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The cartoonist who gets into trouble is usually taken by surprise.  He or she understands that the craft uses satire, humor, and in some instances insult, but when the rich and powerful, the corrupt,  or the terrorist seeks revenge for being hurt or insulted, it often comes as a shock.  Every cartoonist understands the meaning of crossing the red line.  It turns out, however, that in most cases of attacks against cartoonists, the cartoonist didn't even realize he or she was anywhere near that red line.

The red line that every cartoonist hopes not to step over is always a moving target.  In periods before elections, the red line is quite near.  In periods of full insurrection or general public criticism of the corrupt regime, the red lines will be even tighter than usual.  In order for a cartoonist to avoid attack, he or she must be constantly reevaluating where the red lines are.

It is reasonable to assume that politicians understand what they are getting into when they achieve public office, either through the ballot box or the barrel of the gun.  Once in power, they are responsible for implementing the country's constitution, which usually includes some assurance of freedom of the press and basic human rights.  Almost every country in the world has signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and within it, Article 19, which guarantees the right of freedom of expression and freedom of the press to all people.  While it is not unreasonable for cartoonists to expect protection under the free speech articles of their own country's constitution, cartoonists must also be sensitive to the red lines of censorship.  Freedom of expression in many failing democracies and tyrannies is often an illusion rather than a protected right.

Most cartoonists in trouble have been accused of some form of insult.  Insulting the political leaders, insulting a religious icon or leader, and insulting economic interests are all actions covered by what are commonly known as insult laws.  Cartoonists who want to call themselves political cartoonists need to know what their country’s laws really say about their freedom of speech.  As they say in the game of football, the only rules are those being enforced by the referee at any one moment.  In the same way, freedom of expression and other human rights are only those rights that are being honored at any one moment.  Cartoonists must ask and answer how tolerant the various elements in their society are to being criticized or insulted.  They need to know which laws protect them and which articles or laws under the constitution are generally ignored.  Very often a constitution will have laws that give cartoonists free speech rights, but then have other articles or laws which take free speech away.  Cartoonists must know if there are more than one set of laws operating in their country.  In many Islamic countries there is the secular law run by the government and based on a non-religious, secular constitution, and, a sharia or religious law implemented more informally.

If you want to be a practicing political cartoonist, your responsibility is to know the law, understand the rules and regulations for journalists, and have at least an outline of an idea on how to protect yourself if you are challenged, either physically or legally.

Traditionally, cartoonists are most often charged under insult laws.  Insult laws exist to protect people from unreasonable and untrue slanderous accusations.  The usual standard is whether a purposefully untrue statement or a cartoon negatively affects the ability of a person to protect his or her reputation or income.  Editorial cartoonists are responsible for making sure that their cartoons reflect accurate, true, and researched assumptions and conclusions.  Despite the fact that the world is a very dangerous place and real justice can often be an illusion, if a cartoonist’s work is based on the truth, then in the long run that truth will serve as the cartoonist's best defense.

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