A searing new 143-page report from Human Rights Watch is shining a spotlight on the Malaysian government’s selective use of vague laws to suppress speech it doesn’t like — notably from cartoonist Zunar, who next week faces trial on nine counts of sedition that could net him up to 43 years in prison. HRW hopes that the exhaustive review of the ruling party’s abuses will ratchet up international pressure on Malaysia in advance of two major summits of world leaders in Kuala Lumpur next month.
The report, entitled Creating a Culture of Fear: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Malaysia, details the exploitation of laws like the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act by Prime Minister Najib Razak and his political party UMNO, which has ruled Malaysia since the country won independence from Great Britain in 1955. Zunar is one of several featured dissidents, which include student protesters to top lawyers and all of whom have been subject to intimidation, investigation, and imprisonment for speech critical of the government.
Creating a Culture of Fear includes unprecedented testimony in Zunar’s own words of the government’s constant attempts to silence him since 2010, when his books 1 Funny Malaysia and Perak Darul Kartun were officially banned as “prejudicial to public order.” That’s when authorities began a pattern of intimidating not just Zunar himself, but anyone associated with his books; they threatened to revoke sales licenses from retailers that carried the publications, and the cartoonist reports “about 20 policemen raided my printer. They asked to see the owner of the license. And they said very clearly to him, ‘Don’t print Zunar’s books.’”
Zunar’s first arrest came later in 2010 with the publication of Cartoon-o-Phobia — although he was released fairly quickly after forcing police to admit they hadn’t read the book, he remembers:
The police came and arrested me under the Sedition Act. They confiscated the book and the original cartoon. They kept me in a police lock up all night. Next morning, they produced me in court. They had moved me so many times, my lawyers did not know where I was. I appeared before the magistrate alone. I said, ‘The book came out yesterday. How do the police know it’s seditious?’ The magistrate asked the police, ‘Did you read the book?’ The police said they had not. So the magistrate released me.
Due to the difficulty of finding a publisher willing to risk losing its license to print his books, Zunar tells HRW he now blacks out the publisher’s name by hand on every single copy sold. He is not about to modify his message to be more palatable to the government, but he also realizes that his printing and distribution troubles will continue as long as that is true:
I do what I want to do. Otherwise it creates self-censorship. But the book shop will not keep any of my books. Printers don’t want to print my book. They all worry that they will have to deal with the police. They don’t want the trouble. I will keep drawing. But the government is going to say, ‘Sure, keep drawing. But nobody wants to print your books. No one wants to sell your books.’ That way, the government has been very successful in what they did. It is sad. Today, in Malaysia, either you are a government supporter or an opposition supporter. There is no place for people.
Even after being charged with a record-breaking nine counts of sedition for statements that he made on Twitter in February following the sentencing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on a trumped-up sodomy charge, Zunar sees cartooning as not just a job, but a vocation:
The job of a cartoonist is to criticize the government of the day. In a country such as Malaysia, a cartoonist needs to do more than criticize — he needs to fight. A cartoonist must carry out the people’s voices through cartoons because people are not allowed to express their frustrations themselves.
He also expresses hope that his mockery of the ruling party will help regular Malaysians to overcome their fear of reprisal and speak out for themselves in greater numbers. “Laughter is the easiest protest,” he observes. “They can’t prohibit laughter.” But as the HRW report wryly notes, the government “appears not to find Zunar’s cartoons humorous.” When asked why former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was not charged with sedition for criticizing Najib but Zunar was, Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar replied that the cartoonist “asked for it. You ask for it, you got it. So watch out.”
In a press release summary of Creating a Culture of Fear, HRW Asia director Brad Adams called on Malaysia’s government to end the charade and take concrete action to protect freedom of expression:
Back in March 2014, the Malaysian government told the United Nations Human Rights Council that it was committed to taking steps to improve compliance with international human rights standards. To be taken seriously as a rights-respecting member of the international community, it must honor that pledge and stop the ongoing criminalization of dissenting or critical views.
As a first step, the government could throw out the ludicrous sedition charges against Zunar before his trial is set to begin next Friday. You can help keep up the pressure by signing the International Federation of Journalists’ petition in support of Zunar. Cartoonists Rights Network International also provides a convenient form letter to send to Malaysian embassies.
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.