Malaysian cartoonist Zunar cleared of sedition charges

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For Malaysian cartoonist Zunar, three years of constitutional challenges pale in comparison to the 43 years imprisonment that were on the line. But after a legal battle active since 3 April 2015, Zunar’s nine sedition charges were dropped on Monday 30 July 2018. With three days in court still to follow, the victory is one of several the artist is seeking as an advocate for free expression and the repeal of the Sedition Act.

Implemented during British rule and strictly enforced by the regime of former PM Najib Razak, the Sedition Act spared no government critic whether artist, activist or MP. Under newly elected PM Mahathir Mohamad, the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) announced that it would review all ongoing sedition cases starting 13 July.

In the first of his four court dates this week, Zunar was acquitted along with MP Sivarasa Rasiah of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and civil rights lawyer N. Surendran. All three individuals were charged for denouncing the Razak regime’s conviction of opposition leader and PKR member Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy.

Surendran faced charges on 19 August 2014 after writing a seditious press release entitled “Court of Appeal’s Fitnah 2 written judgement is flawed, defensive and insupportable.” Zunar was charged not for his political cartooning but for tweets that insulted the judiciary after Anwar’s conviction. Both were charged under Section 4(1)(c) of the Sedition Act for “publish[ing], […] distribut[ing] or reproduc[ing] any seditious publication” while Sivarasa was charged under Section 4(1)(b) for “utter[ing] any seditious words” in a speech at the March 2015 “Kita Lawan” (“We Fight”) rally in protest of Anwar’s imprisonment.

After their hearings on Monday in Kuala Lumpur, prosecutors reported that the AGC would not pursue their respective cases any further. Zunar’s victory was widely celebrated by his global fanbase. Human Rights Watch legal advisor Linda Lakhdhir tweeted “Excellent news that the Malaysian govt is dropping sedition charges against @zunarkartunis and @nsurendrann. Now it should drop all remaining sedition charges and repeal the law.”

Indeed, the Pakatan Harapan coalition the government is now under promised to repeal the Sedition Act in its 2018 election manifesto. As Zunar told Index earlier this month, “If they really want to abolish the Sedition Act together with other laws related to freedom of expression, freedom of speech, they at least need to suspend it first before they continue.”

His upcoming court dates, 31 July-2 August, concern a suit the cartoonist filed after he was arrested and his artwork and 1300 of his books were confiscated in a police raid during an exhibition in October 2016. Although there have not been any similar cases since Mahathir came to power, Zunar hopes to use his cartooning and advocacy to serve as a watchdog and hold the government to their commitments on free expression.

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Cartoonist Zunar holding Malaysia’s government accountable on free expression


Malaysian cartoonist Zunar is facing charges under a colonial era Sedition Act. (Photo: Sean Gallagher/Index on Censorship)

Malaysian cartoonist Zunar is facing charges under a colonial era Sedition Act. (Photo: Sean Gallagher/Index on Censorship)

Nine banned books. Nine charges of sedition carrying the maximum penalty of 43 years imprisonment. Countless attacks, raids and arrests. These were the consequences of Malaysian cartoonist Zunar’s cartoons and tweets decrying government scandals and misdealings under former prime minister Najib Razak.

Under Razak, Malaysia’s “Man of Steal,” Zunar published volumes of cartoons criticising the prime minister and his wife for their lavish lifestyle and corrupt rule at the expense of the Malaysian people. The government justified its crackdown on his works early on, reasoning that they “influence the public to revolt against the leaders and government policies” and are “detrimental to public order” in 2010.

A travel ban was placed on Zunar on 24 June 2016. In 2015, he was charged under Malaysia’s Sedition Act, a 1948 remnant of British colonial rule used by the Malaysian government to silence dissenting voices like Zunar’s. He now awaits four days in court, starting 30 July.

The cartoonist was still in the process of mounting a constitutional challenge to the Sedition Act for these charges when opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad toppled PM Najib Razak in national elections on 9 May 2018. The same day, the new government lifted the travel ban on Zunar and has placed one on the former PM while investigating his role in Malaysia’s global corruption scandal, 1MDB.

For the first time in two years, Zunar could travel to London last week, where he met with ARTICLE 19 and Amnesty International officials. He continues to challenge his travel ban because the old government cited “special reasons,” not law, to justify it. With his challenge active until the travel ban trial on 22 October, Zunar emphasised “I want to do this because I think I am being victimised but I also want the court to make a ruling that no government can use this [justification] anymore, including the new government. [Otherwise] they may use this again in the future for the activists the government doesn’t like.”

