanka Press Institute and the Press Complaints Commission from online debates over the cartoon. They are not on, do not follow and do not understand social media. Both are, sadly, institutional anachronisms. Ironically, even Sri Lanka’s censorious government is more acutely aware of the reach and potential of new media. Section 6.3 of Code of Professional Practice (Code of Ethics) adopted by the PCC avers that “a journalist shall not knowingly or willfully (sic) promote communal or religious discord or violence”. The cartoon in question, in print and online, risked precisely this, across two countries. Yet your columnist was informed the PCC, privately, did not find this cartoon in violation of its ethical code. This would be to effectively mandate outright misogyny and sexism as perfectly acceptable in political lampooning.

Four, and importantly, new media erases geography. The cartoon was meant for Sri Lankans. It offended globally. Greater common-sense and media literacy, rather than censorship, is called for.

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Published in The Nation newspaper, 16th September 2012.

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