Zunar receives Hellman Hammett award for 2015 Statement of Phil Robertson, Deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
18 August 2015, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia

I WANT to thank you very much for coming here today to join us for the announcement of this important award – the Hellman Hammett award – to the cartoonist, Zunar. Human Rights Watch is an international human rights group that works in over 90 countries around the world. We have been active in
defending rights in Malaysia for more than 25 years.

Today Zunar is joining the ranks of over 800 writers and activists, coming from over 92 countries, who have received this award since it was established in 1989. This award comes at a time when freedom of expression and freedom of the press is under continuous attack in Malaysia in a way that we have not seen in more than a generation.

Since it is the financial and ideological commitment of the famous American play-write Lillian Hellman that makes this all possible, let me say a few words about her and the award that bear her name, and the name of her long-time partner, novelist Dashiell Hammett.

Hellman and Hammett established this award to provide moral support and financial assistance to writers in financial need who have been victims of political persecution for their writings. The commitment came from their own experience in the US during the anti-communist witch-hunts during the 1950s, when they were hauled in front of various Congressional committees. During her interrogation by the U.S. House Un-American Activities

Committee (HUAC), Hellman famously said on May 19, 1952, that “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” She refused to testify, leading to her black-listing and years of difficulties finding work. Hammett came before the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee headed by none other than Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who for nearly a decade set new standards for creating evidence-free political hysteria. Hammett served time in prison because he refused to answer questions.

Unfortunately, there are still far too many writers in SE Asia, and other parts of the world, who face prison and worse for their writings, and for the acts they write about. Zunar is one of these brave writers and artists who is facing over 40 years in prison simply for expressing his opinion via Twitter. He ran afoul of the government and the IGP – who
was called a shark in the Malaysian twittersphere in an article in the NY Times – because he dares speak his mind as a political cartoonist.

Malaysia has been pursuing him in court, while at the same time trying to starve him financially by making it impossible for him to publish his books in Malaysia. As a cartoonist, selling his books is a part of his livelihood – and Putrajaya quite clearly has a Singapore strategy of trying to bankrupt Zunar by making it impossible for him to make a living.

And then add to this the very serious costs of defending himself in court against these cases of sedition connected to the tweets he sent out about the Anwar verdict in the Federal Court, and you can see the bankrupting strategy of the Malaysia government that supplements the effort to try and jail him for his views.

Human Rights is enormously proud to give this important award to Zunar and to reiterate the commitment of international campaigners around the world to support him as he exercises his right to freedom of expression.