In the 1860s a corrupt New York power broker ‘Boss’ Tweed tried to stop the publication of cartoons of Thomas Nast and is quoted to have said: “Stop them damn pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures.”
The media has a huge role in creating and reinforcing a specific discourse through texts and images in any country. That an image can portray an ideology is due to how that image is constructed, disseminated and consumed. Just as a cartoon can be a cry of resistance against a villain like ‘Boss’ Tweed, it can also be a tool of manipulation and oppression if it is censored or controlled.
In the national psyche of Pakistani’s, no one is loved as the military is and no one is hated as much as India is. I came upon this conclusion after years of seeing political cartoons and Op-Eds while working as a journalist and cartoonist in Pakistan. While I understood why our heroes are cricketers and soldiers and our demons are India, America and some key politicians, the phenomenon of the creation of heroes and villains was intriguing. There is a dominant narrative that acts on the hand of the cartoonist, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi can be bravely drawn as a monster, but the hand shakes at drawing a Taliban general. What was the process through which these depictions were created? Was it the media? Was is public opinion influencing the media? What role did Pakistan’s powerful military and weak and nascent political party system have in what is depicted in the media?
Audiences do not really question the content they see in the paper everyday and cartoons are often interpreted as factual. The more ‘everyday’ a certain depiction is, the more entrenched it gets in the national imagination. This is not to say that Pakistani audiences are simple minded, or uncritical, but that everyday images like cartoons are embedded with national myths as well as facts and historical data. They echo our already existing beliefs and opinions.
The political cartoon can serve as an important case study to understand how nationalist propaganda transcends control by the state and is embedded across the news media. In Pakistan, while other mediums that express opinions, including talk shows and op-eds have instances of looking at Others (like India, the US and China) critically or positively, research suggests that the same range of critical evaluation does not seem a part of the editorial cartoon. There is a reluctance to depict the military, or religious groups negatively, if depicted at all. Is this because of the personal ideology of the artist or paper? Or is this because journalists are politically pressured to create certain content in line with an already existing nationalist discourse?
My research at Oxford tries to answer important questions that haven’t been asked before. Why is the military never criticised in Pakistani political cartoons, and why does no one dare to draw dangerous terrorists and religious leaders like Mullah Mansour of the Taliban? The newspaper/cartoonist/writer does a disservice to their audience when they self-censor or present work that is uncritical- there has to be a good reason why this happens. Are journalists afraid that what happened at Charlie Hebdo, or to Kurt Westergaard, can happen in Pakistan?
An analysis of visual data is a whole new way to look at terrorism, democracy, and international disputes in South Asia. Pakistan is a security obsessed state, where terrorism and border conflicts are a daily reality not just because of its politics and economy, but because of a specific political and social culture that I am trying to explore through the daily editorial cartoon. The content of national security and censorship (whether self imposed or externally imposed) thus are two important knots that my research at Oxford tries to pick at as I go through the last twenty years of cartoons in major national papers in Pakistan and interview cartoonists and editors across the country.
The military has often led the country into crisis- a fact that is easy to know but not to voice. However the military is also Pakistan’s most organised institution, a source of stability in a chaotic political landscape, and its soldiers have made many sacrifices. A cartoonist can choose one or the other imagination of the military when depicting it. Such choices create heroes and villains. As a former-cartoonist myself I know that had I ever drawn a cartoon that was too negative towards the military I would risk threats and insults on social media, as well as my future space in newspapers. This is because images are powerful and can bring down regimes, as well as build them up.