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ODT Samoa measles cartoon 'a slap in the face to grieving families' - Race Relations Commissioner

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon says he's "very embarrassed" a cartoon published in a New Zealand newspaper yesterday made a joke out of the 55 measles-related deaths in Samoa as the nation battles an outbreak of the disease.

Controversial cartoon published in Otago Daily Times. Source: Twitter

In a statement on Facebook, Mr Foon labelled the cartoon "extremely appalling and distasteful" and said it was "a slap in the face to grieving families".

Garrick Tremain's cartoon depicts two women leaving a travel agency with one woman saying, "I asked "what are all the least popular spots at the moment?" She said the ones people are picking up in Samoa."

Despite widespread criticism of the cartoon, with some labelling it racist, Mr Tremain today told RNZ he wouldn't apologise for the "simple, light-hearted joke".

However, Mr Foon disagreed.

"It shows very poor judgement by the cartoonist and those involved in publishing it," he wrote.

The ODT's editor, Barry Stewart, has issued an apology saying, "the content and the timing of the cartoon were insensitive".

But Mr Foon said, while people throughout New Zealand and the world were expressing sympathy and offering support, the cartoon "only seems to be interested in a divisive and cheap laugh".

"To make fun of the fatal measles epidemic that has claimed the lives of many innocent children is a slap in the face to grieving families in Samoa and overseas. It is also disrespectful to New Zealand citizens of Samoan heritage."

In offering his condolences to the families who have lost loved ones, Mr Foon also said the cartoon was "severely out of touch with the international community who are standing in solidarity with Samoa by providing help with the medical effort".

"I am glad to hear that those involved in publishing it, will be reviewing their policies regarding this and similar cartoons, because of the public outcry. 

"As the Race Relations Commissioner, I am mandated with ensuring we maintain harmonious relationships between the many diverse communities that call New Zealand home. As such, I offer my support to any organisation who is genuinely interested in learning from this type of regrettable error."