Back in 1968, confronted with the growing problem of an expanding war in Vietnam, US President Lyndon B. Johnson was asked at a news conference if he intended to seek a second term in the White House. The President's response was simple: "I shall cross the bridge when I come to it."

A few days later, a reputed weekly magazine put up a cartoon of a disturbed LBJ surveying a raging fire across the river, on the other side of which was Vietnam. The bridge on the river was broken. The caption below the cartoon was: "I shall cross the bridge when I come to it."

The US government took no action against the cartoon or the newsmagazine, for that cartoon was part of democratic expression. Indeed, cartoons being political statements, democracies have attuned themselves to the idea that they represent in essence and in reality a free press and are indeed a vital component of liberal thought. That is the truth which in recent weeks was reiterated when an unflattering cartoon of German Chancellor Angela Merkel was splashed in the German media. It must have embarrassed the German leader, but she knew it was all part of the democratic process.

Cartoons are one of the most effective ways of ensuring the working of a free press in a country. A cartoon lampoons politicians, both inside government and outside, the objective being to convey to newspaper readers a political reality in the simplest of terms. You could also suggest that there is something of an earthy truth about cartoons. Everyone understands it and has a good laugh about it. A few years ago, a prominent Bengali language newspaper depicted the BNP chairperson, who had just led her party in a boycott of the general election, seated outside the Jatiyo Sangsad building in sadly pensive mood as a young seller of peanuts stands before her, in the hope that his business will take a small leap. The message was obvious --- for the politician. Peanuts were on offer. Politics was distant.

Cartoons are effective weapons in a promotion and propagation of democratic ideals. It is only men and women with a persecution complex who resent cartoons and are often inclined to apply the law against those who sketch them and those who offer them to readers. In Bangladesh today, the tradition of cartoons has as good as come to an end, for fear that satirical representations of public figures, based of course on their language or action, will bring down the wrath of the state on the media. There is the fear of the law, the fear being that an innocuous sketching of a figure in contemporary spotlight could well be an initiation into unwelcome and unwieldy litigation. It is a picture which does not serve anyone --- not the individual, not community interests, not the country.

Cartoonists have gone fugitive in Turkey and Egypt, two countries where authoritarianism appears to have put paid to the democratic spirit. Journalists are in prison in Cairo. And journalists suffer badly in Ankara. There are other instances of media suppression in other countries. In Bangladesh, individuals in the corridors of power as well as close to those corridors have traditionally made it a point to keep the media on a leash through the easy weapon of medieval-sounding laws. That has not glorified the country. Neither has it upheld the spirit of freedom which galvanized the nation in its armed struggle for liberty more than four decades ago. When journalists are forced into second thinking their reports and editorials, when cartoonists are compelled to draw images that are tame and therefore pointless, it is a reflection on the state of democratic expression in the country.

That old adage, courtesy of Abraham Lincoln, pertaining to a definition of democracy government of the people, by the people, for the people says it all. Democracy goes beyond the ballot box. It goes beyond all pious expressions of democratic intent on the part of politicians. That 'beyond' is in the spaces of newspapers, where critical analyses, substantive news and eloquent cartoons hold all politicians and all other individuals in every other region of public life to account. Cartoons made fun of Indira Gandhi in India. They expose today Theresa May's politics in meaningful, sometimes irreverent ways. During the Watergate crisis, newspapers and magazines had a field day depicting Richard Nixon, scowling with his longish nose elongated even more in bizarre fashion, in serially bad light. He could not do anything to stop them, ridiculing him and his politics as they did day after day.

The press is, therefore, a guarantee not only of free expression but also of symbolizing such expression in every way it can. Certainly, cartoons are an effective weapon, a potent means of bringing arrogant and ineffectual individuals to heel. Cartoonists take it upon themselves to denude politics of its vanity. With their sketches, they render outlandish the images of politicians of an imperfect sort, exposing them as gods with feet of clay. Should the powerful, wherever they might be, then seethe in anger?

They should not, for democracy is underpinned by the freedom which the press enjoys. A free press keeps powerful men and women posted on objective realities in a country. And cartoons tend to remind politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, indeed everyone, that no one is perfect but that everyone can be better than he or she is. One who is uncomfortable with a free press, one who explodes with every appearance of newspaper cartoons is one whose belief in democracy is tenuous, weak, without conviction.

Cartoons remind individuals that they are not infallible, that they do not know everything, that they are human and will make mistakes, that those mistakes must be laid bare before society --- in order for them to turn around and try to recover lost ground.

A cartoon, therefore, is an irreverent reminder of why democracy means so much to people, in Bangladesh as elsewhere.

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