Middle East/North Africa

 “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” 

-Napoleon Bonaparte


Mana Neyestani - jailed, interrogated, threatened with death, self-exiled, 2006

Summary of incident: 

In May of 2006, a cartoon by Mana Neyestani was interpreted by many Iranian Azeris as intentionally insulting their community.  Refusing to accept an apology or explanation, Iranian Azeris led violent demonstrations calling for the death of Neyestani.  To quell the protests, the Iranian government arrested, interrogated and detained Mana for two months.  Mana and his wife Mansoureh fled the country.   

Details of incident:

On May 12, 2006, a government funded weekend paper, Iran Friday, published a cartoon by Mana Neyestani in a section of the paper reserved for children.  In the cartoon, a talking cockroach responds to a boy's question with the word "Namana."  A common slang word in Iran, this originally Turkish word means, "I don't get it."  The Iranian Azeris felt that the Iranian government was continuing the centuries-long hostility toward them by choosing a cockroach to speak in Azeri.  Many Azeris thought the cartoon was implying that they were cockroaches.  Mana quickly announced that he had not meant to imply anything negative about Azeris and offered the community an apology.  But the damage had been done. 

Demonstrations broke out in Tabriz in which calls were made for Mana's death.  Government buildings were stoned and the offices of the newspaper were burned.  Many demonstrators suffered injuries as a result of the government crackdown on the violent demonstrations.  Mana was fired from his job in an attempt to mollify the demonstrators.  He was sent to jail in "protective custody."  Mana has since acknowledged that the interrogation, along with the screams of other detainees being tortured, was terrifying.  After just over two months, he was released on bail.   While out on bail, he continued to get death threats.  While he was temporarily free, he was expected to return to court to stand trial.  Knowing the atmosphere in Iran, he knew he would never see justice under the circumstances.  He knew he faced a long and undeserved prison term and possibly death.  He and his wife Mansoureh decided to flee Iran. 

Mana and his wife fled first to Kuwait and later to Turkey.  Conditions in Turkey were terrible.  They were both hungry and she was sick for most of the time they were under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees office in Turkey.  Complicating this, there is a large and vibrant Azeri community in Turkey.  He was in constant fear of being identified as the hated Iranian cartoonist who has insulted their tribe and language.  Broke and almost totally without any support network, Mana and his wife fled again to Malaysia.  They eventually moved to France. 

Actions taken by CRNI:

From the beginning of his ordeal, CRNI was in direct contact with Mana.  We agreed with his decision to leave Iran, but with the warning that life as a political refugee is never easy.  He understood. But the alternative -- staying and facing trial --  would certainly result in a long jail term, and quite possibly death.  CRNI sent the couple funds from time to time while enlisting other journalism support organization to help the couple.  We introduced them to ICORN the organization responsible for establishing safe haven Cities of Refuge for journalists.  In the early part of 2011 Mana and his wife moved to Paris under this program.

Because of the trials and trauma Mana has endured, and his courage to continue drawing, including the start of a comic book about his experiences in Evin Prison, CRNI awarded him the 2010 Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning on June 18, 2010.  Mana unfortunately wasn't able to attend the ceremony in Portland, Oregon, USA, because of visa considerations.  But CRNI Board of Director and personal friend, Nik Kowsar accepted the award on his behalf.   Nik also read an acceptance statement from Mana. 



Saleh Ali - arrested, 1995 

Summary of incident:

In May 1995, cartoonist Saleh Ali of the newspaper Al Wahdawi was arrested in response to the publishing of a series of cartoons critical of the national government's repression and censorship of the media.  He was arrested the same day two writers from the same paper were arrested for articles also critical of the government.  Saleh and the writers were later released, arrested again and then released a second time.  The three were released shortly after a Western embassy, at CRNI's urging, protested the treatment of Saleh Ali and the other journalists.   

Details of incident:

In May 1995, cartoonist Saleh Ali of the newspaper Al Wahdawi was arrested in response to the publishing of a series of cartoons critical of the national government.'s censorship of the media and the repression of  pro-democracy activists.  While many editorial cartoonists employ a scathing critique of governmental abuses of power, Saleh employed a much more subtle, yet equally effective brand of humor.   Saleh's cartoons represented the Yemeni “common man” as a poor, confused, well-meaning sort who usually trusts in the better judgment of the educated authorities who control his destiny.  In this cartoon, the police officer has arrested him, tied his hands behind his back, and locked his mouth shut. The poor fellow listens patiently as the arresting officer explains just what democracy can mean for him in his present situation: "Democracy is according to what I say".

