A Malaysian appeals court last week lifted a ban on two books by political cartoonist Zunar, who has been arrested and had his work seized by the government multiple times over the years. Although the unanimous ruling by three appeals court judges is undeniably a good sign for freedom of expression in Malaysia, it does come at the expense of the medium’s dignity as the judges’ opinion states that political cartoons do not need to be scrutinized at the same level as “serious and sober works of literature.”
All or most of Zunar’s books have been banned in Malaysia at some point, but the two in question here were Perak Darul Kartun and 1 Funny Malaysia. The cartoonist and his publisher had appealed a lower court’s 2011 dismissal of a request to reconsider the nationwide ban on the two books, which government authorities claimed to be seditious. The appeals court decision dismissed that justification in no uncertain terms, saying that “this is a case where the law of sedition is being used as a convenient peg to control freedom of expression.” The judges did however point out that individuals targeted in the books could still sue for libel, as many of the cartoons were “admittedly rude, contemptuous and defamatory.”
In a statement on his website, Zunar welcomes civil charges from anyone who can prove he defamed them untruthfully:
I would like to make it clear that as a political cartoonist, I am more than ready to face legal action by any leaders if they think that I commit slander against them in my cartoons. I am ready to defend my works because they are produced after long laborious and in-depth studies of facts in any issues.
He also points out that while this decision lifted a ban on two of his books, four more are still banned and another is currently under investigation for sedition. Finally, he asks the government to stop harassing and intimidating the printers and retailers involved in the production and sale of his books, and to return hundreds of copies confiscated from bookstores and his own office. The continued failure to do so, he concludes, means that the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak is “merely a cartoon government.”
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.