Zunar: cartoons, satire and sedition in Malaysia

Zunar: cartoons, satire and sedition in Malaysia

Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, is one of Malaysia’s most acclaimed cartoonists. Many of Zunar’s cartoons draw attention to corruption and abuse of power, as well as mocking some politicians’ lavish lifestyles. He is a regular contributor to the news website Malaysiakini and has published several compilation books of his political cartoons.

Internationally, he has been honoured with the Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award from the Cartoonist Rights Network International, and twice received the Human Rights Watch Hellman//Hammett Award. In 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists (the CPJ) gave him the International Press Freedom Award.

For over a decade Zunar has also been subjected to various forms of censorship including unlawful arrests, police raids of his offices, and a two year travel ban for being ‘detrimental to parliamentary democracy’. At least five of Zunar’s books have been banned or seized by the authorities.

In 2015 Zunar faced criminal charges for sedition in response to a series of social media posts on Twitter. His comments were about the Federal Court’s judgment against an opposition politician who had been jailed on a trumped up sodomy charge. As authorities chose to prosecute individual tweets: the potential sentence, if convicted, was up to 43 years in prison.

Media Legal Defence Initiative provided both financial and technical support in two of his book ban challenges and supported Zunar with his legal fees in the sedition case.

Zunar commented:

“Your continuous support is hugely appreciated. It is a torch for me to carry on the trial in a mission to expose the repressive regime, as well as to free Malaysia from the archaic Sedition Act. Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are fundamental rights and must be upheld” 

At the time of the 2015 sedition charges, Malaysia’s Sedition Act was being used in a wide-spread crackdown on free expression across the country. The Act had recently been amended to include mandatory jail terms of three to seven years.

Sedition can be broadly defined as criticism which makes the public to lose faith in – or act violently against – the government. Though sedition is no longer a criminal offence in most Western democracies, it remains on the statute books in many former British Colonies where it was introduced to stifle dissent.

In Malaysia, the Sedition Act became law in 1948, though as the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition’s popularity began to wane, the government responded with increasingly harsh crack-downs on dissenting voices. Among other controversial laws, 2015 changes to the Sedition Act increased the maximum jail term for sedition from three years to 20.

At the time, many questioned the constitutionality of the law, and Zunar’s trial was postponed pending a legal challenge to the amended Sedition Act.

Malaysia is currently in a period of political change. In May 2018 the Barisan Nasional coalition lost power and the new Prime Minister stated he would investigate the 1MDB corruption scandal (in which nearly $700 million was lost from a public-funded development company), and would repeal repressive laws such as the Sedition Act.

In July 2018 Zunar was acquitted of all sedition charges. Upon hearing the news he said “Finally, no more sedition for me, the burden is lifted … But the fight is not over yet. The government has to abolish this law to show the commitment to freedom of expression.”

Zunar was represented by Mr N Surendran and Ms Latheefa Koya of NGO Lawyers for Liberty, with support from Media Legal Defence Initiative.


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