Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar, currently awaiting trial on nine counts of sedition, will have to wait a little longer. Last week his trial was postponed for the third time and is now set to begin on November 6. Meanwhile, he’s getting some more well-earned recognition, this time in the form of an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The sedition charges, which could result in up to 43 years in prison, 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.
The trial delays are ostensibly due to a legal challenge to the Sedition Act from law professor Azmi Sharom, who is also charged with sedition for a statement that he made to a news outlet. Because Sharom contends that the Act’s restriction on freedom of speech is unconstitutional, his case will be decided by Malaysia’s highest judiciary, the Federal Court. Sharom’s appeal has been pending since November 2014. Zunar’s case is not the only one delayed for that reason; evidently the Malaysian government is in no great hurry to decide Sharom’s case, since it provides a convenient excuse to keep dissenters in legal limbo.
Zunar is the first full-time cartoonist to receive an International Press Freedom Award. Last month he also received a Hellman/Hammett Grant from Human Rights Watch for the second time, and in 2011 he was honored with the CRNI Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award, which this year went to imprisoned Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani. Despite the looming possibility of prison time, Zunar forged ahead last week with the launch of yet another cartoon collection called Sapuman: Man of Steal, a reference to Prime Minister Najib Razak. (Sapu is a Malay word meaning to grab or snatch; Najib last month had $700 million in “donations” appear in his bank account.)
While Zunar continues to await trial, international supporters can 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. Stay tuned for updates on Zunar’s situation in the next few months!
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.