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On Press Freedom Day: to draw a fat general

It took a minute for Algerian cartoonist Ali Dilem to use his pen for showing how to get into a year's worth of trouble.

He started with a general's kepi, added a bulging face underneath. "They need to be fat, like a general should be," he murmured. "A bit virile," adding the inevitable mustache. Then came a skull as a medal and a protruding belly bottom.

Dilem could still smile about the whims of political repression in his native land, where he has received threats for lampooning political and religious figures. But on Press Freedom Day, political cartoonists say they are treading carefully on the limits of laughter.

The world was given a stark reminder of how political cartoons can touch a raw nerve last year when Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad sparked riots in Muslim countries, generating a debate about how to balance free speech, tolerance and religious sensitivities

"Political cartoons are real life," said Jean Plantureux, better known by his pen name Plantu of the Parisian daily Le Monde.

Plantu is the initiator of the "Cartooning for Peace" project, hoping to create better understanding about cartoons in different national and religious contexts. The project is backed by the United Nations and has such cartoonists on board as Dilem, Congo's Thembo Kash and the Los Angeles Times's Jeff Danzinger.

The Muhammad cartoons were first published in September 2005 in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten and reprinted four months later in a range of Western media, triggering massive protests across the Islamic world.

"The cartoonists have found themselves in the frontline of the free expression debate," said Aidan White, the General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists.

"Cartoonists from all sides have come under pressure. ... They are just as influential as the most stylistic of editorialists."

Cartoonists on Thursday were defending their profession before the European Parliament's committee on human rights, arguing that the fate of cartoonists was an indicator of a nation's democratic credentials.

"We cartoonists, are the barometer of the freedom of expression," Plantu told legislators, adding it was their duty "to be irritant, disrespectful, sometimes even under the belt. But without hate."

Drawing something funny can be deadly. Twenty years ago, Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali offended governments across his region and was murdered by a gunman in what was widely seen as a revenge act by one of the Middle Eastern groups he satirized.

Dilem has been threatened by religious extremists. But unlike the Danish cartoonists in last year's Muhammad uproar he doesn't have the option of going into hiding or seek protection.

"I have no means to pay myself an armored car. I am careful, that is all," he said. But, like it or not, the constant harassment and intimidation does take its toll.

"Now, I will think twice before drawing a general - unless it is really necessary," he said, standing beside the unpublished picture of his fat general drawn 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away from Algiers.

He has no intention of becoming a martyr.

"The biggest insult would be that they know me as a 'threatened cartoonist' while no one knows my cartoons."

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