Pseudo-journalism puts cartoonists in danger

This is an editorial about poor journalism and Charlie Hebdo. But – sorry to disappoint – it is not another rant against the French satirical magazine. The story is another, and it takes place in Italy.

The Mullahs Get Out contest

On January 4, Charlie Hebdo published a special number dedicated to mullahs, targeting, in particular, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader since 1989. The issue contains, next to the usual staff content, 35 cartoons, the winners of a contest called Mullahs Get Out.

One of the 35 selected cartoons was realized by a fellow Italian artist, Paolo Lombardi. The cartoon appears in the front page of the issue as well, as it is quite a punchy work, in line with Charlie’s style. I then saw Paolo’s work go viral, posted and reposted around the web, used both to support the Iranian protesters’ cause and to pillory Paolo and Charlie Hebdo.

Obviously, the publication of those cartoons didn’t sit well with the Iranian regime. Official statements and threats of retaliation were made. We all remember what happened in 2015 at the Charlie Hebdo’s offices and, before that, in 2005, the controversy sparked by the Jyllands Posten for the series of cartoons against the Prophet Mohammed.

The situation is tense and quite volatile.

Riding the news for a bunch of clicks

In the midst of such polemics, Italian newspapers and TV channels like La Stampa, SkyNews24, Open, La Nazione, and other minor media outlets, published articles explaining that Paolo Lombardi received threats and that he is now under police protection. 

I naturally reached out to him to offer my support. Moreover one of my cartoon was selected by Charlie Hebdo as well, and my family was worried about the situation. I felt like talking about it with him, to hear how things were going and maybe ask for advice. I also suggested him to reach out to Cartoonists Right Network International, a non-profit that works on the safety of cartoonists.

To my great surprise, Paolo told me it is all false.

He was never threatened and he never spoke to the newspapers that published pieces about him being in danger. But there are statements from you, I said! He told me they took them from an interview he gave yesterday for a small local newspaper, during which he absolutely never said he was threatened.

He is now trying to make the media outlets retract or modify their pieces, clearly written for clickbait and to ride a polemic that – if it ever existed – doesn’t even belong to Italy.

From our Facebook conversation: “I told the journalists that called me that they need to publish I was never threatened, but they didn’t do that… They only care about interviewing the cartoonist in danger… they are putting me in danger with their articles.”

This pseudo-journalism puts cartoonists in danger

Being a cartoonist is difficult, it is a tough profession.

Media outlets regularly publish cartoons but don’t hire staff cartoonists anymore, so they are not there to help, in case a cartoonist is threatened or attacked – physical or verbally. Cartoons go viral, sometimes they even get modified, they are sometimes posted and discussed in platforms populated by radicalized individuals. Pays are low, protection is non-existent. In many countries cartoonists are not considered journalists, although they are exposed to all the risks journalists face.

And then, on top of all this, there is shitty journalism. The one that invents news to ride waves of media virality, to bring a little more users to the newspapers’ websites, to sell some more copies, to gain some more visibility. And on top of shitty journalism, there is journalism that picks up fake news and republishes it to piggyback on possible exposure. I don’t even know how to call that.

Paolo was never threatened, and he never spoke to the newspapers that published pieces claiming he is in danger. He tried to make them change their articles and they are not listening.

The juicy news is that an Italian cartoonist is at the center of a situation involving press freedom and a regime and a country that are easily hashtaggable, with a very clear potential for going viral.

It doesn’t matter if Paolo, or any other cartoonist, is actually put in real danger by fake journalism. His name and face are now everywhere, and this can definitely attract the attention of radicalized individuals.

He is now potentially in danger because of this pseudo-journalism.

Someone should do a cartoon about this. Or even better, we should launch a contest: Pseudo-Journalists Get out.

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