In Malaysia, Humor Is No Laughing Matter

By Sarah Hucal
US News
Aug. 16, 2016

A political cartoonist’s court case raises questions about this Asian nation’s limits on expression.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – His office has been raided, his employees arrested and his books banned. His last publisher worked at night, unwilling to take a sample of his previous work, lest it be discovered. Yet political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, known to most as Zunar, refuses to put down his pens, providing cartoon commentary on the Malaysian government.

Zunar has been charged with nine counts of Malaysia’s Sedition Act for social media posts criticizing the Federal Court’s decision to uphold the sodomy conviction of Anwar Ibrahim, the ruling party’s main political rival. Yet, despite facing a possible 43 years of jail time, the award-winning cartoonist continues to encourage what he says is the safest and most-powerful form of protest: laughter. “There’s no law to stop you from laughing,” points out the cartoonist during an interview in his office in the Malaysian capital.

The cover of his latest book portrays Prime Minister Najib Razak as a swashbuckling pirate. The prime minister is shown wielding a bag of 2.6 billion Malaysian ringgit, representing the $731 million the U.S. Justice Department alleges he received illicitly from the public investment fund he oversees.

Najib has denied wrongdoing and maintains the money was a gift from an unnamed Saudi donor.

Najib leads United Malays National Organisation, head of the coalition that has been in power since Malaysia’s independence from Great Britain in 1957. Yet, even as global investigators follow a multi-billion-dollar trail of cash from Malaysian public investment fund 1 Millennium Development Board to his bank account and associates and friends, he refuses to step down, and has instead doubled efforts to clamp down on critics.

Independent news sites have been blocked, peaceful protesters arrested and laws strengthened in what many see as a fight or flight struggle for the leader to maintain credibility. In August, the controversial National Security Council Act came into force, giving Najib the right to declare near-martial law in areas perceived to be a security threat. Rights groups fear it will allow the prime minister to act with impunity.

“We are seeing a crackdown that’s unprecedented in the last 30 years” says Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. Zunar, he adds, is at the forefront of this. “He is quite clear that he will use his freedom of expression to demand that what he sees as a just and fair outcome for Malaysia comes to pass.”

Zunar’s caricatures resonate with a broad audience, transcending language and cultural barriers in the diverse country of 28 million. Ethnic Malays, the majority of whom are Muslim, make up 67 percent of the population followed by Malay Chinese and Malay Indians.

The cartoonist has tens of thousands of followers on social media, but the Malaysian government has failed to find the humor in his caricatures. In 2010, the government banned the printing, distribution, sale and possession of his books, claiming they were prejudicial to public order.

A frequently used legal tool of the government is the Sedition Act. “Sedition is kind of a catch-all that the government uses in order to restrict the expression of all sorts of people,” says David Kaye, a lawyer and U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Kaye has sent numerous letters urging the Malaysian government to repeal the act on behalf of the U.N. Human Rights Council. U.N.-approved standards allow governments to restrict expression because of national security or public order concerns, says Kaye, “… but Malaysia can’t show that in the case of Zunar or lawyers, protestors or publishers.”

When Najib came to power in 2009, he pledged to repeal the Sedition Act. Instead, the law was used 91 times in 2015, nearly five times more than in its first 50 years of existence. It was strengthened in April to include increased jail time and restrictions on speech.

Malaysia has a history of restricting expression said to upset the country’s social harmony. Under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in office from 1981 to 2003, the media was tightly controlled as the economy grew. Mahathir persuaded the public that rapid economic development would need to come at the expense of some liberties, according to Azrul Mohd Khalib of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Kuala Lumpur think tank.

A media career takes off

For Zunar, a little-known talent in the early 1990s, selling political cartoons to the mainstream media was next to impossible. A job at newspaper Berita Harian led to frustration as an editor continued to suggest topics less likely to ruffle feathers. Finding the same self-censorship at other publications, he walked away from political cartooning.

But in 1998, protests against Mahathir’s party and widespread corruption brought new hope. “It changed the political scenario in Malaysia. People started to wake up and go to the streets, which was very rare,” recalls the cartoonist. Rejuvenated, Zunar began publishing in Harakah, a publication put out by the opposition party.

The rise of the internet provided a new space for independent voices. With the launch of the government’s Multimedia Super Corridor, envisioned as Asia’s answer to Silicon Valley, the government pledged not to censor the internet. Seizing the opportunity, independent online news sources began to report critically on topics the mainstream media largely avoided. Zunar received a column on the Malaysiakini news website. His cartoons questioning judicial independence, corruption and censorship found an eager audience.

The internet has become a vital space for Zunar to share his work, yet this, too, is under threat. In March, The Malaysian Insider closed a month after the state media regulator blocked it for reporting the ongoing 1MDB scandal. UK-based Sarawak Report also was blocked after publishing articles on the topic.

Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of Malaysiakini, worries that the proposed strengthening of the Communication and Multimedia Act to be debated in October could adversely affect his news site, which is already struggling with lawsuits and office raids. Malaysiakini and peers would be required to put in a “deposit,” which the government can draw from. “They don’t have to prove anything or take it to court. That will be painful for us,” Gan says.

Social media censorship, too, is a concern, says Zunar. “In Malaysia, Twitter and Facebook are not social media anymore, they’re an alternative media” says the cartoonist, who fears talk of legislation that would target those who share or like his social media posts.

“The past pledges not to censor the internet are long gone,” says Shawn Crispin, Senior Southeast Asia Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “They see this space as a central threat to the prime minister and UMNO more broadly.”

Zunar’s next court appearance is in September. In the meantime, he’s been busy producing a new cartoon book and traveling abroad to raise awareness of his case and the state of freedom of expression in Malaysia.

“Do I fear? Yes, we are human,” he says. “But responsibility is bigger than fear. “In my lifetime maybe I don’t see the change I want to see, but for future generations this is really important.”

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