Last Saturday, I got a call from a senior citizen (name withheld) with a complaint about the day’s editorial cartoon.
“As a Catholic, I am very angry with your cartoonist and your editors for desecrating a very important ritual in my faith. You are lucky that you have done this against Catholics otherwise your newspaper would be on fire. Please, respect our faith,” he concluded.
I had not seen the cartoon but his indignation was palpable. I offered a general apology and promised to revert after I had reviewed the cartoon. I did so shortly from the e-paper.
In the cartoon was a caricature of President Museveni dressed like a Catholic priests. He was performing the “consecration rite” as smiling “altar boy” in the form of a caricature of Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda held a bread knife, looking on. A sign on the wall read, “The Lost Supper”.
The “priest” (this rite in the Catholic Church can only be performed by ordained priests) was saying the following words;
“Take this, vulnerable poor and eat it… It is my posho, given for you. Do this in memory of me… when the time comes.”
The utterance is a corruption of the words Catholic priests usually recite in the Consecration Rite during mass. These words echo those of Jesus Christ himself at his Last Supper when he consecrated bread and wine in a ritual that symbolises the transubstantiation of the bread into the body of Christ, and wine into his blood.
The caption above the cartoon read: “MP Robert Kyagulanyi has urged government to account for money given to the Covid-19 task force.” The cartoon was, however, relating more to the food (10kg of maize flour and 6kg of beans) that has been distributed to the “urban poor” in Kampala, Wakiso and to some extent Mukono districts by Office of the Prime Minister.
The packs were initially labelled “Food for Vulnerable Poor”.Cartoons are easily the most humorous part of a newspaper, with the editorial cartoons perhaps its most acerbic political commentary. As a result, cartoons tend to draw amusement and anger in almost equal measure.
Cartoonists do not necessarily set out to amuse or to annoy; they set out to persuade readers to see their point of view on a prevailing issue, often with a tinge of humour.
In this case, the cartoonist tried to illustrate the linkage between ongoing distribution of relief food and the coming political season.
But in the process of delivering their message and humouring their audiences, cartoonists must be sensitive to the raw emotions that their cartoon may stoke, and religion is one of the most emotive areas.
Some of the most controversial cartoons with a religious tinge were the series published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 about Prophet Muhammad. These got the entire Muslim world seething in a series of demonstrations in different countries. A fatwa (death sentence) was pronounced on the cartoonist and editors of the newspaper by several Islamic countries.
The other are the French humour magazine Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting Islam in very uncharitable light, including one in which “Prophet Muhammad was wearing a turban in the form of a bomb”. These cartoons invited the wrath of many Muslims and led to a terrorist attack on the magazine’s office in Paris resulting into many deaths.
Over the years, debate has been raging on cartoonists’ freedom of expression vs religious offense and there is no agreement on what takes precedence. Saturday Monitor’s cartoon falls in this unresolved maze. Thankfully, many Catholics took it in their stride. It may not be so always.
It is important therefore that cartoonist and editors give serious thought to the cartoons they intend to publish especially if they have a tinge of religion, ethnicity, race or sexuality. These are areas that easily get people agitated even though publishing them may be perfectly legal. So be sensitive to the audience, consider timing and context, and be sure it is fair comment.
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