Zunar Accused of “Economic Sabotage” Over Geneva Exhibit

In response to the cartoonist’s recent exhibition of his political cartoons in Geneva, a member of the Malaysian government is now accusing Zunar of committing “economic sabotage” and plotting to “topple the prime minister.”

The exhibit Cartooning for Peace celebrates World Press Freedom Day and honors the two recent recipients of the 2016 International Editorial Cartoons Prize, Malaysian cartoonist Zunar and Keyan cartoonist Gado. Despite numerous obstacles in their respective countries, both artists continue to fight for freedom of expression, but Zunar in particular has had a long and contentious relationship with the Malaysian government, an ongoing fight that has come to a head again with the inclusion in the exhibit of cartoons that directly criticize Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak.

In the past 5 years, Zunar has faced charges of sedition, had his books seized on numerous occasions and subsequently banned, and been taken on a rollercoaster ride of trial postponements and delays — all in attempt to silence the vocal political cartoonist whose subject matter often focuses on corruption within Malaysia’s government. Moreover, the government has gone to the extreme lengths to even harass Zunar’s booksellers, printers, and customers as well as arrest his assistants. In spite of facing 43 years in prison for sedition, Zunar has garnered international support for his work and become an icon for the fight for free speech in Malaysia and around the world.

The recent exhibition of his works in Geneva proves that international boundaries won’t stop some Malaysian officials from attempting to bring charges against the cartoonist. In response to the cartoons criticizing Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, Communications and Multimedia Minster Salleh Said Keruac made a public statement accusing Zunar of committing an act of “economic sabotage” and alluding that the works are part of a plan to “topple the prime minister.”

By showcasing in a foreign country works that criticize Malaysian leaders, Salleh argues that Zunar’s work negatively impacts international perceptions of the country and, according to a quote in Malaysian newsource Malaysiakini, Zunar is “sabotaging the national economy and affecting the confidence of investors in Malaysia.”

“I regret his actions,” said Salleh. “Even if there is a difference in opinion, it should be settled within Malaysia. It is not wrong to have differences in opinion, or to disagree with the government, but why involve other countries.”

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid also commented that Zunar should find other ways to express himself that don’t resort to insult. “Criticism is not a problem but to insult is another matter,” he said. “I accept criticisms especially constructive ones which are healthy but to insult is a different matter.”

Zunar responded to the accusations remarking that “if a cartoonist can topple the PM, that is not illegal, but hilarious.” He also called Salleh out on his claims that “it is not wrong to have difference in opinion” reminding the minister of the existing charges against him, as well as the banning of his books, and harassment of his fans and employees — all actions which seem to contradict Salleh’s statement.

“My exhibition is all about corruption and freedom of information in Malaysia, issues surrounding (former Opposition leader) Anwar Ibrahim and the National Security Council Act,” said Zunar, adding:

These are all very important issues that are talked about by Malaysians. I am only commenting on them through my cartoons… I am not the one who gave the country a bad name. It’s the politicians from Barisan Nasional.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!