The Malaysian authorities must drop all charges and end the harassment against cartoonist Zunar for peacefully exercising his right to free expression, PEN International said today. Already facing nine counts of sedition and subject to travel restrictions, Zunar was again arrested on November 26, 2016 and placed under investigation for alleged violations of the Sedition Act and penal code.
“It is important to remember that Zunar is a cartoonist, a man with passionate views on Malaysian politics and society, and he has every right to express his views, which he has done so peacefully for over four decades. The response of the Malaysian state, which is charging him with sedition, is outrageously disproportionate,” said Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.
On November 26, 2016, police arrested Zunar at the George Town Literary Festival in Penang and placed him under investigation in connection with violations of the Sedition Act and the Penal code, according to news reports. He reports that 20 of his drawings have been confiscated by the police. Zunar was released on bail the following day, but is required to report to police in Penang on December 27 for further investigation. Concerns remain that he may soon be charged with his 10th count of sedition in connection with his cartoons.
Zunar’s arrest came a day after he was assaulted by a pro-government mob, forcing him to call off his exhibition in Penang. In a statement, Zunar said that some 30 men stormed the public exhibition and proceeded to verbally abuse and physically attack him, as well as vandalize some of his artworks.
Cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, known by his ink name Zunar, is currently facing nine counts of sedition in connection with a series of tweets. Arrested on February 10, 2015, Zunar was held for three days for a series of tweets and a cartoon published in February 2015, in which he had questioned the trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. He believes the trial and five-year imprisonment of Ibrahim were used to stop the politician from contesting the general election scheduled for 2018. “The lackeys in black robes are proud of their sentence. The rewards from the political masters must be plenty,” Zunar wrote in one of his tweets. A month later, Zunar was charged with nine counts of sedition for the tweets. His trial, which has been subject to several delays, is expected to commence on January 24, 2017. If found guilty, Zunar could spend up to 43 years in prison.
The upcoming trial is the culmination of many years of harassment, persecution and censorship of Zunar and his associates. Between 2009 and 2010, the Home Minister for Malaysia banned five of his books claiming they were detrimental to public order. In September 2010, Zunar was arrested and detained for publishing his book Cartoon-O-Phobia. In November 2014, those connected with the production and sale of his cartoon books were raided, arrested and questioned under the sedition laws. In addition, the online payment gateway that manages the financial transactions of his website zunar.my, was forced to release the details of people who purchased his books.
In October this year, the Malaysian authorities imposed restrictions preventing Zunar from travelling abroad ahead of his trial. He is expected to challenge this ban through the court.
The 1948 Sedition Act in Malaysia stems from the days of British colonial rule which ended in 1957.
“Sedition laws are a sad legacy of the colonial era that many countries that were former British colonies continue to use against political opponents, and Malaysia is no exception. We reiterate our call on Prime Minister Najib to withdraw all charges against Zunar and all others charged with sedition, in keeping with his 2012 campaign pledge, that he would abolish the Sedition Act),” Tripathi added.
Despite that 2012 re-election pledge to abolish it, Prime Minister Najib Razak extended the Sedition Act in April 2015 to include offences committed on online media. The 2015 amendments also expanded the Act to include ‘religious offence’ and increased the maximum prison sentence from three to 20 years. According to news reports, in November 2016, Malaysia’s Court of Appeal ruled Section 3(3) of the Sedition Act – which pertains to seditious tendency – unconstitutional. The panel of three judges ruled that the prosecution must prove intent in any case of sedition and that not to do so violated Article 10(1)(a) of the Federal Constitution. Reports indicate that the authorities intend to appeal the ruling. It is as yet unclear what impact this ruling might have on the cases against Zunar.
Photo: United Nations Mission Geneva