By Jonas Kelsch
ZHUHAI, CHINA – Dec 2, 2016
Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar (Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque) said he “will draw more,” in the face of a looming sedition trial and pressure from an increasingly authoritarian government.
One of Zunar’s cartoons shows him shackled, hanging by all fours from the ceiling of a prison cell, yet clutching a pen between his teeth to finish a cartoon. For an activist who has now been jailed three times and faces up to 43 years imprisonment on sedition charges, the scene does not seem all that far-fetched.
Zunar draws cartoons five days a week and remains undaunted by a growing list of government threats. “I will not practice self-censorship,” he said, “even though I can say that every day I face the possibility of charge[s] or the possibility of action[s] of the authoritie[s]. But I won’t practice self-censorship because that is what the government wants…I will continue as usual, but I will draw more now.”
One week after Zunar expressed his resolve, on November 25, a nationalistic mob attacked his exhibition at the George Town Literary Festival. The following day, Zunar was detained yet again on grounds of sedition. He has since been released but has not yet responded to a request for a follow up interview.
Government efforts to silence Zunar have included multiple detainments, confiscations of his books, and a recent international travel ban. Most seriously, he faces nine charges of sedition (possibly 10) – the most for any person in Malaysian history.
“[These are] all politically motivated actions by them,” he said. “So it’s not about the law, it’s not about whether you have right[s] or not, it’s about the political decision[s].”
He believes the government’s actions reflect its insecurity. “In my view, this is a minority government [living] with an inferiority complex,” he said, “and they see everything as a threat.” The ruling party, the United Malays National Organization, currently led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, has been in power since 1957.
Zunar’s lawyer Melissa Sasidaran said that in the 2013 election, the opposition actually won the popular vote, drawing a comparison between that election and the recent victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election.
Zunar described the ruling party not as a government but as a “regime.” “For me, more than 20 years [in power] is a regime,” he said. “If any political party stays too long in power, they tend to [become] corrupt […]. Their survival – not only in Malaysia, [but] any regime in the world – depends on how they monopolize the information.”
“In Malaysia we do not have…freedom of press,” he said. “All printed media is 100 percent controlled by the government.” He explained that press freedom in the country took a turn for the worse in 1998, when the internet was introduced and former Deputy Prime Minister and opposition leader Ibrahim Anwar was sacked and arrested.
Zunar, no stranger to arrest, said “there are so many laws, there are so many way[s] to stop me,” but he believes his actions are legal according to Malaysia’s constitution. He cited Article 10, which states that everyone in Malaysia has the right to express views peacefully. “The law must be in line with the constitution,” he said.
The constitution, however, does not appear to stop the government from relying increasingly on the Sedition Act, a relic of British colonial legislation now used to suppress dissent. “As you can see, they are using the Sedition Act more now…since 2013,” Zunar said. “Two of my lawyers have been charged, and there are also lecturers, other activists like religious activists, student activists,” he said. “The beauty about the sedition act is it gives power to the government or to the authorities to arrest us…without explaining.”
Sasidaran said her organization Lawyers for Liberty“pick[s] up a lot of sedition cases, because in Malaysia, over the past few years – especially the last general elections – between general elections – there’s been a sudden revival of the use of the Sedition Act, so we see a lot of arrests and investigations and prosecutions under the Sedition Act.”
In spite of a recent Malaysian Court of Appeals ruling that Section 3 of the Sedition Act is unconstitutional, H.R. Dipendra, a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer who advocates media defense and freedom of expression in Southeast Asia, said that the decision may not result in a significant change of government policy. He said that the government will likely appeal the decision in the country’s Federal Court, postponing existing sedition cases, such as Zunar’s, until a ruling is made.
Although there are several laws the government uses to quell opposition, Dipendra said one of the reasons the government uses the law more frequently is because “intention doesn’t matter in the Sedition Act.”
Another of Zunar’s cartoons shows the bars of the Malaysian flag extending off the fabric and trapping a group of distraught men (presumably dissenters) by forming a prison cell around them. Underneath reads “MALAYSIA SEDITION ACT.”
Orwellian laws such as the Sedition Act make it extremely difficult for Zunar to give his cartoons public exposure. “I can’t sell my book in any bookstore in Malaysia,” he said. “But I think the demand is still there.”
In order to meet this demand, Zunar primarily uses Twitter (on which he has over 41,000 followers) and Facebook (nearly 150,000 followers) to distribute his work, calling social media an “ultimate tool” for making his voice heard.
“I will use more Twitter, I will use more Facebook,” he said. “Let’s say one day they [the government] want[s] to shut down or block my Twitter, fine, I’ll create another account,” he said, as if it were a matter of common sense. “So there is no way they can stop me by doing that.”
In October 2016, Zunar learned that the Sedition Act was used to bar him from leaving the country. “After two months I [found] out about the travel ban,” he said with a chuckle. “When the travel ban was declared, I didn’t even know about it. According to the law, according to the rules, you have to give notice to me,” he said. His subtle humor in recounting the story brought to mind one of his proverbs: “If you can’t beat them, laugh at them.”
Sasidaran said that the travel ban is a recent addition to the list of sedition penalties. She believed that the implementation of this penalty may be related to Zunar.
Against impressive odds, Zunar remains optimistic about the future. “The space for freedom of expression and for human right[s] is shrinking every day,” he said. “And people [are] start[ing] to question. You cannot stop people from questioning, from protesting.”
On November 17, 2016, Zunar spared a half hour (the length of time it takes him to draw a cartoon) for Skype interview with JMSC News. Lawyers H.R. Dipendra and Melissa Sasidaran gave interviews on Nov 29 and 30 respectively.
Author’s note: On December 17, 2016, this article’s headline was changed from “Oppressed Malaysian political cartoonist promises to ‘draw more’” to “Under increased pressure, Malaysian political cartoonist promises to ‘draw more’.”