Malaysia’s highest court this week upheld a lower court’s lifting of a ban on two cartoon books by Zunar, Perak Darul Kartun and 1 Funny Malaysia. The five-judge panel of the Federal Court ruled that the Home Ministry had shown “insufficient evidence of public disorder” caused by the cartoons, and ordered the government to return 33 copies of the books seized from Zunar’s workplace. The ruling does not affect the nine charges of sedition against the cartoonist himself, which are currently on hold since he and two other defendants challenged the entire Sedition Act.
The sedition charges 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.
In an interview with Vice News last week, when his sedition trial was still set to begin imminently before it was stalled by the legal challenge, Zunar discussed the obligation that he feels to see it through despite the risk of up to 43 years in prison. Malaysia’s government has not attempted to block him from extensive international travel, and he likely could have sought and won political asylum on any of those trips. Instead, he prefers to use his international spotlight as a tool to increase freedom of expression for all Malaysians:
Why do they do this? The pressure [is now on] the government, and I know I get good support from the international community, the United Nations… so the world is watching my trial. So that is why I want to go back. I want to expose this for my country, not for me alone, and the government will get an official trial. This is my responsibility.
In fact, Zunar says he already sees a backlash against censorship among his fellow Malaysians as people share his cartoons online and gradually become creators themselves. He exemplifies this renegade creativity, telling Vice that “I draw daily. In the taxi between meetings. Wherever I go I will draw. Today I drew, tomorrow morning I will draw, in the airplane I will draw about what is happening in Malaysia.”
He also believes that the cartoon medium is particularly suited to defanging a corrupt and oppressive government, as mockery decreases the sway that it holds over the citizenry:
It is very effective, to laugh at them. And if more and more people take part and laugh at the government their ability goes. Because if people don’t respect you they laugh at you. And many people take part in this by sharing my cartoons.
Although there’s a real possibility he could go to prison for the rest of his life, Zunar says he tries not to dwell on what the future holds so he can keep expressing his true feelings through cartoons right now:
I don’t want to think so much about the outcome because I want to concentrate on drawing cartoons. If I think so much about that it will affect my output. I will start to practice censorship. So I don’t want to do that.
While waiting once again for Zunar and other Malaysian dissidents to receive true justice, please take a moment to sign the International Federation of Journalists’ petition calling on the government to drop the charges against him. 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.