Saleh Ali was arrested the same day two writers from the same paper were arrested for articles also critical of the government.  CRNI is not at this time releasing the names of those journalists.  Saleh and the other print journalists were later released, arrested again and then released a second time shortly after a Western embassy, at CRNI's urging, protested the treatment of Saleh Ali and his colleagues.  At this time CRNI is also not releasing the identity of the embassy that protested the arrest of these journalists.

Actions taken by CRNI:

Upon learning of Saleh Ali's plight and the plight of his fellow journalists at Al Wahdawi, CRNI brought his story to the attention of a number of Western embassies in Yemen.  Saleh Ali later reported to CRNI that he was shocked and encouraged to learn that his legal problems with the authorities had attracted so much attention.  We believe the charges brought against Saleh Ali and his colleagues were withdrawn because of that attention.  

While charges were eventually dropped, the story of Saleh's cartooning career apparently does not have a positive conclusion.  One of our sources within Yemen has reported to CRNI that Saleh has dropped out of the cartooning world as a result of threats of violence.  We have not yet confirmed this report.  



Chawki Amari - arrested, life repeatedly threatened, self-exiled, 1996-1999 

Summary of incident: 

On July 4, 1996, the newspaper La Tribune published a cartoon by Chawki Amari that criticized Algeria's political elite.  The newspaper was shut down and Chawki was arrested, detained and charged with "insulting the national emblem."  Hundreds of Algerians peacefully protested the government's treatment of Chawki and the government's attack on free speech.  Chawki was released after about 20 days and the newspaper was allowed to resume operations after about 6 months.  The charge of "insulting the national emblem was not dismissed.  Chawki was given a suspended three-year sentence.  After the incident Chawki became the target of death threats from unknown individuals.   


Details of the incident:

On July 4, 1996, the accompanying cartoon by Chawki Amari appeared in the newspaper La Tribune.  That same day Chawki was taken from his home and arrested.  

The cartoon, displayed above, depicts the summer beachfront cottages of the government big wigs, with what looks like the national flag hanging outside each cottage. The first character to speak in the cartoon asks, "Is it for the 5th of July [Flag Day]?"  The other character responds, "No, they are hanging out their dirty laundry."

Algeria at the time was deeply embroiled in a fratricidal civil war between government and fundamentalist Islamic forces. Criticism of government was not allowed by law.  And, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 59 journalists were murdered in Algeria between 1993 and 1996.

Chawki was arrested, incarcerated and charged with "insulting the national emblem."  As for the paper, initially the government temporarily closed the offices of La Tribune before later placing such severe legal restrictions on the managing editor and the managing director that the paper was forced to shut down.

However, on the 15th of July, 1996, as was reported by the International Federation of Journalists and by Reporters Without Borders, hundreds of people from all walks of life met at the offices of the Algerian National Press Council.  They had come to show support for a concurrent call by journalists for the release of Chawki and for the suspension of the press restrictions against the paper.  Political parties, non-governmental organizations including women's organizations and youth groups, and every day citizens showed up in protest.  Within the context of a country embroiled in a protracted civil war and governed by a repressive political regime, this broad-based demonstration for freedom of the press and specifically, support for Chawki Amari, was unprecedented.  Chawki was released after about 20 days in jail, and the paper was allowed to resume publication after about six months.  But the charges against Chawki and his paper were not dismissed.  Chawki received a suspended three-year sentence.   

In 1996 the government of Algeria discovered just how popular Chawki was.  If you had asked any "man on the street" to name his or her favorite editorial writer, that person would probably have had to think for a moment.  If you had asked that same person to name his or her favorite editorial cartoonist, that same "man on the street" would likely have smiled broadly and said "Chawki Amari" without any hesitation.  However, at that time, Chawki remained under a three-year suspended sentence.  Imagine what effect such a "suspended sentence" would have on one's sense of professional freedom when addressing the blank sheet of paper that the editorial cartoonist faces every morning.

Fed up with the constant governmental interference with his work and after later receiving numerous death threats from unknown individuals, Chawki Amari fled to Paris in 1999 with his family.  The government allowed Chawki to return to Algeria only after extracting his promise not to draw editorial cartoons.  Chawki has kept his promise without being silenced.  He has become an outspoken editorial writer.

Actions taken by CRNI:

CRNI immediately contacted Chawki Amari upon learning of his plight.  CRNI then contacted other human rights and free speech organizations.  CRNI also  quickly delivered a letter of protest to the Algerian embassador to the United States in Washington, DC.  During his time in jail CRNI also sent money to Chawki to help pay his legal fees.   


Ali Ferzat - kidnapped, threatened, severely beaten, 2011

Summary of incident:

On August 25, 2011, Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat was dragged out of his vehicle very close to his home in Damascus by masked gunmen believed to be Syrian security forces.  The gunmen brutally beat him, warned him to never again draw cartoons criticizing Syria’s leaders, and dumped him onto the road. 

