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Pakistani Cartoonist Fired Over PM Caricature

Pakistani cartoonist Khalid Hussain
Pakistani cartoonist Khalid Hussain

A cartoonist in Pakistan says one of the country’s leading English-language dailies has told him to stop drawing for them following a controversy over his caricature of the country’s prime minister this week.

Khalid Hussain, 54, a professional cartoonist, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website that the management of The Nation newspaper informed him that they will not be printing his cartoons after a sketch of his depicting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan garnered angry reactions from senior government officials after being published on September 25.

“I don’t know how long they will not be printing my cartoons or whether they will ever print my cartoons [again],” he told Gandhara on September 27.

It was not immediately possible to reach The Nation’s management.

But in a September 26 statement to its readers, the paper apologized for Hussain’s cartoon. “The artwork fell short of our standards and does not reflect our editorial policy,” the statement said.

“We are proud to be a nationalistic paper, and we regret sincerely the attention taken by an artwork that was inappropriate, especially at the time of the UN General Assembly session taking place in New York,” the statement said adding that “necessary steps have been taken to ensure our internal procedures” without elaborating.

The firing highlights growing censorship and a clampdown on media. Rights activists in Pakistan and global media watchdogs have criticized Islamabad for pressuring the print and electronic media outlets to stop criticizing Khan's administration.

The controversy comes at a time when Islamabad is trying to draw international attention to alleged human rights abuses and restrictions in parts of the disputed region of Kashmir administered by neighboring India. Tensions between the two nuclear-armed nations have spiked since New Delhi revoked the special status for Kashmir on August 5.

Khan highlighted Kashmir in an address to the UNGA on September 27. His administration in Pakistan is keen on showcasing his weeklong visit to the United States as a diplomatic success amid tensions with India.

Khalid Hussain's controversial cartoon.
Khalid Hussain's controversial cartoon.

Hussain says that his cartoon, which depicted Khan chasing a “mediation” carrot dangled by U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they ride a cart pulled by Khan, was a comical take on a complex geopolitical situation.

“I didn’t aim to hit Imran Khan personally. But as the prime minister of the country, he symbolically represents the country he rules,” he said. “What I felt was that Trump has repeatedly assured Pakistan to mediate between India and Pakistan. But he later said that Modi has not agreed to [his mediation].”

The reality of U.S. diplomacy is more complex. Trump first offered to mediate between Islamabad and New Delhi during an Oval Office meeting with Khan in July. But New Delhi rejected the offer.

Since then, meetings between Trump and Modi have indicated that Washington considers New Delhi a strategic partner in South Asia.

Still the United States has demonstrated that it seeks reconciliation between the two South Asian nations. On September 25, Trump told journalists that he encouraged Khan and Modi to work out their differences. "I said, 'Fellas, work it out. Just work it out,'" he said. "Those are two nuclear countries. They've got to work it out.”

But Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s minister for human rights, declared the cartoon to be “offensive, over the top, and downright insulting.” She said that the “cartoonist, in his hate-filled mind, has also failed to understand that the situation on ground! Trump repeatedly wants to mediate, and Modi finds himself in uncertain terrain.”

Marzari later deleted the tweets because she complained to the wrong newspaper but wrote that her comments about the cartoon remain valid. “You can have your criticism of the prime minister, but some basic norms and decency and respect should be shown or does hatred overrule decent journalistic bounds,” she wrote in her original tweet.

Hussain, however, says he liked Khan when he highlighted the need for tackling corruption as Pakistan’s number one issue as an opposition leader before coming to power last year. “I was hoping that his government’s policies toward media will be tolerant, but what we are seeing is very disappointing for me,” he said.

Hussain relies on some $600 monthly salary to look after his wife and their three children. “I am a full-time professional cartoonist and don’t have any other source of income,” he noted.

Thousands of Pakistani journalists and media workers have lost their jobs over the last year. Censorship and declining revenues have forced television stations, magazines, and newspapers to shut down. Some journalists have turned to social media platforms to continue reporting and survive in uncertain times.