Zunar, the Malaysian cartoonist charged with nine counts of sedition which could net him up to 43 years in prison, got some much-needed international support last month when a United Nations envoy for cultural rights expressed “deep concern” about the case. Just yesterday, however, the Malaysian government once again thumbed its nose at free expression and banned Zunar’s 2015 book Sapuman: Man of Steal.
The latest ban marks the ninth Zunar book condemned by Malaysian authorities. The titular “man of steal” is none other than Prime Minister Najib Razak, who allegedly diverted $700 million from a government investment fund into his personal bank account in what came to be known as the 1MDB scandal. (Sapu is a Malay word meaning to grab or snatch.) Zunar defiantly continues to offer the book for sale on his website, along with Conspiracy to Imprison Anwar which is also officially banned.
Zunar is scheduled to face trial next month on the nine sedition charges which stem from statements that he made on Twitter in February 2015 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.
Last month UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights Karima Bennoune made a 10-day visit to Malaysia in order to “assess efforts to implement the right of all people to participate in cultural life,” according to a press release. In a preliminary report following her visit, Bennoune called for the repeal of the country’s Sedition Act–a legacy of its British colonial past–and for all charges against Zunar to be dropped. She added that she and other UN experts would be closely following the cartoonist’s trial, which has been delayed multiple times since 2015.
Meanwhile, Zunar also was given a court date of October 13 for his challenge to a travel ban imposed on him last year. Although the cartoonist had repeatedly rejected the very idea of abandoning the country in order to escape prosecution, Abu Bakar personally ordered last year that he be barred from international travel until the sedition case is resolved. In 2015, Zunar told Vice News that “I want to expose this for my country, not for me alone, and the government will get an official trial. This is my responsibility.”
In response to the Sapuman ban, Zunar posted a statement on his website today that suggests he’s as undaunted as ever:
I would like to reiterate that this ban will not stop me from drawing cartoons to expose corruption and injustice. You can ban my books, you can ban my cartoons, but you cannot ban my mind. When the government is faulty, drawing cartoon is a duty.
He added that he plans to file yet another legal challenge to the latest ban. In 2015, he successfully fought a ban on two other books all the way to Malaysia’s top court.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.