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Malaysian Cartoonist Zunar Keeps Fighting for Free Speech Rights While Waiting on Word of His Lawsuit Against the Authorities

07/09/2012

Photograph by Drew Rougier-Chapman of Zunar being interviewed by All Things Considered host Craig Kopp of WUSF Public Broadcasting at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida in July of 2011

If you have ever had to wait on a judicial decision, you know how nerve-racking the waiting can be.  Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, aka Zunar, apparently believes the American proverb that “Action is worry’s worst enemy.”  In the last couple of weeks, Zunar has been very busy while waiting for a judgment on his lawsuit against the authorities for illegally detaining him and confiscating copies of his aptly titled book Cartoon-O-Phobia.  When the Malaysian Election Commission recently banned political parties from using caricatures in flyers and posters during the current election campaign, Zunar not only defied the ban, but also began organizing a tour of cartoonists to hand out campaign materials containing caricatures.  Then, when the Malaysian Government organized a cartoon festival and offered Zunar an award and RM10,000 (about 3,000 USD), he issued a strongly worded public statement explaining why accepting such a prize from Prime Minister Najib Razak would be an insult to the cause of free speech.    

As noted in our December 2011 CRNI news alert titled Zunar Responds to Malaysian Prime Minister's Promise of Reform, Zunar has long sparred with the Malaysian government over restrictions on speech.  When his work was essentially blackballed from newspapers by the government, CRNI’s 2011 recipient for Courage in Editorial Cartooning turned to publishing book and magazine collections of his work and to posting his work online at Malaysiakini.com and ZunarCartoonist.com.  When the police confiscated his books on the eve of what was going to be the launch of his latest title, Zunar challenged the legality of the confiscation and the detention.  Taking on the authorities in this manner carries great risks for Zunar.  At the time of his detention, Zunar was threatened with a charge of sedition.  That charge, which has yet to be pursued or dropped, still hangs over Zunar.  Furthermore, under Malaysian law, if Zunar is unsuccessful in his lawsuit against the police and government, he can be liable for the costs of that lawsuit. 

Cartoon courtesy of Zunar from his website ZunarCartoonist.com

To learn more about the Election Commission’s ban, click on EC ban won’t stop me, says Zunar by Patrick Lee of FreeMalaysiaToday.com.  To learn more about the cartoon prize that went unclaimed by Zunar, click on Cartooning in Malaysia: A tragicomedy by Mariam Mokhtar also with FreeMalaysiaToday.com.  To read more about the government's suppression of Zunar's political speech and the story of Zunar's unwillingness to back down, click on Oceania/East Asia in our Art to Die For collection.  Then click on Courage Award to hear how the ruling party is silencing dissenting opinions through the issuing and withholding of publishing permits.   

Below is a version of Zunar’s public statement especially tailored for CRNI’s international audience.  At Zunar’s request, we now release that statement.  

July 9th, 2012 Public Statement by Malaysian Cartoonist Zunar

On 27th June, the Kuala Lumpur High Court was to deliver the judgment of my suit against the Malaysian police and the Malaysian government regarding unlawful detention.  That judgment has been delayed.  On the 24th September 2010, I was arrested and jailed for two days over the publishing of my then new comic book, Cartoon- O-Phobia.  I was investigated under the Sedition Act, which carries the maximum of three years jail if I am found guilty.

I challenge the Malaysian government on the grounds that the arrest was made in bad faith, mala fide, and not according to the law.  This is based on the fact that when the arrest was made, the books were not yet available in the market.  The books did not and could not have led to any public disorder.  In my suit, I claim general, aggravated and exemplary damages.  Sixty-six of my books and one original work of art were confiscated during a police raid on my studio.  That raid has resulted in a loss of earnings from an inability to sell those books and otherwise market that title.  The raid has also resulted in an inability to secure contracts to sell future titles.

I would also like to refer to the ruling made by the Election Commission of Malaysia which bans the use of cartoons in the campaigns for the upcoming General Election.  The ban is under Section 4A of the Elections Act 1958, which states that any person shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or, to a fine not exceeding RM10,000 (about USD3000), or, to both such imprisonment and fine.

The banning of cartoons during the election is comical and ludicrous. 

Cartooning is a legally-practiced medium in Malaysia.  The Commission has no right to forbid its use.  This attempt to forbid cartoons is a clear violation of the Malaysian Constitution.  Our Constitution guarantees freedom of expression to all Malaysians – even cartoonists who support an opposition party.

Malaysia has been ruled by the same political party since she gained independence 55 years ago.  For that entire time cartoons have been employed by both the ruling party and opposition parties as election campaign tools.  Why has the Election Commission which is dominated by Barisan Nasional, the ruling party, chosen to ban cartoons for the upcoming general election?  This is no coincidence.  It is because a new crop of young, smart Malaysian cartoonists are exposing the scandals and failures of this government.

I call for the Commission to withdraw this rule before our country becomes the butt of yet another joke we unfortunately deserve.  Recently, Malaysia has become a laughing stock due to actions against cartoonists such as the banning of comic books, and the unconstitutional detention of this cartoonist under the Criminal Act. 

In spite of the Election Commission’s regrettable decree, I would like to announce that I will be leading a group of cartoonists, the Kumpulan Kartunis Independent (KKI).  Among others we include Nor Azlin Ngah (Jonos), Azmie Md Taha, Johnny Ong,  Azman Md Noh (AMN), Nor Afendi Ramli (Ronasina), and Amir  Hakim (Ahyat).  We will be actively drawing and distributing caricatures before and during the next election campaign.  Our focus is to expose fraud and corruption, especially the misuse of public funds by the current government.  The public has every right to be informed about the Scorpene Scandal, the National Feedlot Scandal and the excessive involvement of the Prime Ministers’ wife in government affairs.  These informative and opinionated cartoons will be distributed in various forms from brochures, posters, and banners to videos.  We are ready to face the consequences!

Lastly, I want to reinforce what I said when I rejected a 1Malaysia cartooning award created by the government.  I don’t want a government issued award or a cash handout from the ruling party.  I want my rights as an artist and as a Malaysian citizen.

Cartoon courtesy of Zunar from his website ZunarCartoonist.com