Facing trial next month on nine counts of sedition which could carry a sentence of up to 43 years, Malaysian cartoonist Zunar has been making the English-language media rounds with a profile from news agency AFP and an interview with Al Jazeera. Both pieces are unified by a single theme: Zunar’s determination to keep drawing has not wavered an inch.
Echoing a recent panel he produced, the cartoonist told AFP “you can chain my hands, you can chain my legs, you can chain my neck or my body. But I will keep drawing. I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.” In the Al Jazeera interview, he elaborated on his conviction that his talent “is not a gift, it’s a responsibility. In facing a crisis you need to make a stand. You can’t keep quiet or try to be neutral, if neutral means you support an oppressive government.”
The sedition charges stem from statements that he made on Twitter in February following the sentencing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on a trumped-up sodomy charge. Zunar 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–anda cartoon–with Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar as officers were en route to arrest him.
Cartoonists Rights Network International director Robert Russell, who has helped many other cartoonists to escape oppressive regimes, tells AFP that he brought up the idea of exile with Zunar but “he became indignant, saying: ‘Why do they [authorities] have more right to be here than I do?’” The cartoonist feels that even if he and many other Malaysians go to prison, more will keep joining the opposition to the ruling party “because in their hearts they’re still not satisfied.”
In the interview with Al Jazeera, he was asked if it’s possible for cartoonists to go too far. Zunar, a Muslim who has called for an annual World Cartoonists Day to be held on the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack, replied with a question of his own:
Let me ask a question, if the Prophet Muhammad were still alive would he have ordered the cartoonists to be killed?
He would not. Prophet Muhammad would never have told us to do that.
You have a right not to agree with the content of the cartoon. Me, as a Muslim, I also don’t agree. But cartoonists have a right to draw what they draw, but sentiment and perspective is very subjective.
Just as the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists should not have been killed in retaliation for their drawings, Zunar continued, Malaysian citizens like himself should be able to criticize the government without fear of criminal prosecution designed to silence them. Nevertheless, his trial is set to begin on May 20–which means there’s still a month left for supporters to contact Malaysian ambassadors on Zunar’s behalf.
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.