ARTICLE 19 condemns the Malaysia High Court’s 29 November 2017 decision to maintain the travel ban on political cartoonist Zunar, as well as the new investigation he faces under the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA). ARTICLE 19 calls on the Malaysian government to immediately lift the travel ban, drop its latest investigation into Zunar, and reform the CMA to bring it into line with international human rights standards.
The travel ban, in place since June 2016, is part of a continued campaign of judicial harassment of Zunar (full name Zulkiflee Anwar Ul Haque), whose satirical cartoons are sharply critical of the government. We believe the travel ban is being used as a means to stop Zunar exposing human rights concerns in international fora, and to intimidate him into silence. Malaysia should allow Zunar to carry out his work as a human rights defender whether at home or abroad. The investigations under the CMA are part of a pattern, with the Malaysian government using the Act time and again to target human rights defenders in the country.
Zunar faces investigation under Section 233(1)(a) of CMA, which deals with “improper use of network facilities or network service”. The investigation is related to a cartoon on Malaysia’s 1MDB corruption scandal. It depicts piggy banks representing public trust funds and government agencies, which have been smashed to supposedly pay off debts incurred by 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Zunar’s phone was confiscated after questioning despite his cooperation in the investigation.
Zunar has faced a travel ban since June 2016, which he discovered in October 2016 when he tried to leave Malaysia to attend an event in Singapore. Zunar has also today been prevented from attending a freedom of expression panel hosted by ARTICLE 19 in London due to the ban. The decision to maintain the ban was based on the decision of the Federal Court in an appeal by MP Tony Pua against a similar ban, and states that the Immigration Department Director General has extremely broad powers to restrict Malaysians’ travel without giving a reason – a worrying state of affairs given ongoing judicial harassment of media and human rights defenders across the country.
Zunar already faces nine charges and up to 43 years in prison under the infamous Sedition Act 1948, and has faced continuous harassment from the government including the banning of many of his books, threats to revoke the license of his printers and intimidation against his booksellers.
Freedom of expression is under increasing pressure in Malaysia, making the work of political cartoonists, human rights defenders and legislators’ work in Malaysia more challenging.
“Although they might not be funny to the government, Zunar’s satirical cartoons are part of his right to freely express himself and provoke public debate. This type of artistic or political expression should certainly never be criminalised under broad ‘sedition’ or communication and media provisions. It’s clear that these charges and the travel ban are simply the latest attempts in the government’s long-running efforts to silence Zunar and other human rights defenders who are critical of government actions. It’s time the Malaysian government brought these dated laws into line with international standards and ended these thinly veiled attempts to repress its critics,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.
ARTICLE 19 calls on the Malaysian government to immediately lift the travel ban on Zunar, MP Tony Pua and other human rights defenders and opposition, and end ongoing criminalisation of all forms of freedom of expression in Malaysia.