The Malaysian government has no sense of humor — and that’s dangerous
Zunar is the pen name for the Malaysian political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque.
I’m a cartoonist in a country where cartooning can be a crime. Under my pen name, Zunar, I expose corruption and abuses of power by the Malaysian government. As it happens, I have a good deal of material to work with. For instance, Prime Minister Najib Razak is currently facing questions about a$700 million “donation” made to his personal bank account.
Last February, police raided my home in the middle of the night and hauled me off to jail. I was handcuffed for eight hours and thrown into a cell with all the other criminal suspects. I managed to avoid telling my cellmates what I was in for: using Twitter.
I was accused of sedition over a series of tweets I sent out opposing the jailing of a prominent Malaysian opposition leader. Now I’m facing nine charges under my country’s archaic, colonial-era Sedition Act, which could result in a 43-year prison sentence . The court proceedings against me begin this month.
I was in the United States in November to receive a press freedom award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. While I was discussing my case with American journalists and cartoonists, President Obama was in Kuala Lumpurmeeting with Najib — the third time they met face to face.
Obama is eagerly courting Malaysia in his efforts to fight extremism and to advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and his meeting reportedly focused on that to the virtual exclusion of everything else. That’s a grave disappointment and a missed opportunity. Obama has a responsibility to put the issue of human rights on the table.
The legal assault against me is nothing new, but it marks a major escalation. The authorities have repeatedly sought to silence me. My office has been raided multiple times since 2009, and authorities have confiscated thousands of my cartoon books. In 2010, five of my books — including “1 Funny Malaysia” — were banned by the home affairs minister, who declared the contents “detrimental to public order.” Later that year I was detained by police and locked up for two days after the publication of “Cartoon-O-Phobia.” To say the least, the Malaysian government has no sense of humor.
In late 2014, my webmaster was called in for questioning, and three of my assistants were arrested for selling my books. I was also brought in for questioning by the police, and the company that processes orders for my website was forced to disclose my customer list. In January, the police raided my office and then opened two investigations in February under the Sedition Act. That’s when they really threw the book at me.
The government hasn’t just targeted me and my associates; it also has cracked down on the entire ecosystem of free expression. Three companies that printed my books were raided and warned not to print my books in the future or their licenses would be revoked. Likewise, bookstores that carried my book were raided and their licenses were threatened. As a result, no one dares print or sell my books.
In such an environment, people like me must turn to the Internet to share our opinions and art. But now that space is under attack as well.
Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey recently proclaimed that the platform is a bastion of “freedom of expression” and speaking “truth to power.” With my personal slogan of “How Can I Be Neutral, Even My Pen Has a Stand,” I embrace his vision. The reality, though, is quite different.
If a person can face sedition charges for stating a belief in 140 characters or less, then there is no freedom of expression. The Malaysian Sedition Act is incredibly broad, banning any act, speech or publication purported to bring contempt against the government or royal sultans. In 2012, Najib pledged to repeal the act because, he said, it “represents a bygone era.” He’s since reversed course and moved to strengthen it.
I’ve been charged with one count of sedition for each supposedly seditious tweet. I could successfully fight one, or maybe two, counts, but nine counts and a potential 43-year prison sentence make clear that the government wants to make an example of me. I need help from people around the world who share my commitment to freedom of expression.
Amnesty International is highlighting my case as part of its Write for Rights campaign, the largest human rights effort on the planet. You can personally write to Prime Minister Najib and call on his government to drop the charges against me and to abolish laws like the Sedition Act that squelch freedom of expression. Public pressure from around the globe can make a big difference in my case and beyond. I hope you’ll join with me to take a stand.