The government has faced ongoing international pressure from organisations like Index and ARTICLE 19 as well as UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, to drop the sedition charges against Zunar. On 13 July, the Malaysian Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) announced that they will begin a review of all ongoing sedition cases, citing the strength of the cases and evidence as determinants of whether the charges will be upheld.

In the meantime, Zunar has vowed to continue cartooning and advocating for the repeal of the very laws that silence him and other government critics in Malaysia: the Sedition Act, the Printing and Press Act and the Fake News Act. Despite national celebration of the new government, he remains skeptical. “It’s too early to put any hope on what they say because I think new governments always makes good promises but they need to abolish [the Sedition Act] because this is what the promise during the election campaign was” he said.

Zunar spoke with Index’s Shreya Parjan about the current status of his case.

Index: You’ve faced the current set of sedition charges since 2015. How have you appealed and challenged them since then? How does your current appeal differ from that of your case in 2010?

Zunar: It was started in 2010, yes, I was arrested around that time but they didn’t charge me for that so 2010 is different. I have few other sedition charges, okay so 2010 one, 2015, 2016 two times but the only one they charged was in 2015. This is the one they’ve got me in court for. The others they just investigated and arrested and I spent time in police lockup for other cases but only one they are really bringing to court.

The [2015] charge is still going on, the next court date is 30 July. This is very long, from March 2015 until now, the court is still unable to start because at the same time when they brought me to court, my staff and several activists who have been charged with sedition, we filed suit to challenge the constitutionality of the sedition act. The separate court had to deal with that first.

And finally, early this year, the court has made a decision that our challenge is irrelevant and so there’s no issue. So finally, now the court is going to start and also now its a new date: on 30 July. But we have to also understand that politically, and now we have a new government, all my charges were brought by the old government, so we’ll see what happens on the 30 of July.

Index: Since the Attorney General’s Chamber announced on 13 July that they will be reviewing all ongoing sedition cases, what expectations do you have for your own case?

Zunar: Now, the new parliament session just started today [16 July] and I have to wait and see. It’s too early to put any hope on what they say because I think new governments always make good promises but they need to abolish [the Sedition Act] because this is what the promise during the election campaign was. But just a few days ago, another activist was challenged under Sedition so this is why I say it’s important to see the action rather than the words now.

Index: What changes in the environment for free expression do you anticipate seeing under PM Mahathir Mohamad?

Zunar: I have to say that until they [abolish] it, I’m still concerned. If they’re really serious, they will abolish this law and several laws. If they really want to abolish the Sedition Act together with other laws related to freedom of expression, freedom of speech, they at least need to suspend it first before they continue. They have to show that “we are really serious, that we have to do it, but for the time being, why don’t we suspend theis law first.” For me, if you really have a political will to do it, you have to show it. But I don’t know, it’s too early to say. Until they do it, I cannot say anything about it and there’s no positive sign for it.

The other law also involved in this is the Printing and Press Act, the law the government widely used to control the media. There’s also the Fake News Act, which was introduced just before the previous election, and the Official Secrets Act. Two of these laws were used against me and the other two were used against activists who tried to expose or tried to reveal corruption or wrongdoing by the government so the government has to, if they’re serious about freedom of expression, they have to abolish these laws.

There’s some talk of review, but I say no, there’s no excuse, they have to go for it. We have to wait for the parliament, whether this will be done in this parliament session which is going to make their decision over one month. We have to wait for this to see whether this new government is really serious about it or if they might use it again.

Index: What has the former government’s crackdown on those you worked with (publishers, webmaster) looked like? What implications could the new government’s review of your case have for them?

Zunar: There was an incident where the police arrested me when I did an exhibition in October 2016 and they took all the artwork and also 1300 books. I filed a suit against them and the case will be heard during the trial which is over four days: 30 July-2 August. At the same time, two of my assistants have been charged and their charges still continue and there’s no sign that the government will drop the charges. They have been charged with obstructing the police officers from carrying out their job. I think they had one court session last week so they still continue. There’s no sign that the government will drop the charge.

Previously, three of my printers have been raided under the Printing and Press Act and they were given a very strong warning that if they print my book again, they will be charged under Sedition and their licenses will be revoked. Also, my webmaster was investigated under the Sedition Act, my office has been raided several times and my sales assistants have been arrested.

