Updated: Jun 8
Express freely, often, and openly; how else can we expect things to truly change?
by Rifat Yasir
Freedom of expression should be protected in every democratic country. It is one of the fundamental human rights which lets the citizens express their opinion with no hesitation or fear. According to Gunatilleke (2021), freedom of expression is essential to express feelings and ideas, as well as our participation in democracy. It is an act that can be exercised through the utilization of any medium that is now available, including verbal and written communication, cartoons, traditional and new media, protests, advertisements, and so on. I interviewed Syed Nafis, a cartoonist from Bangladesh who creates cartoons to practice his freedom of expression. My intention throughout the interview was to find out how important freedom of expression is to him, and how he uses cartoons as a medium for political expression.
“Hi, I am Syed Nafis. I am a polymath artist handling multiple art forms as my passion and profession for the past 8 years. Currently, I work as a digital illustrator and an all-round digital content creator for a well-reputed advertising agency in Bangladesh. I also freelance as a composer, singer/songwriter, voice artist, and multi-instrumentalist.”
I began by asking Syed how he understood freedom of expression. “Ah, well! Living in a democratic country and being an artist, I should have been happy answering this question. It makes me sad because I only get to practice it in a few sectors. Still, if I truly answer this with my acquired experience based on my DO’s and DON’Ts all over: freedom of expression is to gather enough knowledge to express or convey a message that describes your emotion which can change many minds or cause ruin, but you get to express it, anyway.”
I found Syed’s definition of freedom of expression unique, and so my next question was about the importance of freedom of expression. “Pardon me, but the timeline we are living in, it is risky for everyone to have freedom of expression. I think before discussing it, profound mental health, and an adequate lifestyle with a healthy balance of entertainment with finance are all required to help bring balance to the idea. Nevertheless, it is important because art and culture—followed by every aspect of the system itself—will have new things and different solutions if we listen and acknowledge their lessons. Practicing and recognising different points of view is vital though.”
Speaking from his personal experience, Syed then discussed how his freedom of expression was restricted. “The cycle of obstruction, in Asia at least, starts in the family, where parents are not learning or adopting anything new. Then it continues in schools where specific things are taught and there is little appreciation for anything novel. I, or someone like me, need to struggle a lot to practice the idea of expressing freely. There’s a long way to go.”
I voiced my curiosity about how he overcame the obstruction and expressed himself considering these significant barriers. “Well, as I have mentioned earlier, it’s a long way to go, but I am blessed that with my kind of consciousness, I was actually protesting a lot considering my age; where it was coming from at 12 years old, I don’t know! First, it started with my parents, then with my bullies, then with my teachers, then with my surroundings. Eventually, the whole life is a matter of choice and I recognised it earlier than the batch of people around me.” Syed said that even though he was occasionally passive towards his relationships, mentorships, the industry he works in, or the society he lives in, whenever he felt pushed to his rock bottom, he went into survival mode, loud, creative, and expressive. “As of now, with a lot of misunderstandings and wounds I carry, it’s still working. But then again, I had to go through a personal realisation of how much you get to practice your expression so that you don’t become harmful to others as well.”
Moving from his early start in political expression, I asked Syed what mediums he had used to continue expressing himself, “The primary mediums are my social networks, particularly Facebook. I try to share my views, problems that need to be discussed or raised, and new information about anything and everything. Seeing how people respond is important. I also use my drawings and music. I used to work for a magazine where I could practice my freedom of expression within SDG (Sustainable Development Goals)-based problems and seek solutions. As for the music—I try to write what my heart feels, but also deal with a generation who just doesn’t want to hear realistic, poetic songs. So, walking through my journey helps me to understand the new era and to express myself better.”
“One interesting way I practice my political expression is through political art competitions. As the competitions have an age limit, this is my last year of participating. But other than that, I try to express my psychedelic, rather untold, stories of my thoughts through cartoons, or the futuristic world we are progressing into. I blend my artistic mind and things I believe need to be seen through my cartoons.”
