Zulkiflee Sm Anwar Ulhaque, better-known as Zunar, is a cartoonist, political satirist and voice against Malaysian repression and intolerance. Zunar faces 43 years in prison for a record-breaking 9 charges under Malaysia’s Sedition Act.
“You have a right to not agree, but you have to respect the right of the cartoonist.”
Zunar has been under the watchful eye of the Malaysian authorities since 2009, and his current charges relate to a tweet posted in February of this year, which implied that Federal Court judges had bowed to pressure from the Executive in sentencing the leader of the opposition party, Anwar Ibrahim, to five years in prison. After numerous postponements, Zunar’s trial date is currently set for November 2015.
He has had his office raided, his books confiscated, and his publications banned on the grounds that they are ‘detrimental to public order’.
A Malaysian Malady
Zunar’s case is a visible symptom of a deeper malady in the State of Malaysia: recent years have seen an intensified tightening of control, and suppression of political pluralism and dissidence. Malaysia has been known for its great tradition of diversity – ethnically, culturally, religiously and politically.
This is diversity is being suppressed and restricted across the nation by high-ranking religious and political officials aiming to centralise and secure political power and control.
Zunar has gained much public support, and has seemingly become a symbolic voice of opposition; the government has shown a great determination to silence him through a multitude of means and tactics. It seems that Zunar’s silence is seen as the key to cementing the government’s power, and its control of political and social discourse.
“The job of cartoonists is to criticise the government of the day, but in Malaysia we have to do more than that, we have to fight through cartoons, that is my motivation to carry on, because for me my talent is not a gift but a responsibility.”
Those who have supported Zunar’s work have also been targeted: bookstores have been raided and threatened, vendors have been arrested, and even the manager of Zunar’s website has been summoned by police for questioning.
Perhaps most sinister, the online payment gateway for Zunar’s book sales has been pressured to disclose the details of customers purchasing his books.
The Sedition Act 1948, under which Zunar faces his 9 charges, effectively criminalises conduct critical of the regime, i.e. conduct with a “seditious tendency”, including a tendency to “excite disaffection” against or “bring into hatred or contempt” the ruler or government. At least 78 people had been investigated or charged under the Sedition Act since the beginning of 2014.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, made public commitments to repeal this archaic piece of legislation in 2012 in the face of public judgment, at election time. Following a fraught political period, Razak has actually strengthened the Act, its tentacles now extended online, putting social media within its reach; penalties have been made even harsher.
The crime of sedition is a relic of the British colonial era, when political leaders were considered to be above the criticism and reproach of the public: the concept of sedition is in absolute contradiction to the underlying premises of modern democracy, in which critical speech, discussion, and expression are key. This law violates the right to freedom of expression: its restrictions on free speech are unjustifiable, and it pursues no legitimate aim.
Indeed, four UN experts, including the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, called on Malaysia to withdraw the Sedition Act, as it is incompatible with international human rights law.
Furthermore, Malaysia has not signed or ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the primary international human rights instrument that guarantees the right to freedom of expression in Article 19. The covenant has 168 States parties, making Malaysia an outlier in its international commitments to protect and promote human rights.
Update on Zunar’s trial:
Today, 6 November, Zunar’s case was called up for case management.
An application has been filed at the Sessions Court to have constitutional questions to be referred to the High Court. The trial Sessions Court does not have jurisdiction to hear such matters.
The central questions are as follows:
- Whether section 3(3) of the Sedition Act 1948 is unconstitutional, as it states that the “intention” of the maker “shall be deemed to be irrelevant” when making the seditious statement;
- Whether the Sedition Act unlawfully criminalises peaceful free expression, thus being unconstitutional;
- That the recent Federal Court case in PP v Azmi Sharom misread the Constitution, and should be reconsidered. Under Article 10(2), “Parliament may by law impose” restrictions on fundamental rights. Therefore as the Sedition Act pre-dates the Constitution, it cannot be read into Article 10 (2) to restrict freedom of speech.
The application is now fixed for submissions and hearing on 8 December and decision of the application on 15 December. In the meanwhile, no trial dates (of the actual sedition case itself) have been fixed pending Zunar’s application.
On Monday 9 November, the 16th Inaugural Chaser Lecture will be delivered in Sydney, by one of the world’s most respected and influential political comedians, Bassem Youssef. All proceeds from The 2015 Chaser Lecture will go to supporting the freedom of expression campaigns of ARTICLE 19, whose current focus in this region is the sedition case against Zunar.