It's not easy to be a political cartoonist in Serbia. Just how risky an occupation it may be is illustrated by the case of Dusan Petricic, one of the country's most prominent cartoonists, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Toronto Star.
On September 30 his contract with Serbia's main daily newspaper, Politika, was rescinded after seven years during which Petricic's cartoons graced the front page of the paper's Sunday edition.
Recently, Serbian Prime Minster Aleksandar Vucic has been a frequent subject of Petricic's acerbic satire -- and he strongly suspects that that is the source of his troubles.
In an interview with RFE/RL in Belgrade, Petricic said he believes the decision to fire him came from the very top, from the prime minister himself.
"I have no proof of this, but I am convinced that the editor in chief [of Politika] has been getting calls, whether from the head [Vucic] or those around him. I know that they've been upset for a long time over the fact that this is being printed," he said, referring to his cartoons lampooning Vucic.
Petricic's colleague, Predrag Koraksic Corax, suggested the same in this cartoon comment on his dismissal, which shows Vucic peering through a ripped front page of Politika.
Petricic said that his dismissal could have been the initiative of the newspaper's editor, Zarko Rakic, who he said is a supporter of Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), but added that "if he wanted to remove me he would have done so at the beginning." Rakic took over the post a few months ago.
The next day, in response to a question from Insajder.net, Vucic's office said that it had learned about Petricic's dismissal from media reports.
Vucic's office said the prime minister's opinion was that Petricic should be allowed to continue publishing, because "far from being seen as offensive, his cartoons are a boost to the prime minister."
"They are evidence of the strength of [Serbian] democracy, and…demonstrate that even those with the strongest aversion to the government, and with a personal hatred of the prime minister, should be given space to work, as they have been until now."
Almost immediately following this public granting of permission for Politika to continue publishing Petricic's work, Rakic announced that the cartoonist had been reinstated even though he was "sometimes late with his submissions."
The Politika editor also suggested that Petricic was too expensive, but that he would take him back anyway.
This sudden and slightly farcical about-turn does nothing to allay suspicions that the decision to dispense with Petricic was politically motivated. No one was more surprised at the newspaper's attempt to backtrack than Petricic himself, although he was equally quick to insist that his fate would not be decided by the Politika editor or the prime minister:
"Any future arrangement depends on me, too," Petricic said.
He promptly accepted a rival offer from the established Belgrade weekly NIN. The most recent issue of the magazine carries a cartoon that had been rejected by Politika, alongside a new contribution by Petricic.
"The cartoonist's job is to criticize and to satirize those in power. There is no such thing as a cartoon that is too harsh. Its harshness is always a measure of the impropriety that the government is engaged in." said Petricic, who will have an entire page in NIN dedicated to his cartoons from now on.
One of Petricic's drawings portrays his view of what an ideal TV program would look like in the eyes of Vucic -- with Vucic in the role of interviewer, interviewee, cameraman, and producer.