The Otago Daily Times cartoon joking about the Samoa measles epidemic was "gratuitously hurtful" and had a "racist quality", the Media Council has found.
Garrick Tremain's cartoon published on 3 December shows two people walking out of a travel agent and one remarking that the least popular spots right now are the ones people are picking up in Samoa.
More than 2000 complaints were made to the newspaper and 130 to the Media Council, which said in its decision today that the cartoon should never have been published.
There's a very high bar that must be crossed before a complaint about a cartoon will be upheld, but in this instance the council said that bar was crossed "by a significant margin".
"Even with cartoons there is a line of gratuitous offence and hurt which when crossed can constitute a breach of the professional standards by the media.
"This is such a cartoon. It has no redeeming qualities. It was a play on use of the word 'spots'. It was a weak attempt at humour."
The council was also critical of the ODT's initial response to the litany of complaints, which "did not show a grasp of how deeply offensive [the cartoon] was".
The newspaper subsequently ran a front page apology and implemented an independent review.
"The editor has now acknowledged that this cartoon went far beyond what can ever be acceptable. The Media Council agrees. To publish this cartoon was a breach of professional standards so serious that it cannot be remedied by reference to freedom of expression."
To date, 79 people have died in Samoa's measles epidemic.
The Media Council said there was "no doubt" the cartoon would not have been published if the people who had lost their lives were from somewhere like Oamaru.
"The insensitivity of joking about a deathly epidemic is made worse by this quality of being invited to laugh at the plight of people who are seen as different from 'us'.
"We consider it highly discriminatory. It has a racist quality, being that other lives do not matter as 'ours' do. It invites laughter at an epidemic that is causing illness and death, the implication being this is acceptable because the victims are 'not us'."
Tremain has defended the cartoon, saying it was not causing any more deaths or making light of the tragedy, but apologised to those offended, and said it was a lack of judgement on his part to put it forward.
"If you've read the cartoon, the basis is a travel agent taking the wrong end of the stick and making a stupid comment.
"I can quite understand why it has upset people. It's a very poor piece of timing for such a cartoon - I'm the first to agree with that."
But he said at the time he thought it was an innocuous joke.
The Media Council urged the Otago Daily Times to share the results of its independent review of the decision to publish the cartoon.
The newspaper is reviewing Tremain's future and is not publishing his cartoons until the review is complete.