Tuesday, March 31, 2015

 
MARCH 30, 2015
Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, the Malaysian cartoonist better known as Zunar, has had to put up with a lot over the past couple of years while staying true to his political views.

Police raids at his book launches, interrogations and arrests, charges and jail time, not to mention confiscation of his art and property and damage to his livelihood, have taken their toll.

Given the gauntlet of police harassment that he has faced, you would think he was the most dangerous renegade in all of Malaysia rather than an editorial cartoonist exercising his right to free expression.


But Zunar's often wordless commentaries, which usually hit their mark, have evidently left his targets determined to use their political powers to crack down on and silence him.

And as if going after him for his cartoons was not enough, the latest sedition charged leveled against him was for a tweet after the Anwar Ibrahim verdict in which he said, "Those in the black robes were proud when passing sentence. The rewards from their political masters must be lucrative."

Whether in words or cartoons, it's clear that Malaysia's men in power don't have a humorous appreciation of Zunar's work and want him silenced.

On Feb 28, 2015, with political tensions high, police raided Zunar's attempted launch of his new book, ‘ROS in Kangkong Land’, and threatened to detain him and confiscate his books. Not surprisingly, he aborted the planned launch. Two weeks earlier, police had already confiscated hundreds of the books that the printer was attempting delivery to the venue for the launch.


And at the same time that Zunar's tweet landed him in remand for sedition, police were investigating two other of his books, ‘Pirates of the Carry-BN’ and ‘Conspiracy to Imprison Anwar’. A raid on his office in January resulted in yet another loss of books. And there's more of the same dating back to September 2009.

Those who work with Zunar also live on the edge. The government harassment is well organised. In November 2014, police arrested three assistants for selling his books; his webmaster was called in for questioning. Authorities threatened his publishers and printers with closure and destruction of their property.
Distributors are to be put out of business; bookstores were threatened. When police asked Zunar's online payment gateway to disclose the names of customers who used his official website to purchase books, the company had no choice but to comply.

But Zunar is not stepping back. As he says, "Even my pen has a stand," and so does he in asserting his right to freely express his beliefs. Zunar's lampooning of prominent political figures and government policies means there almost always seems to be another charge, another conflict with the authorities just around the corner.

Often for book seizures, it's a purported violation of the Printing Presses and Publications Act that requires non-refutable government approval of all publications.

More recently, it's been sedition. When the word "sedition" is used, the average citizen is likely inclined to think that sedition must involve an extremely dangerous behaviour, such as an attempt to overthrow a government, or sell state secrets.


But in most cases, think again. In fact, Malaysia's Sedition Act is based on a vaguely defined "seditious tendency," which can be construed to mean virtually anything the government wants it to mean at any given time.
Mocking Malaysia's leaders, giving voice to citizens' complaints, or just disagreeing with a policy decision can be labeled sedition. For Zunar, the more cutting the cartoon, the more seditious the authorities may think it is. The limits are unknown, variable, and often dependent on the political dialogue and dissension of the day.

And, as Zunar has explained, even if the government does not move forward from holding him for sedition, to charging him with a crime, it will let that possibility hang over his head for as long as it chooses. That could prove unsettling to Zunar to say the least.

But while Zunar is scorned and criminalised by the authorities at home, his art is rightly celebrated overseas.

Prestigious galleries and museums in England, Spain, and the United
States have featured his work but ironically he finds it very hard to exhibit at home.

To make up for his losses, he has had to engage in series of marketing events abroad, where he is able to show his work and speak freely about his ideas, his political views, and his observations for recommendations. As I know from attending several in New York, he is engaging, funny, and erudite when the spotlight is on him.

In 2011 the Cartoonist Rights Network International gave Zunar their ‘Courage in Editorial Cartooning’. Later the same year, Zunar received a much sought after Hellman Hammett grant from Human Rights Watch, given to writers who face persecution because of what they write.


These awards go to writers - and the term has evolved over the years to cover new media and modes of expression - who because of their political writings have had their work censored and their ability to earn a living severely curtailed.

Ironically, Malaysia is currently sitting on the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member and chairing the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as Asean. These leadership honours are meaningless without recognition of the basic human rights Malaysia signed on to when it joined the United Nations.


It's well past time for Zunar's cartoons, no matter how much the Malaysian government dislikes them, to be recognised and seen not just as art - but as protected free expression that the government needs to allow for all its citizens.

Mickey Spiegel is a senior adviser in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

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