Graphic Cartoon Tests Press Freedom In S. Africa

Defamation Or Free Speech?

The controversial cartoon by award-winning cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro — who is known as Zapiro — depicts Zuma unbuckling his belt and preparing to rape a blindfolded and distressed Lady Justice, who is being held down by several other men.

The graphic nature of this cartoon may offend some viewers.

Award-winning South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro.

Zapiro is defending his and other journalists' and satirists' right to criticize public officials. Pieter Bauermeister/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Pieter Bauermeister/AFP/Getty Images

A cartoon lampooning one of South Africa's top politicians has sparked a million-dollar lawsuit and renewed debate over freedom of expression in the country.

The cartoon is graphic. It shows the president of the ruling African National Congress, Jacob Zuma, unbuckling his belt and preparing to rape a distressed and blindfolded Lady Justice. She is being held down by several ANC alliance partners, one of whom is saying "Go for it, boss."

Jonathan Shapiro — pen name Zapiro — created the cartoon. He insists politicians are fair game, especially when they step out of line.

"We should respect the office; we do not have to respect the person who occupies that office," he says. "We should be able to attack them, to make fun of them."

Zapiro's cartoon, published in Johannesburg's Sunday Times in September, lampoons Zuma on two fronts. First, by depicting Zuma with a shower head on his head, the cartoon recalls his 2006 rape trial. Zuma was acquitted. But he testified that he protected himself from possible infection from the HIV-positive woman by taking a shower immediately after having sex.

The cartoon also references a pending corruption case against Zuma, which could hamper his ambition to become South Africa's next president. Zapiro says his cartoon shows Zuma metaphorically threatening to rape the justice system in his quest to become president.

An outraged Zuma last month sued The Sunday Times and Zapiro for nearly $1 million, claiming his reputation and dignity have been damaged. During an appearance on a radio program, Zuma said that Zapiro's work is "quite vulgar" and that the cartoonist is "invading" his dignity.

In reply, Zapiro called in to say that he does exactly what journalists, cartoonists and satirists do in democratic societies.

He challenged Zuma to show a commitment to freedom of expression, rather than just pay lip service to it.

"You've mentioned a responsible press," Zapiro said during the radio broadcast. "A responsible press is one that holds its politicians to account."

The award-winning cartoonist has lampooned many of South Africa's leaders, including Nelson Mandela, who never took issue.

Tawana Kupe, a media critic and professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, defended the cartoonist on another radio program.

"It's bad taste, but bad taste is part of an artist's creativity," he said.

Kupe argued that Zuma should drop his lawsuit. But editor Mathata Tsedu, chair of the African Editors Forum, disagreed.

"Bad taste and legal are not necessarily the same. The cartoon may be in good taste but may be legally wrong," Tsedu said. "The court must pronounce on whether [Zapiro] has crossed the line."

The debate is continuing on the airwaves and in the streets, in think tanks and press institutes, and, sooner or later, in court. And that will add still another chapter in the evolving drama of a young democracy grappling with issues of freedom of expression.

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