In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there might be nothing worse for a politician’s political image than the inability to laugh himself. But unfortunately, that’s the kind of intolerance with which Malaysia’s current government, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, has chosen to align itself.
Last Friday, the government officially charged the 52-year-old Malaysian cartoonist Zunar with nine counts of sedition (ie: hatred against the government) — a charge that could send him to jail for up to 43 years, the AP reported. His offense? A series of nine tweets, many of them cartoons, criticizing the country’s judicial system. Here’s the last one he posted on February 10 before his arrest:
The tweets came just as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim began serving a five-year sentence for sodomy that Human Rights Watch has declared politically motivated. “The lackeys in black robes are proud of their sentence. The rewards from the political masters must be plenty,” Zunar, whose full name is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, wrote in one of his tweets.
On April 1, just a couple days before his court appearance, the cartoonist released the following statement.
I am sure this prosecution is about “vendetta against cartoons.” Nevertheless, I have been advised by my lawyer not to comment about the case in detail.
The use of Sedition Act came as no surprise for me as in a corrupt regime, the truth is seditious. Najib’s regime is mentally corrupted and morally bankrupted.
I would like to reiterate that the use of Sedition Act will not silence me. I will keep exposing the corruptions and wrong-doings of the BN government.
The “Fight Through cartoons” will carry on with more fire. I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.
Dr. Robert “Bro” Russell, director of Cartoonists Rights Network International, which awarded Zunar the Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award in 2011, also released a statement:
CRNI demands that the government of Malaysia immediately stop all proceedings against Zunar and all other journalists and human rights workers using the outdated and colonialist inspired Sedition Act.
The government of Malaysia makes a mockery of its own constitution as it undermines the judicial system and the honor of the judges who continue to work within it.
CRNI, along with thousands of cartoon journalists all over the world, condemn this action against Mr. Zunar.
On April 2, a day before his sentencing, Zunar tweeted two drawings showing his determination to keep criticizing the government:
After being charged and then released on bail Friday, he was re-arrested over a picture posted by a fan on his Facebook that showed the prime minister in prison clothing; he was eventually released again after a few hours.
It’s not the first time Zunar’s had trouble with the authorities. In a raid on his studio in January, the government confiscated 149 of his books. It was the third such raid on his studio, and it brought the tally of book copies confiscated from him to about 1,000.
He was also arrested for sedition in September 2010 though only jailed for a few days (he later sued the government for wrongful arrest). At least five of his books have been banned, including Perak Darul Kartun, 1 Funny Malaysia, Isu Dalam Kartun Vol. 1, 2 and 3. Two more — Cartoon-O-Phobia and Conspiracy to Imprison Anwar — are currently being investigated.
Yet the most recent charges show the government tightening its fist even more. “This is a record, being charged nine times and using the sedition law. It is excessive and targeted at silencing vocal critics,” Zunar’s lawyer, Latheefa Koya, told the AP.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch said the charges against Zunar show the government has developed “a new-found tendency to equate repression with effective governance … Day by day, Malaysians are losing more and more of their rights and democracy at the hands of an increasingly oppressive government.”