Despite threats, Zunar continues to draw, challenging the same forces that seek to silence him, notes the Committee to Protect Journalists in awarding him its International Press Freedom award for 2015.
Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque (“Zunar”), Malaysia
The personal slogan of Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, a Malaysian cartoonist who is better known by his penname Zunar, is: “How can I be neutral? Even my pen has a stand.”
Zunar is best known for his provocative cartoons that lampoon issues of high-level abuse of government power and corruption. His portraits are published both in books and on the Malaysiakini news website, one of the country’s few independent news publications. Malaysian police and authorities have claimed on several occasions that Zunar’s cartoons are “detrimental to public order” and run afoul of the country’s sedition law.
The latest legal threat against Zunar comes amid a government crackdown on dissent, a heavy-handed response to the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation’s waning popularity and legitimacy, a theme that Zunar’s cartoons have frequently portrayed.
The cartoonist has been temporarily detained twice–in 2010 and 2015–on accusations of sedition in relation to his cartoons. At least five of his cartoon books, compilations of original contents and his work previously published online, have been banned or confiscated by authorities. His Kuala Lumpur-based office and those of the printers who produce his volumes have been raided several times.
Despite these threats, Zunar continues to draw, challenging the same forces that seek to silence him. He currently faces nine counts of sedition and up to 43 years in jail in connection with nine critical tweets, including one with an embedded cartoon portrait of Prime Minister Najib Razak acting as a court judge, that he posted on 10 February 2015, in connection with a court decision to jail the country’s main opposition leader on sodomy charges. Zunar’s sedition trial is scheduled for late 2015.
Zunar is the first full-time cartoonist to receive CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. While the attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015 showed the risks some cartoonists face in reprisal for their work, the legal harassment Zunar endures is indicative of the type of threats that outspoken satirists contend with around the world. CPJ highlighted these threats in its 2015 report, “Drawing the Line,” in which Zunar’s cartoons and case were featured.
In 2011 and 2015, Human Rights Watch honored Zunar with its Hellman/Hammett Award. In 2011, he was also the recipient of the “Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award” by the Washington-based Cartoonist Rights Network International.
- In April, Malaysia’s parliament approved amendments to the country’s sedition law, which allows the government broad new powers to censor online media, and extended maximum jail term convictions from three to 20 years.
- Malaysian authorities frequently abuse the 1948 Sedition Act to threaten journalists who report critically about the government, judiciary, or religious issues.
- Malaysian authorities have also banned Zunar’s books on allegations that they violate the 1984 Printing Presses and Publication Act, another piece of legislation that is often used to censor the Malaysian press.
- Journalists and executives affiliated with the news website Malaysiakini, one of Malaysia’s few independent news sources; the news portal The Malaysian Insider; and the portal’s parent company The Edge Media Group, are frequently threatened with sedition and other legal charges punishable by imprisonment for reporting critically on the government.