What the police did is use a culture of fear. They create fear. They go and they didn’t really bring these guys to court, but they use harassment and the law that they will be charged if they continue, to scare people. But because we have a new government, so far there are no cases like that, so I think that the situation is maybe changing, I don’t know.

Index: What role do you see your cartoons playing in your advocacy for the repeal of the Sedition Act and other legislation that has constrained your work in the past?

Zunar: I think in my recent trip to London [last week] I spoke to ARTICLE 19 and Amnesty International and I hope for them to make a statement. It’s good for international organisations to give pressure to the government during the parliament session to abolish these outdated laws.

My cartoons reflect the issues of a country during that time, any time. If I want to do the same level of cartooning, the one I did during the previous government is a different type of cartoon. Now I can do more reminding and giving pressure to the government in a positive manner. Because in Malaysia right now, we just chose a new government, everyone is very happy, the people are very happy, this is what they expect and at the same time, civil society and activists like me have to remind the government that winning doesn’t mean you win everything or everything already changed.

So many things need to be done to keep the promises [that were made during the election]. As a cartoonist, we simply have to wait for the issues. Like during the parliament, if they don’t act, we have to come up with a cartoon to show that this is what you promised and you are not fulfilling your promise.

Talking about levels, previously what I did was to fight through cartoon. This is one level up from what normal cartoonists do around the world. Normal cartooning around the world is to criticise the government of the day. That is for those who think that the government is a bit undemocratic. Last time, what I did was fight through cartoon. But now, the people of Malaysia did win and there’s so much hope for this new government and they’re very positive about it. I cannot simply come and fight through cartoon again at this time.

Now I have to do positive cartoons reminding and being a watchdog for the government. I think changing the mindset is very important also. It’s not about changing individuals, you have to change the mindset in the society, to show that cartoons can do the job too. In terms of what I’m going to do, I think I need to go along with this achievement and be a watchdog to the government, which is a totally different role of cartooning compared to the one I did with the last government.[/vc_column_text][vc_media_grid element_width=”3″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1532428297196-711fc435-d06c-1″ include=”101641,101640,101642,101636,101635,101639,101638,101637″][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”stretch_row_content”][vc_column][three_column_post title=”Malaysia” full_width_heading=”true” category_id=”130″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

“You can ban my cartoons, but you cannot ban my mind”

Gagged exhibition

Stall at the Gagged exhibition, showcasing political cartoonists’ work

“This is a key to realms of wonder, but it’s also a deadly weapon, a weapon of mass distraction,” UK cartoonist Martin Rowson said, describing a pen, as he opened a discussion about censorship and repression of political cartoonists.

The event had planned a video link-up with Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, the Malaysian cartoonist better known as Zunar, but he was unable to attend. There have been reports of his arrest. Zunar uses his art to take a stand against corruption in Malaysian politics. The cartoonist is facing 10 sedition charges which are still pending trial. On these charges, Zunar faces 43 years in prison.

In his absence, a video of the cartoonist was shown in which he states, “you can ban my books, you can ban my cartoons, but you cannot ban my mind”.  

The Westminster Reference Library hosted a discussion on 28 November, during an exhibition of political cartoons: Gagged. Speakers included Index on Censorship’s Jodie Ginsberg, UK cartoonist Martin Rowson, Sudanese cartoonist Khalid Albaih, and Cartoonist Rights Network International’s Robert Russell.

Cartoonist Rowson and Albaih, currently based in Copenhagen, expressed the responsibility they feel working from a safe environment. They acknowledged the oppression of their colleagues and cited them as inspiration for the cartoons they continue to publish.

“I feel so guilty that I’m here doing this but at the same time, I have a lot of friends who are in jail, who were arrested, and who are really fighting that fight to say what they want to say … It’s something that hurts me everyday”, Albaih said. “Everyday that I’m walking down Copenhagen. It’s a beautiful city but I can’t enjoy it because most of my friends can’t even get a visa to go to the country next to them … People like Zunar, they’re incredible and they’re powerful and I look up to them. And I hope one day I can go back to my country and be able to do that without being scared that something will happen to my kids, you know?”

Ginsberg spoke on the importance of freedom of expression in the face of adversity and the reality of censorship in countries that believe they have “free speech”. “Censorship isn’t something that happens ‘over there’. It happens here and it happens on our doorstep.”

“I genuinely believe that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I also think … that many pens and many voices are even better. Oppressors win when they think their opponents are alone,” Ginsberg said. “We succeed when we demonstrate that it’s not the case.”