Since there have been recent controversies regarding cartoons and freedom of expression, I asked Syed where he draws the line between freedom of expression through his art and accidentally offending other people/political views, “I haven’t found a way yet that I would say I have mastered. I guess with the power of social media, you can see the algorithm of people’s reactions based on topics. So, it’s my understanding to tone down or to be more sarcastic but be realistic about anything I want to state through my cartoons. I always try to know the audience’s limit and try my best to break it too!”
My next question was if he ever offended anyone through his cartoons, “Well, in my younger days, I offended a politician’s reputation by pointing out the flaws in his management. Luckily, TIB (Transparency International Bangladesh) saved me that time with their legal power. It was a competition submission, and the exhibition is open to all. Other than that, if I offend people’s point of view at all through my cartoons, I try not to defend it too much by social media response.”
Syed lives in Bangladesh, and despite Bangladesh’s status as a democratic country, there are limitations on practicing freedom of expression. Considering this, I asked Syed how he viewed his practice of expression. “It’s sort of hard, even for the celebrity artists here in our country, as they are in fear that someone will dig their past up to make them fall. It’s a mixed feeling for me. Like in George Orwell’s book ‘1984’; with less understanding, I can say you get used to the system when you see others are being submissive too. But to navigate or even try to state the problem of freedom of expression—I think cartoons play a big role worldwide. Seeing how satirical cartoons are being practiced less all over, I am losing confidence to express my emotion through cartoons. So, I am focusing on basic problems in life that can still be expressed in the name of freedom of expression.”
Next, I asked him to talk about the challenges of creating political cartoons that are prohibited and how he copes with those challenges. “I guess people in our country, or rather in Asian regions so far, aren’t ready for creative criticism. Thus, they hate it completely. The prohibition is directly violating the idea of democracy—they do everything to obsolete the practice. It’s a real problem. Here in our very few newspapers, they are continuing political cartoons bravely, but in fear of retribution by the government, it gets less engagement. One of our famous political cartoonists has stopped working for one of the largest newspapers in our country. And as a kid who got inspired by his work, I see how scary and frustrating the situation has become. The root practice for freedom of expression has been taken care of and there’s only one thing to cope with that… spending countless, meaningless hours on things that don’t even matter via social media. People are more judgemental for even the smallest thing they see not happening the way they like. Everyone wants to share their opinion. When you stop them from freely expressing themselves in public, they will practice it somewhere else, right?”
Finally, I asked Syed if he has any suggestions for artists who want to use creative mediums to express their feelings and opinions but are fearful to do so. “I really am not one to tell others how they should express themselves. I guess we are becoming more fearful. It is our lizard brain system; the brain we used to use on our primal days to survive or to stay out of danger. The world is fast, scary too. When people knew less about global problems, they were focused on their problems and had fewer fears. Now the information is available instantly, thus people know more—fear more. On the other hand, they are using the information to create a better life, thus they are less bothered by international affairs. We completely forgot that government should be by the people, of the people, for the people. We should have been practicing our primal instincts, where we had learned how to fight and survive both internally, mentally, and physically. Again, that’s too much hard work for people nowadays. So, the system works. Apart from that, as social media is a potent tool nowadays, I guess artists should focus on growing their own community with their personality and ideology, along with strong moral grounds. They need to express their flaws so that people accept the fact that it’s okay to talk about your own problems and acknowledge them. As a small artist of a small country living in a smaller town, this is how I am hoping for other artists to blend with the new system and still be able to practice the freedom of expression at least a bit more than usual.”
We all must fight for our freedom of expression. It is important to use whatever medium is available because it is our fundamental right and it bolsters every other human right, making it possible for society to grow and advance. It is necessary for us to voice our opinions and communicate with one another in order to effect meaningful social change.
Gunatilleke, G. (2021). Justifying limitations on the freedom of expression. Human Rights Review, 22(1), 91-108.