Details of incident:

At approximately 4 am on August 25, 2011, Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat left his studio after a long night of working.  A white van with tinted windows followed him as he drove home.  At Umayyad Square near his home in Damascus, the sixty-year-old cartoonist was pulled over.  Three masked men got out of their vehicle and then dragged Ali out of his car.  Focusing on his hands, the gunmen brutally beat him, warned him to never again draw cartoons criticizing Syria’s leaders, and dumped him on a road near the Damascus airport. 

The gunmen began the brutal assault by covering Ali’s head with a sack and binding his hands with plastic handcuffs.  Even before pulling him from his car, the thugs then started beating Ali’s hands and face with both hard plastic batons and heated electric batons.  They forced Ali into their vehicle.  A fourth assailant drove for about 50 kilometers towards the airport.  For the next approximately 45 minutes they intentionally pummeled his face, broke fingers on both of his hands, broke his left arm and fractured his right hand, his drawing hand.  According to Ali they talked among themselves saying, “Break his fingers, break his hands, so he doesn’t draw his leaders, his masters, again.”  To Ali they said, “The masters’ shoes on your head and on your well-being.  You don’t draw again.  You don’t say anything about your President and your masters.”  Then they threw Ali out of the car onto Damascus Airport Road.  The assailants kept his briefcase full of his recent drawings.  A couple days later his website, AliFerzat.com, was shut down.     

Many minutes passed before Ali was able to flag down help.  Passerbys were afraid to stop and help someone targeted by the government.  Even the brave commuter who eventually did stop to drive Ali back into Damascus, did not bring him all the way to the hospital.  The Good Samaritan was understandably afraid that security forces would be waiting for them.

Given Ali’s status as a well-known and well-respected cartoonist, the attack was surprising.    Ali was already an internationally recognized cartoonist prior to the attack.  His work had appeared in numerous papers throughout the Middle East and Europe, most notably the Kuwaiti paper Al-Watan and the French paper Le Monde.  Bashar al-Assad, a fan of Ali’s work, had even allowed Ali, who had previously worked for state-run papers, to launch a new independent newspaper.  The paper, which Ali named al-Domari, The Lamplighter, was Syria’s first independent paper in decades.      

But given Ali’s courage in drawing cartoons openly critical of the brutal Assad regime, the attack was not entirely unexpected.  Without recognizable caricatures and more often than not without any words, Ali’s work had long lampooned the corruption, cruelty and hypocrisy of the Syrian regime and other Arab regimes.  In 2003 the Syrian government responded to Ali’s subtly defiant cartoons by revoking al-Domari’s printing license and shutting down the paper.  As 2010 turned to 2011 – three months prior to the start of the Syrian uprising – Ali began openly criticizing President Bashar al-Assad.  Ali dared to post on his website, AliFerzat.com, political cartoons with clear and biting caricatures of the President.  When the protesters hit the streets in March, they carried placards with Ali’s cartoons.  Soon afterwards Ali noticed he was frequently being followed by a white van with tinted windows, a tell-tale sign of government surveillance. 

Ali may never know which of the cartoons ultimately led to the attack.  But he told the staff of CRNI that the final straw may have been his cartoon of a panicky President Bashar al-Assad trying to hitch a ride from Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi fleeing in a getaway jeep.  That cartoon was posted just days before the attack.   

After medical treatment and extensive physical therapy at home and abroad, Ali Ferzat recovered from his physical injuries well enough to draw once again.  His work continues to be published in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Watan.       

Actions taken by CRNI:

CRNI kept the world informed about Ali Ferzat's recovery through a series of stories on our website.  In cooperation with YoungDC's Cartoons & Cocktails annual charity auction, CRNI also facilitated the sale of a cartoon donated by the 2007 Courage Award recipient, South African cartoonist Jonathan “Zapiro” Shapiro.  Zapiro’s powerful cartoon, featured below, was a favorite at the auction and the funds raised by the sale were sent to help Ali Ferzat's recovery.  In May of 2012 the CRNI Board of Directors selected Ali Ferzat with Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi as co-recipients of the 2012 Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning.  Ali was invited to come to the United States to accept his award, but circumstances prevented him from attending the ceremony in his honor.  Malaysian cartoonist Zunar, the 2011 CRNI Courage Award recipient, accepted the award on his behalf and read Ali’s acceptance speech.  CRNI had also set up meetings for Ali Ferzat with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. and with the IdeaFestival in Louisville, Kentucky.  Of course those meetings unfortunately had to be canceled.