Our law supports our political cartoonists’ right to offend

The right to free speech means nothing without the right to offend. Thankfully free speech is still protected in New Zealand. We are a liberal country that does not legally sanction political satire. In fact we are known for our political satire. Making fun of our politicians is a national sport. Satire is what makes our democracy healthy. When you cannot criticise or mock the government you are no longer living in a true democracy.

Atena Farghdani walks free on 3 May 2016Atena Farghdani walks free on 3 May 2016 © Mohammad Moghimi on Facebook

She was imprisoned for drawing political cartoons. But this week, after a year and a half of unjust imprisonment in Iran, 29-year-old painter and activist Atena Farghadani walked free after her sentence was dramatically reduced, and she was acquitted of some of the absurd charges levelled against her.


Turkish journalists sentenced to 2 years in prison over Charlie Hebdo cartoon.


 As you all know we have had a complaint made to the human rights commission because a political cartoon we published hurt some people’s feelings. I suspect that their goal is to censor our cartoon completely. We’re not the first media organisation to suffer from supposedly liberal people wanting to exercise dictatorial censorship powers.

Any call to censor a cartoon is an attack on free speech, and the thin end of a particularly unpleasant wedge.

…Giving offence is part of the cartoonist’s armoury; it’s all part and parcel of democratic political debate. There is no right not to be offended, and we do nothing to champion free speech when we pick and choose who to support based on the colour of their politics

….Today’s cartoon in the Daily Mail, drawn by Mac, has caused a lot of hand-wringing on social media for apparently comparing refugees to rats. I can’t agree. As a cartoonist, I would argue that he doesn’t appear to be saying that all migrants are rats, simply that some rats are slipping through among the migrants – and I certainly don’t have a problem with him characterising Isis fighters as rats.

…I’m also rather worried that sections of the supposedly left or liberal PC brigade seem to be as keen to censor cartoonists as some of the more brutal right wing dictatorships.


So where do New Zealand cartoonists stand legally? There are several legal defences available for cartoonists, such as honest opinion based on fact or qualified privilege in the case of depictions of politicians. Media law expert Steven Price says that “Many cartoons have a defamatory meaning,”  “That is, they make the readers think less of someone depicted, but that’s not to say they are legally defamatory.”

PORTRAYING politicians as loonies or self-deified money-grabbers is all in a day’s work for New Zealand cartoonists – and it appears there’s little in terms of the law to stop them.

…There are several legal defences available for cartoonists…

“Perhaps a bigger reason is that launching defamation proceedings will only draw more attention to the cartoon, and will make it look as if the plaintiff can’t take a joke.

“Quite apart from that, defamation lawsuits are risky, lengthy and expensive,”

The leading New Zealand defamation case involving a cartoonist was future prime minister William Massey v New Zealand Times in 1911, a year before he was elected.

Massey accused the newspaper of defaming him in a cartoon that suggested his party – the Reform Party – had distributed “scurrilous” pamphlets.

The jury found the cartoon was not defamatory because it was “a political cartoon pure and simple,” and an Appeal Court upheld that decision.

Professional cartoonist Mike Moreu…

“It’s not the cartoonist’s job to worry about that sort of stuff. You’ve got to pitch your cartoons to the audience, but that doesn’t mean pull back on the message.”

Originally from the US, Mr Moreu says it is easy to offend people in New Zealand because it is a small country with few degrees of separation.

“In saying that, New Zealand is extremely liberal. Some of the stuff I can do here I would never get away with in the States. They’re gun-shy about lawsuits.”

Fellow cartoonist Tom Scott could not be contacted for comment, but is well known for his political cartoons and particularly as former prime minister Robert Muldoon’s antagonist.

Mr Scott was banned from Muldoon’s press conferences because Muldoon didn’t regard him as a real reporter, but rather a satirist.

Canterbury University law lecturer Ursula Cheer says political cartoons are seen generally as satire, “and so it would be difficult to show they have a defamatory meaning.

“The Bill of Rights now means that freedom of expression must be weighed in the balance in these cases – political satire is seen as high value speech and worthy of protection.”



Here is a cartoon about political cartoons that my daughter sent to me. She is big fan of the cyanide and happiness cartoons. I think it makes the point about political cartoons being offensive in an offensive way which really is the whole point.



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  • intelligentes candida diva

    “Dont shoot the messenger” which is what the complainant is doing, the fodder is there comedians and cartoonists use it.

    With the increasing surge in censorship people need to think seriously about the big picture and shutting people down does not solve social dysfunction it hides it.

  • GoingRight

    I love satire like most people but I actually don’t agree with using rats to depict any group of people. Hitler did that against the Jews to gain support that the Jews were vermin and so lesser creatures and could be treated as subhuman. Makes me shiver just thinking about it.

    • spanishbride

      Rats leave a sinking ship which is an apt reference for people fleeing a war-torn country.Political cartoons force a reaction from us. We either recoil or we disagree or we agree.We don’t need to agree with or feel comfortable with a cartoonist’s depiction of anything. We are free to express our opinions in this country and to disagree with media in all its forms. I understand how it made you feel because of how rats have been used in the past.Rats though have been used in political cartoons for a very long time, not just by Hitler’s cartoonists.They are a common metaphor.

  • shykiwibloke

    Complaining about the cartoon simply reinforces my opinion this is a deep rooted problem, and the longer we ignore it the harder it will be to address, let alone all the suffering that could be avoided. We have two choices:- declare everyone a sensitive minority and talk about nothing, or take a hard look at everyone using the same yardstick. You cannot pick and choose which societal values to judge each minority by.

    • kereru

      Strip controversy from political cartoons and you’re just left with drawings.

  • XCIA

    Cartoons are also a very powerful medium when a state or government decides to demonize a particular section of its citizens as graphically illustrated last century.

  • Dumrse

    Perhaps the cartoon community can drop us a cartoon depicting the actions of the HRC and their handling of the issue.