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Firing of Cartoonist Highlights Hypocrisy of Freedom of Speech

posted on: Nov 29, 2023

Political cartoon depicting Netanyahu by Steve Bell. Credit: The Spectator

By: Menal Elmaliki / Arab America Contributing Writer

The Cartoonist in Question

Cartoonist Steven Bell recently made headlines with his what is deemed outrageous and anti-semitic cartoons that was recently published. His cartoons were an integral part of the guardian newspaper for 40 years. Recently, the Guardian refused to run his latest caricature of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wearing boxing gloves, “holding a scalpel and preparing to cut a Gaza shaped incision on his abdomen, with the caption “residents of Gaza get out now.” His cartoon making a scene, citing it is indicative of anti-Jewish tropes and he is promoting anti- Jewish tropes and anti-Semitism.

Steve Bell cartoon of Donald Trump. Credit: The Guardian

Bell defended himself stating, “I don’t promote harmful antisemitic stereotypes. … Never have I done such a thing, I would not dream of doing such a thing.” Bell has a history of depicting Netanyahu as a heartless warlord obsessed with Palestinian destruction and killing, a puppet master of European politicians. He has a history of controversies and is also known for depicting British Prime Minister David Cameron with a condom over his head, and Donald Trump as a toilet head. 

The Case of Avi Katz

Many are begging the question, can political cartoons survive in this age of sensitivity and where do we draw the line? Do we pick and choose which to censor and which to pass and publish? According to the public, the cartoonist is described as a tightrope walker. Everyone remembers the Israeli cartoonist who was fired over his animal farm Netanyahu caricature. The Israeli illustrator, Avi Katz, was fired from the Israeli magazine, Jerusalem Report, owned by the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Israel pride’s itself of being the only secular and democratic country in the Arab world and the Middle East. The cartoonist was quoted stating, “All animals are equal. But some are more equal than others.” He was greatly influenced by Orwell’s novel, Israeli politicians depicting the pig leaders who promise equality but consider themselves privileged species. 

The Power of Israel Lobbyists and its right to Censor

In 2019, the Israeli lobbying had finally reached American media, the New York Times announcing they will no longer publish political cartoons in its international edition. This happened after publishing cartoons with prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu depicted as a service dog. This had drew the attention, prompting outrage in Israel and prompted the attention of Israel lobbyists. Many of the time are calling double standards, the same newspapers and magazines that defended Islamophobic cartoons are deciding to self censor and depend the the Islamophobic French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, after it published “hateful content in 2015 against muslims and Islam.

“The Times back then, in the name of freedom of speech, ignored the demands of nearly two billion Muslims whose faith, Prophet and God were mocked and abused by Islamophobic Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.”

PEN America at the time had failed to defend the New York Times’ decision to abolish their political cartoons and in 2015 gave the Free Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo after they published a series of Islamophobic content.

Who has the Right to Exercise Freedom of Speech? 

France, the champion of free speech, has recently come into fire for the ban of protests supporting Palestine. The systematic ban to peacefully demonstrate  was motivated by a fear of public disorder and a specific threat. France is known for cherry-picking freedoms, choosing who gets freedom and who doesn’t. In 2020, the European court of Human Rights found that the convictions of 11 activists in France for simply campaigning for a boycott of Israeli products violated their free speech.

“Memorial to Paty at demonstration outside the Hôtel de ville of Belfort, 21 October 2020.”

The murder of Samuel Paty, the French teacher who showed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to demonstrate a lesson on freedom of expression,  not only left an imprint on French society but it made the republic question their stance on freedom of expression and who has the right to exercise it. His murder had sparked brutish and discriminatory measures imposed by the government to “deradicialize” anything seen as remotely religious. Under the guise of radicalization, an ambiguous term, houses were raided, mosques shut down, and organizations  dissolved. At the time, Gérald Darmanin, the Minister of Interior, had declared the organization Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) as enemies of the state and a “back room of terrorism.” The non-profit,  created in 2003 to combat growing discrimination of Muslims, was dissolved in 2022 despite no evidence to support any claims of terrorism or promoting of violence. In this  state of emergency,  like in the banning of pro-Palestinian protests, devout Muslims were associated with extremism and terrorism. The French government had failed to draw the fine line between exercising freedom of speech and terrorism, citing any Muslim who opposed the cartoons as being extremists. 

National Assembly of France. Source:

The French hypocrisy doesn’t stop there, in 2019, the French courts criminalized two men after they burned an effigy of President Macron. Presently, the parliament is drawing new laws in place that criminalizes the use of images of law enforcement officials on social media. This isn’t fair or up to par with their stance on freedom seeing they vehemently defend the right to depict the Prophet Mohammed in cartoons but not politicians. Are politicians too sensitive to public opinion? The right of freedom of expression does not apply to those criticizing government, public figures or politicians although the right to offend religious beliefs is staunchly defended and considered French. The French republic, defender of freedom of expression, symbolic of individualism and secular liberty is anything but. 

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