Malaysian cartoonist Zunar was set to face nine sedition counts this week, but at the last minute a court postponed the start of his trial to July 7 due to a separate pending legal challenge to the country’s entire Sedition Act. In a statement on Facebook, Zunar said the trial could be delayed yet again if the other case has not been resolved by that date.
The sedition charges, which could carry a sentence of up to 43 years in prison, stem from statements that Zunar made on Twitter in February following the sentencing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on a trumped-up sodomy charge. The cartoonist hinted that the judiciary in that trial had been subject to political pressure or bribery, observing that “the lackeys in black robes are proud of their sentences. The reward from political masters must be plenty.” He then exchanged Twitter barbs–and a cartoon–with Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar as officers were en route to arrest him.
The trial delay is due to a legal challenge to the Sedition Act from law professor Azmi Sharom, who is also charged with sedition for a statement that he made to a news outlet. Because Sharom contends that the Act’s restriction on freedom of speech is unconstitutional, his case will be decided by Malaysia’s highest judiciary, the Federal Court. Sharom’s appeal has been pending since November 2014 and no date has been set for the hearing, so it seems somewhat unlikely that a decision will be rendered by July 7. In that case Zunar’s own trial in a lower court will be postponed again.
Last week just before his trial was set to begin, Zunar spoke before a packed house at London’s Free Word Centre with UK cartoonist Martin Rowson. The two colleagues explained how they have come to understand cartoonists’ vital role in public discourse. Zunar says he keeps drawing despite the risk of imprisonment because he feels an obligation to “tell Malaysians that you are the ones who suffer from corruption.” Rowson concurred, saying he’s realized over the years that political cartoons are not really directed at the politicians and other public figures that they skewer, but at the general populace which thereby feels “empower[ed]…to laugh at them.” Index on Censorship has made a recording of the entire conversation available here.
Also last week, the International Federation of Journalists started a petition in support of Zunar which only needs a few more signatures to reach its goal. Supporters can also take advantage of Cartoonists Rights Network International’s form letter to be sent to Malaysian embassies. Stay tuned for updates on Zunar’s situation in the next few months!