ARTICLE 19 is calling on the Malaysian government to drop all charges against cartoonist Zunar and repeal the Sedition Act.
Malaysian cartoonist Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, will be charged under the Sedition Act on Friday 3 April 2015, in a hearing at the High Court in Kuala Lumpur.
The charges are understood to relate to a tweet Zunar posted on 10 February 2015, implying Federal Court judges had bowed to regime pressure in convicting and sentencing to five years in prison opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in the “Sodomy II” trial. Zunar was detained for three days during the “investigation” into this tweet.
Zunar is facing a total of 9 charges. His lawyer has informed him that he faces up to 43 years in prison and a considerable fine.
ARTICLE 19 Executive Director Thomas Hughes said:
“The authorities must drop all Sedition charges against Zunar. This is clearly an attack on freedom of expression, and an attempt to stifle all legitimate criticism of the government, who have been carrying out a sustained campaign of harassment against Zunar for almost five years.”
He added: “The Sedition Act, which is a legacy of colonial rule, should have no part in a modern Malaysia, and it is being used to support an ongoing crackdown against any voice of dissent in Malaysia, including political opponents, academics, human rights lawyers and artists.
“We are calling for the immediate repeal of the Sedition Act.”
On March 6 2015, Zunar spoke at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, at an event hosted by ARTICLE 19. At that event, he repeated his famous slogan “How can I be neutral? Even my pen has a stand”, and called on the UN to provide greater protections for artists facing persecution.
ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the charges were not an inevitable outcome of the investigation launched against him in February, but instead were held over his head to intimidate him into silence – intimidation he has bravely resisted. The court date on Friday sends a clear message to Zunar and others that speaking out against repression in Malaysia on the international stage will not be tolerated. The charges and sustained campaign of harassment are clearly a violation of the right to freedom of expression under international law.
Zunar’s 10 February 2015 tweet reacting to the Federal Court ruling in Anwar Ibrahim’s case read: “Those in the black robes were proud when passing sentence. The rewards from their political masters must be lucrative.”
Zunar has been investigated several times under the Sedition Act 1948. In addition to his detention in February, he was detained for two days relating to an investigation in 2010, and in November 2014 was investigated for sedition alongside offences under the Printing Presses and Publications act and the Penal Code.
Between 2009 and 2010, the Home Minister for Malaysia banned five of Zunar’s books. InNovember 2014, three of Zunar’s assistants were arrested for selling his books, and the webmaster managing his website has also been investigated for sedition. The police have also sought details of individuals who have purchased Zunar’s books through his website.
On 28 January 2015, his offices were raided by police, who confiscated 155 copies of two books – “Pirates of the Carry Bn” and “Conspiracy to Imprison Anwar”.
On February 28 2015, police raided the launch of Zunar’s latest book, “ROS in Kangkong Land”, again threatening to detain him and confiscate his books.
The Sedition Act 1948, which is a relic of British colonial rule, criminalises any conduct with a “seditious tendency”, including to “excite disaffection” or “bring into hatred or contempt” against the ruler or government. It does not require the prosecution to prove intent, and provides up to three years imprisonment and/or a fine of 5000 Ringgit for those found guilty of a first offence. Subsequent offences may be punished with up to five years imprisonment.
Prime Minister Najib promised in July 2012 to repeal the Sedition Act and replace it with the so-called “National Harmony Act”. However, since then the Act has continued to loom above the heads of all people in Malaysia, significantly chilling freedom of expression.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but Article 10 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution protects the right to freedom of expression.