Iraqi Cartoonist At Heart Of Media Debate

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Iraqi cartoonist Salman Abed is in hiding, afraid he will be arrested for satirical drawings of Iraqi officials. The case highlights efforts to control the media in Baghdad.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Newspapers cartoons have caused their share of controversy in recent years. Most notably, a series of Danish editorial cartoons that offended Muslims worldwide is sparking demonstrations, even riots. Well, this week it's an Iraqi artist whose drawings have landed him in trouble.

As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, his arrest has left many satirists and reporters in Iraq wondering about the country's commitment to freedom of expression.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Salman Abed who says he's nearly 70 years old quit drawing political cartoons for the three decades that Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq. On the sixth anniversary of Saddam's ouster, last week, the artist decided to celebrate with a street fair in Karbala, featuring his recent pieces about government corruption and inequality in the new Iraq.

People flooded the boulevard all day long, and Abed basked in their response, but they also showed Abed their own dark Iraqi sense of humor.

SALMAN ABED: (Speaking foreign language).

LAWRENCE: Pack your blanket, they joked, an old Iraqi warning for someone who's about to get thrown in jail. Abed laughed along with the crowd, confident that those days were past. Soon after, acting on a tip, Salman Abed went into hiding along with his portfolio from the street fair.

In an undisclosed location, Abed uncovered the piece that probably caused the problem, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dressed as a car mechanic, next to a broken jalopy labeled sectarian quotas.

A road sign reads long way to go, and a caption simply says Maliki, God help you.

ABED: (Through translator) They've got the wrong idea. Yes, I did draw Maliki. The man is tired and exhausted because he wants to make changes to this country, but he can't because of all the sectarian demands.

LAWRENCE: Abed says he was really wishing Maliki good luck amid all of Iraq's groups grabbing for their share of the pie, but after the first night of the exhibition, heavily armed police swarmed Abed's house looking for the elderly artist to arrest him, but Abed had already gone underground, just like in the old days under Saddam.

A local politician in Karbala, Fallah Al-Ardarweh(ph), says he hopes this doesn't mean a return to the bad old days.

FALLAH A: (Through translator) We hope this isn't the beginning of an attack on a democracy which is still being born. That would frighten people away from supporting a democratic transformation in Iraq and keep them living in the old mentality that ruled this country for many years.

LAWRENCE: Ardarweh believes that the orders to arrest the political cartoonist came from the local security bosses, not the prime minister's office. But there are other signs that Bagdad is weakening its commitment to a free press.

The Iraqi military is filing a lawsuit to shut down the Bagdad office of a major Arab newspaper, as well as a television station, over an alleged misquotation. And Maliki's government has accused the local and international media of inciting sectarian violence, for reporting about it.

Salman Abed is getting some support from Iraqi politicians, and somehow he hasn't lost his sense of humor.

ABED: (Speaking foreign language)

LAWRENCE: I've got a paint brush, not a rocket-propelled grenade, he says. How am I a threat to anyone? Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Bagdad.

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