Editorial cartoons are the best measure of a country's freedom; cartoonists are barred from drawing their leaders in many countries around the world. Lawsuits from insulted politicians like Fico are typical in authoritarian regimes that claim to have a free press but can't bear criticism. The government in Algeria claims to have a free press while officials often sue editorial cartoonists in civil court --- a common practice in Arab countries. It is disappointing to see third world style repression in an EU country like Slovakia, which should have higher standards.
In his offending cartoon, Shooty has drawn Prime Minister Fico seated in a doctor's office. The doctor, after examining an x-ray, which shows Fico's skeleton with no neck or spine, says to Fico, "I knew it! Your spine can't possibly hurt because you don't have a backbone." Cartoons that accuse politicians of "having no backbone" are universal.
In his lawsuit against Shooty and his publisher, the prime minister stated that while he was suffering unbearable physical pain, the SME daily was misusing his image and mocking his suffering, which harmed his dignity and reputation.
Eliza Young, a spokesperson for Freedom House, an NGO that monitors press freedom around the world said, "The case against Martin 'Shooty' Sutovec is one of many inappropriate cases that have been brought against the Slovak media in the past year and represents a wider trend of intimidation of the press by political elites. Not only has the prime minister filed several lawsuits, but the Chairman of the Supreme Court has harassed publishers and a radio station, demanding out-of-court settlements of up to ¤200,000 ($286,000). The courts' inclination to rule in favor of politicians in many cases is worrying, and we fear that the extreme fines associated with these charges will lead to increased self-censorship by Slovakia's journalists. In a democratic society, a journalist's first loyalty should be to its citizens, not its politicians."
Slovakia's Fico, who clings to his communist roots, often sues the media for libel and has been awarded substantial compensatory damages. In 2009, Fico was awarded ¤92,000 in damages for various libel claims against the press, including ¤66,000 in a case where a newspaper was unable to prove that Fico had called two journalists "dirty bastards".
Editorial cartoonists in America are given broad protections allowing them to ridicule public figures. By choosing to become a public figure, American politicians give up their right to sue cartoonists. I drew President Clinton as the character in the "Operation" game at the time of his heart surgery. One of our syndicated cartoonists, Monte Wolverton, drew an anal-interior view of President George W. Bush after a colonoscopy revealed five small polyp growths in Bush's colon --- cartoons lampooning our leaders' health issues are common fare in American editorial cartoons.
Being subject to public scrutiny and potential ridicule should be a part of the job for public officials in the civilized world -- especially when it comes to spineless despots, like Fico.
Daryl Cagle is a political cartoonist and blogger for MSNBC.com; he is a past president of the National Cartoonists Society. His cartoons are syndicated to more than 850 newspapers, including the paper you are reading now. Read Daryl's blog at www.blog.cagle.com/daryl.