Political Cartoonist Zunar Scores Partial Victory in Malaysian Court

Last week, a Malaysian civil court ruled that the arrest of political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaqur, also known as Zunar, was lawful but that the seizure of his 66 books and paintings was not. This decision is the latest in a long history of battles between the Malaysian government and Zunar over his right to free expression. While the court’s ruling on the seizure of his work is a step in the right direction, their ruling of Zunar’s arrest as lawful hurts the fight for free expression in Malaysia.

On September 24, 2010, police raided Zunar’s office in Kuala Lumpur prior to the release of his book Cartoon-O-Phobia. All copies of the book were confiscated, and Zunar was arrested for sedition and publishing without a license. Last year, Zunar filed suit against the Malaysian government over the seizure of his work. Initially scheduled the make a decision on Friday, July 27, the court delayed its decision. They found that Zunar’s arrest was lawful under the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publication Act but that there was not enough evidence to warrant the seizure and retention of his works. They ordered the return of the books and paintings.

Human Rights Watch feels that the court’s decision was “a disturbing rejection of the right to freedom of expression in all its forms, including cartoons.” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, feels that the hurt feelings of Malaysia’s politicians are weighted more heavily than the right to free expression. Zunar’s work was confiscated because the arresting officer felt that his cartoons could incite hatred of the government and its leaders. In a similar vein, the government placed a ban on political cartoons for two weeks prior to general elections later this year on the grounds that such material could confuse voters.

This is just the latest of many battles between Zunar and the Malaysian government over the censorship of his work, which highlights corruption in Malaysia. In 2011, Zunar was presented with the Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning by the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) for his work in the face of extreme censorship. (This year’s honorees are Ali Ferzat of Syria and Aseem Trivedi of India.) Zunar and other political cartoonists have pledged to defy the government’s recent ban on cartoons.

The fight for free expression in Malaysia is complicated by the country’s constitution. Article 10 gives every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression, but it is subject to Clause 2, which gives Parliament the right to create laws restricting free speech and expression in the “interest of the security of the Federation or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or of any Legislative Assembly or to provide against contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to any offence.” This is further compounded by Article 4 (2)(b), which states that the validity of any law passed by Parliament cannot be questioned on the grounds that it imposes restrictions on speech and expression as outlined by Article 10 (2). That a civil court found the continued holding of Zunar’s books and paintings illegal and harmful to his ability to earn a living suggests that there is hope for overcoming these barriers to fully unrestricted speech and expression in Malaysia.

Few countries protect Free Speech as adamantly as the United States does, and censorship has a chilling effect worldwide. Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues such as this by making a donation orbecoming a member of the CBLDF!

Soyini A. Hamit is a scientist by training, a comic fan, and a writer. You can follow her fascination with language and music at soyinianika.com.