By Jarni Blakkarly
In Malaysia political cartooning isn’t just a laughing matter, it’s also seriously risky business.
As the government continues to crack down on political opposition, civil society and the media in the midst of a massive corruption scandal, authorities have trained their sights on some who use art to poke fun at the powerful.
Cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, known as “Zunar”, who just won an International Press Freedom award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, is currently facing up to 43 years in prison.
Zunar was charged earlier this year with nine counts of sedition, a colonial-era law regularly used against government critics.
Many people have been investigated for sedition and similar offences in Malaysia, but charges are rare. According to Amnesty International, 29 people were investigated for sedition in 2014 and three were convicted.
The most notable sedition case in recent years is Hindu rights activist P. Uthayakumar, who in 2013 was sentenced to 30 months in prison after writing a letter in 2007 to then U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown in which he described Malaysia’s policies towards Indian-Malaysians as “ethnic cleansing”. His sentence was later reduced to two years; he was released from prison last year.
The charges against Zunar are in relation to a series of tweets he sent following the imprisonment of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in February this year. He could spend up to 43 years in prison, his lawyer told the Wall Street Journal.
One of the tweets included a cartoon of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak acting as the court judge.
For Zunar, harassment from authorities is nothing new. He has been temporarily detained twice, and has had books banned for the shelves and copies confiscated following police raids on his publisher’s office.
“Previously for the past five or six years the government has done a lot of tactics of intimidation and harassment. Each time I keep saying that I will keep drawing till the last drop of me ink. So they have to find a way to completely stop me, and they are using this tweet,” he said.
He said the government’s strategy of nailing him with nine separate charges, one for each tweet, was “a tactic” — even if some failed they’d get him on one or two.
“This is the chance for them to really go against me, to nail me down for once and for all,” he said.
Malaysia’s traditional media are under strict censorship through the government licensing system.
In July this year two partner print publications, a weekly and a financial daily, had their licences revoked after reporting on an ongoing $700 million dollar corruption scandal implicating Najib’s office.
In July the Wall Street Journal published reports that $700 million dollars linked to a scandal-ridden failing Malaysian state investment fund had been deposited in Najib’s private bank account.
Najib later admitted the money had gone into his account, but denied any wrongdoing saying the funds weren’t embezzled but were a political donation from an unnamed Middle Eastern source.
Government Communications Director Abdul Rahman Dahlan did not respond to questions regarding Zunar’s case and the government media crackdown.
Longtime cartoonist Zunar has gained wider local attention through his work with Malaysian online news website Malaysiakini. Malaysia’s online media is unregulated and has become the main source of news for increasing numbers of young urban Malaysians who don’t trust the government papers.
This has led to a pushback from the government, with journalists and editors increasingly being arrested as well as ongoing attempts to use defamation suits to financially cripple organisations.
In the current climate, Zunar said, he isn’t optimistic about his chances in court.
“When it comes only then with myself and my family, we will think about how to face it. For now I don’t want to think about it, because it could affect my performance, my creativity, so there is no point doing that,” he said.
Despite everything, he won’t stop drawing.
Shortly after his release from pre-trial prison earlier this year, Zunar produced a powerful self-portrait of a man fully tied in shackles using a brush in his mouth to draw.
“If I start to slow down, start to practice self-censorship, that’s what the government wants me to do,” he said. “Cartooning for me is not a gift but a responsibility.”
Zunar’s sedition case will be heard later this year. In Malaysia’s legal system, appeals are extremely common, particularly in politics-related trials, and it is common for cases to drag out for years.
Jarni Blakkarly (@JarniBlakkarly) occasionally contributes to Malaysiakini. He is a freelance journalist who recently returned from covering Malaysia’s democracy protests. Blakkarly works for Al Jazeera English online and is making a radio documentary on the movement for ABC Radio National.