As the Malaysian government continues to do everything in its power to prevent Zunar from selling his work openly, Human Rights Watch announced today that it will provide the cartoonist emergency aid in the form of a Hellman/Hammett grant, awarded annually to writers who have been victims of political persecution.
Only five out of Zunar’s 15 books are officially banned, but police have indiscriminately harassed anyone who has any business relationship with him whatsoever, including printers and bookstore retailers. In December 2014, the government allegedly went so far as to demand a list of his online customers from payment processor MOLPay. All of this intimidation has had the intended effect of making it next to impossible for Zunar to sell his work through traditional means, but he bears this predicament with characteristic good humor, observing that “I have to resort to selling my books like I’m selling drugs, but I will continue to sell them as there is demand, just like drugs.”
The Hellman/Hammett grant, which Zunar also previously received in 2011, may come in particularly useful next month when he is slated to face trial on nine counts of sedition stemming from statements that he 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. His trial has already been postponed twice due to a pending appeal of another case which could strike down Malaysia’s entire Sedition Act.
As a recent profile in Penang Monthly demonstrates, Zunar has always viewed cartooning as a vocation rather than simply a means of survival, and unorthodox distribution is nothing new to him. He began cartooning in the late 1990s during a previous high-profile trial of Anwar Ibrahim, and handed the photocopied panels out to the crowds surrounding the courthouse. He quickly realized, he said, that political cartoons have universal appeal: “It is an effective medium – funny for people, including the illiterate. A pictorial piece is easily remembered and it transgresses race, class and age.”
In the Penang Monthly piece, Zunar also reiterates his conviction that he and all artists have an obligation to use their talent for good:
Zunar believes that one must be born with artistic talent in order to be a cartoonist, but this talent comes with a responsibility. He says he is responsible to God and the people, and is dutybound to do good for the ordinary people, i.e. to raise awareness and to make Malaysia a better place. Artists, he stresses, should come out and right the wrongs in society – and not use their talent for their own interests only.
Perhaps that’s why government intimidation only seems to make him more determined, telling Penang that he lives by the motto “Why pinch when you can punch?” He continues to “punch” through his cartoons, he explains, because:
We have already passed the phase of pinching…with a regime that cannot understand the rationale behind pinching. Also, a punch is vital when you have a regime that has been around for more than 50 years and has become arrogant in its ways. I punch because this regime needs to be replaced, and you can’t be neutral when the playing field is not even.
And so, even though his sedition trial is currently set to begin in a few weeks, Zunar plans to release yet another book of cartoons skewering government corruption by mid-September. The new book, King of Derma, will cast a critical eye on $700 million worth of “donations” that recently appeared in the bank account of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.