Fighting Through Cartoons
Charged with nine counts of sedition, Zunar, Malaysia’s famous political cartoonist once vowed, “How can I be neutral, even my pen has a stand.” Zunar is the pen name of Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, and he was charged with sedition in February, 2015, for nine tweets that criticized the government’s prosecution of a prominent opposition leader. Each of the nine tweets is being used as the basis for a separate charge. The first charge carries a maximum sentence of three years, and the additional eight charges each carry a maximum sentence of five years. Hence, the charges bear a total of 43 years of imprisonment. However, Section 102 of Malaysia’s Subordinate Courts Act limits the maximum sentence to twenty years, and arguably the nine tweets are not distinct offenses. Irrespective, it’s clear that Malaysia’s ruling party is using cases like Zunar’s to stifle and intimidate government critics.
Despite the danger of speaking out in a repressive regime, Zunar has been a tireless political activist. Much of his art is used “to fight through cartoon,” and he has been a thorn in the government’s side for many years. His cartoons lampoon the improprieties of the party that has ruled Malaysia for over fifty years, albeit under two different party names. Previously, the government responded by raiding Zunar’s offices, confiscating and banning his publications, and detaining him without charges. However, over the past two years, the ruling party stepped up its efforts to quell dissent by arresting its critics for violating the Sedition Act of 1948, a relic of British colonial rule.
According to Amnesty International, Malaysia’s Sedition Act is used by the government to arbitrarily arrest opposition leaders, human rights defenders, and journalists. They estimate that in 2015, “at least 91 people were arrested, charged or investigated for sedition – almost five times as many as during the law’s first 50 years of existence.” Specifically, the Sedition Act of 1948 makes it a crime to utter, publish, or possess anything that has a tendency to, “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any Ruler. . . . or . . . excite disaffection against the administration of justice in Malaysia. . . .”
Although Zunar was charged under the Sedition Act of 1948, Malaysia’s Parliament amended the Act in April, 2015. Under the original Sedition Act, there wasn’t a minimum sentence, and the maximum sentences were three years for the first violation and five years for subsequent violations. However, the Amendment to the Sedition Act creates a mandatory three year sentence, and it raises the maximum sentences to five years for the first violation and seven years for subsequent violations. On a positive note, the Amendment removed the section that made exciting disaffection against the judiciary a criminal offense. Also, the Amendment hasn’t been published in Malaysia’s official Gazette as of March 1, 2016, and it won’t take effect until publication. Still, the remaining provisions of the Sedition Act are so broad, that almost any criticism of the government is actionable.
Even the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, commented on the 2015 Sedition Act Amendment by saying, “It is very disappointing that the Malaysian Government is now proposing to make a bad law worse. . . . the Sedition Act has been applied in many instances to curb the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression.” Human Rights Watch also decried the revamped Sedition Act calling it, “a human rights disaster for Malaysia that will have a profound chilling effect on freedom of expression.”
Ironically, the Malaysian Constitution provides that every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression. However, it also allows Parliament to enact, “such restrictions as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the Federation.” This apparent contradiction has caused the Sedition Act to be challenged as unconstitutional. One argument is that the Sedition Act pre-dates and was superseded by Malaysia’s Constitution. However, Malaysia’s apex Federal Court struck down that argument and affirmed the Act’s constitutionality in October, 2015. That constitutional challenge was filed by Professor Azmi Sharom, who was being prosecuted for sedition because of comments he made during an interview with an online newspaper. In Zunar’s case, there is also a constitutional challenge because the Act doesn’t take into account a defendant’s intent to be seditious. This is similar to the logic that prevailed in the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case United States v. Elonis where the Court ruled speech that appears threatening is protected unless the government can prove a defendant intended to communicate a threat.
The judges who recently upheld Malaysia’s Sedition Act are technically independent from the government’s executive branch, but judicial appointments are based on the Prime Minister’s recommendation. With such apparent conflicts of interest, the Malaysian leadership has provided continuous fodder for biting political commentary. For instance, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2015 that Prime Minister Najib Razak received a $681 million transfer into his personal account from the Saudi Royal Family. Initially, the Prime Minister called the transfer a gift, but now it’s being labeled a political contribution. In contrast, the Saudi government said that political contributions are never transferred to personal accounts. Nevertheless, Malaysia’s Attorney General cleared the Prime Minister of any wrongdoing at the beginning of 2016. The scandal prompted the former Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, to openly criticize the current Prime Minister and the Attorney General. True to form, the government is now investigating the former Prime Minister for criminal defamation.
Given the ruling party’s overwhelming control, it’s unlikely that a dissenter like Zunar will receive a fair trial. However, if Zunar were to receive more press and other support, his case might become a victory for free expression. In fact, in February, 2016, the Attorney General dropped the sedition case against Professor Azmi Sharom in the interests of justice, so the pendulum might be swinging back in the right direction. To offer your support or to see Zunar’s remarkable cartoons, please visit his website at www.Zunar.my or #kartunzunar. Also, Amnesty International has an online petition to have Zunar’s charges dropped, and it takes only a minute to add your name: http://www.amnesty.org.au/action/action/37496/
The cartoons posted with this article were reprinted with permission: 2016 malaysiakini/zunar.my