Serious look at cartoons
The Inquirer’s “Comic Relief” page includes social critique in the form of humor, and we take pride in the Filipino cartoonists whose careers and artistic lives have found a home there. A prime example is “Pugad Baboy” which, for more than two decades, poked fun at the Filipino, the better for us to understand ourselves.
It’s time to address the controversy over the comic strip of Pol Medina that led to his resignation from the Inquirer. The controversy has given rise to misconceptions that need to be set aright and false accusations that need to be vigorously denied. In the democratic space that the Inquirer constantly helps strengthen, there should be room for continuing conversations.
Pugad Baboy’s strip on June 4 spoke of religious hypocrisy toward gays and lesbians. It singled out St. Scholastica’s College for purportedly tolerating lesbian relationships among its students, suggesting that the nuns themselves might be lesbians. On June 6, the Inquirer apologized for the derogatory cartoon that imputed to the nuns policies, practices and sexual preferences inconsistent with their faith.
Our Reader’s Advocate, Elena E. Pernia, has conducted an inquiry and her findings are most assuring. She found that the comic strip was rejected by the art section precisely for insensitivity when it was first submitted last April. It was a sound exercise of editorial discretion within the art section, and the author accepted it. The strip was published on June 4 by mistake—a technical mix-up in the art section—showing that there was no intent to malign, that editorial judgment had been exercised responsibly, and that the author himself, to his credit, had accepted that editorial decision.
Indeed, after the offending strip was inadvertently published, Pol Medina apologized to the St. Scholastica sisters and admitted that the cartoon had crossed the line. In constitutional law, cartoon art is protected speech, but when it becomes defamatory, it loses its constitutional protection especially when the victim is a private person and not a public figure. That is why defamatory speech is punished under the Revised Penal Code.
Since the defamatory nature of the cartoon was admitted by the author himself, one would have to be more popish than the pope to say it ain’t so. On the other hand, I can actually imagine a number of defenses. There was no malicious intent, as shown earlier. It was a cartoon, not a news item that purports to state facts. And—while truth is no defense and malice is assumed in every defamatory imputation—some readers have pointed out that Pugad Baboy merely speaks of a practice rather widespread in many same-sex schools. But the fact remains that St. Scholastica’s College was singled out for ridicule even if it hadn’t provoked or invited such attention. The slur was gratuitous. The situation called for an apology.
Another misconception is that Medina was fired. This is not true, and the Inquirer categorically stated on June 6 that he remained a contributor. It further announced: “Pugad Baboy will not appear in the Inquirer, however, pending further investigation.” This was a reasonable measure while the Reader’s Advocate was still ascertaining the facts.
On the morning of June 8, the Reader’s Advocate concluded that the entire problem stemmed from the erroneous uploading of an already rejected file, recognized Medina’s forthright apology for the injury it had caused, and unqualifiedly recommended the resumption of Pugad Baboy’s publication. However, Medina soon after announced that he was resigning from the Inquirer for having “dishonored” it.
In interviews and online posts, Medina contends that his anti-Church and anti-Marcos stance is why he is in Dutch with this newspaper that began running his comic strip in May 1988. This is absolutely false. Even he will acknowledge that the Inquirer upholds free and responsible expression, and that censorship of political views is not part of its policies. (And this controversy would have been avoided had Medina responded to the calls of his Inquirer colleagues instead of putting himself out of reach.)
On the first issue, various Inquirer columnists have been similarly critical of the Church in the Philippines. They have defended the artist Mideo Cruz for his irreverent collage “Politeismo” and Carlos Celdran for the “Damaso” incident in the Manila Cathedral. Medina’s strip on gay love in Catholic girls’ schools takes the same critical stance, but what made it objectionable was that it crossed the line by singling out by name a specific group.
On the second issue, suffice it to say that Medina’s anti-Marcos strips should also place him in the same camp as many Inquirer columnists who opposed the dictator during those days when doing so entailed risking life and limb.
But even if Medina deviates from the editorial position of the Inquirer, he has no reason to fret. The dean of the Inquirer’s corps of cartoonists, Jess Abrera, has differed fundamentally with many of us in the Inquirer on the issue of reproductive health, and to this day continues to draw his anti-RH editorial cartoons even while the editorial and certain columns cheer the passage of the RH Law!
The cartoon medium works by being bold and irreverent, and by pushing the outer limits of public discourse within the bounds of decency. The Inquirer will continue to support Filipino cartoonists the way it discovered Medina and featured his work through the years. Aspiring Filipino cartoon artists are invited to send samples of their work (e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org under the heading: “comics contribution”).
We are prepared to nurture the next generation of cartoon artists who will engage this democratic space, who will make us both laugh and think.