World

New York Times cartoon ban leads to a world where we say nothing at all

What does a newspaper do if it publishes an antisemitic cartoon? Determine that it won’t do so again? Or stop publishing cartoons? The New York Times appears to have taken the second route.

In April, its international edition (which is distinct from its US edition) ran a syndicated cartoon by the Portuguese cartoonist António Moreira Antunes that depicted the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as a guide dog leading a blind Donald Trump wearing a yarmulke.

It was widely condemned as antisemitic. The NYT published a long apology and decided to end all syndicated cartoons. On Monday, it announced that it was dropping all cartoons, syndicated and in-house, from its international edition. The newspaper did not deny that the decision was linked to the furore over antisemitism, but insisted that it wanted to bring the international edition in line with the US edition, which abandoned political cartoons some time ago.

Cartoons are at the cutting edge of free expression because they are dangerous. By their nature, they can be shocking, offensive, disturbing. Often, they cross the line. But they can also expose power and pomposity with a clarity and sharpness unique to a cartoon.

That’s why the most repressive regimes in the world routinely jail cartoonists: Jiang Yefei in China, Atena Farghadani in Iran, Musa Kart in Turkey, Ramón Nsé Esono Ebalé in Equatorial Guinea. And then, of course, there are the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, murdered for the offence they caused.

A commitment to freedom of expression requires us to accept that we will make mistakes. When that happens, and however strong the backlash, our response cannot be to hide away from the very possibility of making any more mistakes. That way leads to a world in which we refuse to say, write or publish anything dangerous at all.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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