Zunar Hopes to Outsmart Police with Next Book Launch


Photo © EPA / Fazry Ismail

Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar, plagued by repeated police raids and seizures of his work, has struck upon an innovative solution to censorship: at the launch of his newest book Twit-Twit, Cin Cin this week, buyers will receive only a photocopy of the cover. The full book will follow later by mail, but in the meantime Zunar noted wryly on his website that police are welcome to seize as many photocopies as they want.

Zunar continues to turn out cartoons skewering the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak at an impressive rate, despite the 10 counts of sedition already pending against him which could net well over 40 years in prison. His trial on the first nine charges has been delayed numerous times since February 2015, and last year he also was banned from leaving the country until the case is resolved.

Those first nine sedition charges stem from statements that Zunar made on Twitter in February 2015 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 criminal trial for those charges has been delayed several times, partly due to Zunar and his lawyers’ challenge of the Sedition Act, implemented during the British colonial era and before Malaysia had its own constitution, on the grounds that it “contradicted the constitution’s guarantee of free speech.” The High Court disagreed and said it had already addressed the question in rejecting a previous challenge by law professor Azmi Sharom, also charged with sedition. Last February, however, Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali  withdrew the sedition charge against Azmi, which had been pending since 2014.

The 10th sedition charge was added last November after supporters of Najib’s government stormed an exhibit of Zunar’s cartoons held in conjunction with the George Town Literary Festival in the state of Penang, an opposition stronghold north of Kuala Lumpur. The following day representatives of the ruling party UMNO lodged a formal complaint against Zunar, who was then arrested for sedition as well as a charge of “intentionally humiliating a person” — the Prime Minister.

Just this year, an appeals court ruled that Zunar was entitled to compensation for books and original art seized by police in 2010 and finally returned to him in 2015. Despite that gratifying victory, he reports that police are still holding 40 original cartoons and 1,300 copies of his books taken in other raids. By distributing only photocopies at the publicly advertized launch of Twit-Twit, Cin Cin he is hoping to avoid the lost sales and legal battles that would result from yet another raid.

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.