Young cartoonists and journalists from across Europe gathered together last spring in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, to create a document explaining press freedom in each artist’s home country. The resulting graphic novel, Free Our Media!, features work by activists and media watchdogs from Denmark to Belarus. It’s an important document, even for people who don’t live in Europe.
The link between comics and serious journalism might not make sense at first, but it’s a highly effective strategy for reporters who want to convey investigative work without being silenced by government regulations and the self-censorship of larger newspapers, TV/radio stations and even the internet. The Belarusian government, for instance, is working aggressively to block internet freedom.
“You can draw silly cartoons about serious matters, and it helps, and it gets the message across,” British illustrator Jo Bresse told Index on Censorship. “And I think that was important for a lot of the people who were there, whose countries don’t have very good press freedom. It gave them a platform to say what they wanted to say.”
Western audiences might not think press freedom is an issue in Europe the way it is in other parts of the world, but that’s simply not true. Finland is the world’s best country for journalistic freedom, according to the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, but Belarus is ranked #157 out of 180; the U.S., in comparison, is ranked 49th.
The website Mapping Media Freedom has counted 721 incidents against journalists in Europe this year alone, ranging from reports of surveillance to physical intimidation, arrests, and attempts to discredit the organizations. Two Turkish newspaper editors were recently jailed despite international outcries, while in Croatia, a journalist was even publicly threatened by the prime minister’s father.
Aged between 18 and 30, the citizen journalists in Free Our Media! represent countries including Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. Their goal is to fight for media freedom, even in seemingly idyllic places like Denmark, which holds a uniquely important role as keeper of the transatlantic fiber cables leading into Russia.
Ukrainian media professional Anna Romandash explains the unique challenges in her own country:
During the revolution of 2013-2014, journalists worked together in order to bring freedom to the country and to our profession, and we succeeded… We need to have a strategy to improve the situation and spread freedom, making it an irreplaceable part of societies in different countries.
Hopefully the comic will allow these artists to demonstrate the importance of a free media, particularly one that supports independent publishers.