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Zunar

Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, better known as the cartoonist, Zunar, uses his comics as a 'weapon to fight corruption and abuse of power in the Malaysian government'. This has earned him huge popularity, but this has also led to many of his books being censored, arrests, court cases and a travel ban.

Zunar, wearing a prison outfit and plastic handcuffs, poses for photographers prior to launching his book on 14 February 2015. AP Photo/Joshua Paul

In his acceptance speech at the CPJ International Press Freedom Awards in November 2015, Zunar said:

I want to give a clear message to the aggressors -- they can ban my cartoons, they can ban my books, but they cannot ban my mind. I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.

Zunar started out young, displaying a talent for cartooning that got his first cartoons published at age 11 in a children's magazine. By the 1980s he was contributing to the popular humour magazine, Gila-Gila, among others. At the start his work was not overtly political, but, in 1998, he became involved in the opposition Reformasi protest movement for which he spent some time in prison. On his release, Zunar decided that from then on his focus would be on political cartoons. His sharp wit and flair for satire gained him a loyal following, and he became a regular contributor to independent publications, notably the on-line news site, Malaysiakini.

Inevitably maybe, Zunar found himself in confrontation with authority. In 2009 he launched the bi-monthly Gedung Kartun (Cartoon Store), only to have its inaugural edition seized, ostensibly because it had not received a publication permit, a claim that Zunar disputed. The magazine had included drawings on sensitive issues including the suspicious death of a political aide working on anti-corruption.

In September 2010, Zunar was detained for two days of investigation into another collection of his cartoons, Cartoon-o-phobia, under the Sedition Act. This book was banned as criminal subversion. Another sedition charge was levied against Zunar in November 2014 for Komplot Penjarakan Anwar (Conspiracy to Jail Anwar). He tells that police demanded that he provide details of the online payment system that would then give them access to the names of those who had bought the book. His assistants were also interrogated, his website manager questioned, and distributors of the book were threatened. Just a month earlier, Zunar's appeals against the seizures of his books in 2009 and 2010 had been accepted. The court said that the government had acted 'unreasonably' and that 'ridiculing politicians does not threaten public order'.

Yet the harassment continues. In February 2015, Zunar was again arrested and held for three days under the Sedition Act, this time for his tweets (@zunarkartunis) commenting on the sentencing of opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim to five years for indecent acts. If convicted, Zunar faces up to 43 years in prison for nine counts of sedition for a single tweet.

In September 2015 yet another investigation was opened under the same Act, this time in regards to his book Supaman – Man of Steal. This time it was not Zunar, but his online sales assistant who was taken for questioning.

Then, on 26 November 2016, Zunar was again arrested, this time at the annual Georgetown Literary Festival in Penang. He was freed the next day pending investigation into charges of sedition, on condition that he checks in with police daily until 27 December. The reasons for his arrest lie in 20 cartoons, mostly satirising corruption in the Malaysian government. If prosecution goes ahead, this would the tenth charge of sedition against him to be brought to the courts. Just a day before his arrest in November, Zunar was forced to cancel an exhibition of his cartoons when around 30 men entered the space, verbally and physically attacked the artist, and vandalised his work. Members of the public intervened to stop the attack, and riot police were called to maintain order. Just three weeks later, he was again arrested, this time at a fundraising event that he was holding to recoup money he lost from previous seizures of his books. He was freed to face charges of 'being detrimental to parliamentary democracy' but not before 1,000 of his books were seized.

In June 2016, a travel ban was issued against Zunar but he was unaware of its existence until October when he attempted to fly out from Kuala Lumpur airport to attend an event abroad, since when he has been trying to get the ban lifted. It was issued just after he had visited Geneva to accept the 2016 Cartooning for Peace Award, handed to him by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. It appears to be an attempt to damp down the growing international publicity Zunar and his work. If so, it hasn't worked and his profile remains high. His cartoons featured at an event during the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos and he continues to sell his cartoon collections as books, alongside other Zunar merchandise such as mugs and t-shirts via his website.

Two themes run through the harassment of Zunar: 1) the Sedition Act, and 2) the targeting of his web masters and online account administrators. Despite repeated challenges as to its constitutionality, the 1948 Sedition Act, a vestige of British colonial rule, is being increasingly used to penalise dissent. As of April 2015, 78 people had been charged or investigated under the act since early 2014. The targeting of staff who hold the access to online customers is a worrying development that sees the threat that previously had been limited to authors and publishers being penalised, now extending to their readers.

In November 2016 a court of appeal reviewing another sedition case ruled that a section of the Sedition Act conflicts with Malaysian Constitution Article 10 that protects the right to freedom of expression. This ruling has been brought before the High Court for consideration, and if agreed, could lead to the reconsidering of the charges against Zunar and others also charged with sedition for having criticised the government in recent years.

Zunar's untiring commitment to disclosing government misdemeanours through his pen has been acknowledged internationally. In 2011 he was granted the Cartoonists Rights Network's Courage Award, Human Rights Watch's Hellman Hammett Award, and the Courage to Fight Censorship Award in Bilbao. In 2015, in his acceptance speech for the Committee to Protect Journalists' International Press Freedom Award, he said: "... I [keep] laughing and encouraging people to laugh with me. Why? Because laughter is the best form of protest."

Last Updated: 15 August 2017

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