Malaysian High Court Upholds Detention of Editorial Cartoonist Zunar But Finds Unlawful the Continued Confiscation by Police of Copies of Cartoon-O-Phobia


Photograph of Zunar speaking to journalists outside the court with his attorneys Fadiah Nadwa Fikri and N. Surendran by Yuisri Yus of Suara Keadilan

The Kuala Lumpur High Court has finally handed down its long-awaited ruling on the lawsuit filed by Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, aka Zunar, and his publishing company Sepakat Efektif Sdn Bhd against the Malaysian authorities for detaining Zunar and confiscating his books and artwork on September 24, 2010 – the very day his book Cartoon-O-Phobia was to be launched.  Represented by Lawyers For Liberty, Zunar and his publishing company had sued the Home Ministry, Inspector-General of Police Ismail Omar, and, police officers Arikrishna Apparau and Marina Hashim.  For Zunar and all Malaysians struggling for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, the ruling is at best a mixed bag.

On the one hand, the High Court ruled that the confiscation and withholding of sixty-six of Zunar’s book Cartoon-O-Phobia and an original drawing by Zunar of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and the PM’s wife Rosmah Mansor was an unlawful infringement of Zunar’s right’s to life under Article 5(1) of the federal constitution, since the “continued confiscation of the books will affect the plaintiff’s livelihood.”  In accordance with that determination, Justice Vazeer Alam Mydin Meera ordered that the cartoonist’s books and drawing be returned immediately.  He also ordered the court registrar to determine the damages due to Zunar.  On the other hand, the High Court ruled that the warrantless arrest and detention of Zunar, and, the initial warrantless seizure of Zunar’s books and art were lawful.  According to the justice,“The arrest and seizure was for a reason.  That reason was to carry out investigations to ascertain whether the plaintiff (Zunar) had committed an offence under [Section 11] the Sedition Act, or [Section 20] the Printing Presses and Publications Act.”

As yet there is no word as to the amount of damages due to Zunar.  Since September 24, 2010, few outlets have dared to carry and sell Zunar’s books.  That lost opportunity cost of course dwarfs even the cost of the original drawing.  Incidentally, that original drawing was defaced by the police officers who folded the drawing in half, twice!     

Photograph by Zunar of Zunar's confiscated drawing, which incorporates hair very similar to that of Rosmah Mansor  

Interviewed by CRNI shortly after the judgment was announced, Zunar said he and his attorneys from Lawyers For Liberty, N. Surendran and Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, plan to appeal the ruling.  He said, “Our main objective of the suit is to get the court to declare the detention unlawful.  The books and the drawing are just evidence to support my suit.  It is no point for the government to give my books back and pay some damages and compensation to me and yet still take away my rights as a cartoonist.  I want my books AND my rights.  The government has still banned my books, my other books.  So this ruling means nothing.”

Though hopeful that Zunar can finally publish his collection of editorial cartoons titled Cartoon-O-Phobia without government interference, CRNI Executive Director Robert Russell finds the decision as troubling as it is illogical.  He said, “Apparently the court has yet to find any seditious content in Cartoon-O-Phobia.  Yet, according to this ruling, a cartoonist can be threatened with a charge of sedition and detained for hours, even days.  For what?  Potentially having a seditious thought?!  Even if one believes the officers’ assertion that Zunar was detained as a precaution and not as a means to silence a voice critical of the government, that’s a dangerous precedent.  After all, no one in the chain of command, from the head of the Home Ministry to the police officers who carried out the detention, had even read Cartoon-O-Phobia prior to detaining Zunar.  He was simply rounded up on a supposed suspicion of sedition.”  Zunar in the interview with CRNI said, “What they are trying to say now is that to detain me is lawful, but to confiscate my books and drawing is unlawful.  Who did this?  The books come from whom?  I am the artist.  I am the cartoonist.  If the book is okay, I am not okay?!  There is no logic at all!  It is a comical judgment.”      

We now release the following statement from Zunar’s attorneys and a separate statement from Zunar, CRNI's 2011 Courage Award winner.

Lawyers For Liberty’s August 1st Press Release

Although Lawyers for Liberty welcomes part of the High Court’s decision today in ruling that the seizure of 66 copies of Zunar’s “Cartoon-O-Phobia” political cartoon books and a collage depicting the Prime Minister and his wife was unlawful and a clear violation of Zunar’s right to livelihood as protected by Article 5 of the Federal Constitution, it is nonetheless extremely disappointed and concerned that the court went on to rule that the arrest and detention of Zunar under the Sedition Act 1948 and the Printing, Presses and Publications Act 1984 were lawful.

The High Court has failed to look objectively into the facts surrounding Zunar’s arrest and detention which clearly show mala fide on the part of the police and the government in sabotaging Zunar’s book launch which was scheduled on the night of the arrest; the reasons why Zunar had to be arrested and detained even though copies of his books had been seized; that the police had not seen or deliberated on the content of the book prior to the arrest; police failure to record Zunar’s statement immediately after arrest and instead bringing him to seven different police stations and only recorded his statement on the next day – all acts calculated to disrupt the book launch or prevent Zunar from attending.  The High Court instead of checking the power excesses and abuses perpetrated under the archaic and oppressive seditious and printing laws has once again failed to uphold fundamental liberties and had allowed the authorities to carry on abusing the laws in protecting the interests of the government.

Lawyers For Liberty

Zunar’s August 1st Press Release

I AM extremely disappointed with the Malaysian High Court’s ruling that my detention under the Sedition Act in September 2010 was according to the law.  On the 24th of September 2010, I was arrested and jailed for two days just a few hours before the launching of my new comic book, Cartoon-O-Phobia.   I then filed a suit to challenge the Malaysian government on the grounds that the arrest was made in bad faith, mala fide, and unlawful.  But on the 31st of July 2012, the Kuala Lumpur High Court had held that the detention was lawful, based on the grounds that the police officers had reasonable grounds to suspect that the book was seditious.

In the ruling, the high court clearly encourages police to use the power to detain anyone solely based on mere suspicion.  This will help the Malaysian government to use more criminal laws to stop me from producing more cartoons that expose the corruptions by the Malaysian government.

The arrest was part of the modus operandi by the government to stop me from producing political cartoons unfavorable to them.  Prior to that, they started by confiscating my books in bookstores, but I continued to draw.  That prompted the authority to raid my office, raid the printers and threatening them.  When all these still failed to stop me, they banned six of my books on the grounds that the contents are detrimental to public order.  Finally, they detained me as a last resort.

The court has denied my fundamental right as a political cartoonist which contradicts the Malaysian Constitution that guarantees the freedom of expression to its citizen.  Even though in the other part of the judgment the court had instructed the police to return all my books and drawing and pay the damages, this 'play-safe ruling' does not impress me.  This ruling will not stop me, but will give me more strength to "Fight Through Cartoon."  I will appeal to the higher court soon.  And I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.

Zunar – Political cartoonist and recipient of the 2011 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award conferred by the Cartoonists Rights Network International

To learn more about Zunar's other attempts to expand free speech rights in Malaysia, click on our July 9th, 2012 article titled Malaysian Cartoonist Zunar Keeps fighting for Free Speech Rights While Waiting on Word of His Lawsuit Against the Authorities.