Political cartoonists have poetic licence but aren't free to defame

Thursday December 12 2019

Cartoons are not exempt from the law of defamation. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


A reader has asked me why political cartoonists are allowed to publish drawings that mock and ridicule people in public life.

I am elaborating here the short answer that I gave him.

Political cartoonists rely on a tradition of poetic licence to caricature, satirise, exaggerate, lampoon and make fun of personalities in public life. But they are not licensed to defame.

But what is poetic justice? It applies to many situations and is best explained by example.

Let's take just two recent examples involving Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko, the man who has become a favourite of political cartoonists to poke fun at. Depicting him, as a frog polluting the waters around City Hall, as Daily Nation political cartoonist Victor Ndula did on December 3, is poetic licence.

Sonko is not a frog and we are not even sure he pollutes anything. Even then, the cartoonist tells us: “If a frog becomes a king, he will make the whole kingdom muddy!”



Depicting the lawyer-senators defending Sonko in court, led by Kipchumba Murkomen, as pot-bellied members of the Sonko Rescue Team, as Victor Ndula did on December 10, is poetic licence.

Although the cartoonist tells us the lawyer-senators are “defending (their) legal fees first”, we, as readers, do not know their motives.

And although they are not pot-bellied in real life, the cartoonist depicts them with pot bellies to suggest greed motivation.

Poetic licence, also known as artistic licence, literary licence, dramatic licence, historical licence, and narrative licence, allows not just cartoonists but also poets, writers, movie makers, and artists to change facts, or break the usual rules of language or style in order to create a particular effect.

Although political cartoonists have poetic licence, they are not licensed to defame. They can critique, but they are not free to tarnish reputations.


They should ensure that the basis and message of their cartoons are materially or fundamentally accurate. Otherwise, they and their newspapers risk being sued for defamation.

Cartoons are not exempt from the law of defamation. They are treated as statements or words that can be defamatory.

Defamation can “can take any form which conveys meaning, for example a picture, a cartoon or a statue”, according to Winfield and Jolowicz on Tort, a leading textbook on the law of tort.

Political cartoonists are always striving to balance the right of freedom of expression against the right of individual not to have their reputation damaged.

The few cases of cartoon defamation that have been prosecuted in Kenyan courts show that political cartoonists have to be seen to be making their comments on the basis of fundamentally sound facts, otherwise they risk defamatory suits.

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