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Free speech? Blasphemy law could bankrupt a cartoonist. It's time we got rid of it. . .

Like most cartoonists I was shocked by the horrific shootings in Paris. Despite previous attacks on artists involved in the Danish cartoon controversy, it was the last thing we expected. But in hindsight it did not come out of the blue.

French cartoonists were not the first to die as a result of unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Libyan cartoonist Kais al-Hilali was shot and killed while drawing a street mural during the civil war there. A Syrian artist, Akram Raslan, is feared dead after being arrested and detained by the Assad regime. Another Syrian cartoonist, Ali Ferzat, was beaten and left for dead with both hands broken. He survived and moved to Kuwait - where a cartoonist, Naif al-Mutawa, faces ISIL death threats for alleged heresy.

Yet all these and other media casualties represent just a tiny fraction of the suffering caused by the wars, bombings and forced migration in the Middle East.

The Paris atrocity was closer to home. One of the murdered cartoonists had visited the now defunct Rathdrum International Cartoon Festival. I remember a very friendly and funny band of French cartoonists drawing irreverent sketches on napkins after an official meal.

Another reason the attack came as such a surprise is that political cartooning has, like other parts of the print media, been in decline. In 2012, the New Statesman ran a cover story headlined "Ink-stained assassins." It asked, "will the current generation of political cartoonists be the last?" The answer was yes.

In 1980 US newspapers employed 300 editorial cartoonists. Today there are fewer than 40 staff cartoonists, and that number continues to shrink. So most of us working in the field have been getting accustomed to becoming obsolete.


A cartoon by Aongus Collins ('Scratch')

A cartoon by Aongus Collins ('Scratch')

A cartoon by Aongus Collins ('Scratch')

Now it's clear that cartoons do have some relevance, at least in certain contexts. But what is this relevance? It wasn't a cartoon that, for example, brought Richard Nixon down - he fell because of investigative journalism, a far more influential force. However American cartoonists did set in the public imagination the enduring image of Nixon as a sweaty, be-jowled fixer.

I'm not sure cartoons actually change people's opinions - but they do direct attention to issues because of their immediacy. French cartoonists in particular have specialised in saying the unsayable, and breaking taboos. Charlie Hebdo has been portrayed as an anti-Islamic paper, but most of that generation of cartoonists cut their teeth on satirising the Catholic Church and breaking sexual taboos from the 1960s onwards.

They practised a very distinctive style of humour. Apparently simple, spontaneous-looking drawing, with gleeful vulgarity and utter disregard for accepted canons of good taste. Often the cartoons seem to provoke a response along the lines of "You can't say that!"

But if you say the unsayable, there's a chance your audience will start thinking the unthinkable. And that can be a powerful force for change. This seems to me to be the real threat that autocrats and ideologues perceive in cartooning. It is why cartoonists face harassment and worse from authoritarian forces.

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After Wednesday, social media erupted with a display of support. But in time will all those "Je suis Charlie Hebdo" avatars make a difference? The depressing truth is publishers will become more afraid, and self-censorship will increase. Unless we are vigilant the attack on free speech in Paris will succeed.

Threats to free speech don't necessarily involve violence. The law can be employed. On the day of the attack, Dr Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland rightly condemned the killings. According to the Irish Times he also said he "would take legal advice if Irish publications did republish or tweet cartoons that made fun of Islam."

Under the 2009 blasphemy law, you can be fined up to €25,000 (more than most make out of cartoons in a year) for publishing content "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion…"

There are some defences, but a court case could bankrupt a freelance cartoonist or small book publisher. The government has promised to put this anachronistic law to a referendum, but no date has been set.

The Taoiseach roundly condemned the attack on Wednesday. Fine words, but now is the time for action. Let's hold a plebiscite. We have an opportunity to commemorate the fallen of last Wednesday's attack with a resounding Yes in a vote for free speech.

Aongus Collins - aka Scratch - has been a cartoonist with the Irish Independent, the The Herald and Star among other publications.