After months of delay, it looks like Malaysian cartoonist Zunar will finally get his day in court next month as he faces nine sedition charges which could bring up to 43 years in prison. That’s not particularly good news, however; the reason his trial will now proceed is that Malaysia’s highest court this week ruled the country’s antiquated Sedition Act to be valid, even though it seems to contradict free speech protections found in the constitution.
The Sedition Act was instituted by British colonial rulers in 1948, nine years before Malaysia became fully independent. Last year the Act was challenged in court by Azmi Sharom, a law professor also charged with sedition, who argued it should be invalid since it predates independence and the Malaysian constitution. This week, however, a five-judge Federal Court panel ruled that the law will remain in force. Dissenters like Zunar and Azmi say that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has selectively used the Act as a tool to silence opposition.
Unsurprisingly, Zunar’s reaction to the ruling was biting:
The courts are emboldening the government to use the Sedition Act against critics. There is no more hope for justice through the courts….This further constrains the already limited freedom of speech and expression in Malaysia. We’re speeding in reverse. Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is heading to the Mugabe era. I thus suggest the federal constitution be placed in the museum and displayed as an antique material.
The sedition charges 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.
Prior to the court decision on the Sedition Act, Zunar was already facing renewed harassment from authorities last week when his online sales assistant was called in for police questioning about distribution of the cartoonist’s latest book, Sapuman: Man of Steal. (Sapu is a Malay word meaning to grab or snatch; Prime Minister Najib recently had $700 million in “donations” appear in his bank account.) Although many of Zunar’s 18 cartoon collections are officially banned, the government has not yet declared any restrictions on Sapuman since its publication last month.
Also last week, Amnesty International announced that Zunar is the first Malaysian featured in its Write for Rights campaign. Supporters pledge to write letters on behalf of specific victims of human rights abuses around the world, and to bring attention to their cases by using the hashtag #W4R on social media.
Zunar’s sedition trial is set to begin on November 6 and we will certainly be watching for developments! In the meantime, please take a moment to sign the International Federation of Journalists’ petition calling on the government to drop the charges. Cartoonists Rights Network International also provides a convenient form letter to send to Malaysian embassies.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.