**The exhibition has now been extended to 7 December.

David Kaye: The other travel ban

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”96621″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Governments have arsenals of weapons to censor information. The worst are well-known: detention, torture, extra-judicial (and sometimes court-sanctioned) killing, surveillance. Though governments also have access to less forceful but still insidious tools, such as website blocking and internet filtering, these aim to cut off the flow of information and advocacy at the source.

Another form of censorship gets limited attention, a kind of quiet repression: the travel ban. It’s the Trump travel ban in reverse, where governments exit rather than entry. They do so not merely to punish the banned but to deny the spread of information about the state of repression and corruption in their home countries.

In recent days I have heard from people around the world subject to such bans. Khadija Ismayilova, a journalist in Azerbaijan who has exposed high-level corruption, has suffered for years under fraudulent legal cases brought against her, including time in prison. The government now forbids her to travel. As she put it last year: “Corrupt officials of Azerbaijan, predators of the press and human rights are still allowed in high-level forums in democracies and able to speak about values, which they destroy in their own – our own country.”

Zunar, a well-known cartoonist who has long pilloried the leaders of Malaysia, has been subject to a travel ban since mid-2016, while also facing sedition charges for the content of his sharply dissenting art. While awaiting his preposterous trial, which could leave him with years in prison, he has missed exhibitions, public forums, high-profile talks. As he told me, the ban directly undermines his ability to network, share ideas, and build financial support.

Ismayilova and Zunar are not alone. India has imposed a travel ban against the coordinator of a civil society coalition in Kashmir because of “anti-India activities” which, the government alleges, are meant to cause youth to resort to violent protest. Turkey has aggressively confiscated passports to target journalists, academics, civil servants, and school teachers. China has barred a women’s human rights defender from travelling outside even her town in Tibet.

Bahrain confiscated the passport of one activist who, upon her return from a Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, was accused by officials of “false statements” about Bahrain. The United Arab Emirates has held Ahmed Mansoor, a leading human rights defender and blogger and familiar to those in the UN human rights system, incommunicado for nearly this entire year. The government banned him from travelling for years based on his advocacy for democratic reform.

Few governments, apart from Turkey perhaps, can compete with Egypt on this front. I asked Gamal Eid, subject to a travel ban by Egyptian authorities since February of 2016, how it affects his life and work? Eid, one of the leading human rights defenders in the Middle East and the founder of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), has seen his organisation’s website shut down, public libraries he founded (with human rights award money!) forcibly closed, and his bank accounts frozen.

While Eid is recognised internationally for his commitment to human rights, the government accuses him of raising philanthropic funds for ANHRI “to implement a foreign agenda aimed at inciting public opinion against State institutions and promoting allegations in international forums that freedoms are restricted by the country’s legislative system.” He has been separated from his wife and daughter, who fled Egypt in the face of government threats. The ban forced him to close legal offices in Morocco and Tunisia, where he provided defence to journalists, and he lost his green card to work in the United States. He recognises that his situation does not involve the kind of torture or detention that characterises Egypt’s approach to opposition, but the ban has ruined his ability to make a living and to support human rights not just in Egypt but across the Arab world.

Eid is not alone in his country. He estimates that Egypt has placed approximately 500 of its nationals under a travel ban, about sixteen of whom are human rights activists. One of them is the prominent researcher and activist, Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who faces accusations similar to Eid’s.

Travel bans signal weakness, limited confidence in the power of a government’s arguments, perhaps even a public but quiet concession that, “yes indeed, we repress truth in our country”. While not nearly as painful as the physical weapons of censorship, they undermine global knowledge and debate. They exclude activists and journalists from the kind of training that makes their work more rigorous, accurate, and effective. They also interfere in a direct way with every person’s human right to “leave any country, including one’s own,” unless necessary for reasons such as national security or public order.

All governments that care about human rights should not allow the travel ban to continue to be the silent weapon of censorship – and not just for the sake of Khadija, Zunar, and Gamal, but for those who benefit from their critical voices and work. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Mapping Media Freedom” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-times-circle” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]

Index on Censorship monitors press freedom in 42 European countries.

Since 24 May 2014, Mapping Media Freedom’s team of correspondents and partners have recorded and verified 3,597 violations against journalists and media outlets.

Index campaigns to protect journalists and media freedom. You can help us by submitting reports to Mapping Media Freedom.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Don’t lose your voice. Stay informed.” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.

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