On 22 November 2016, Zulkifee Anwarul Haque, better known as Zunar, will once again step into a courtroom in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In the midst of an on-going criminal case against him for his words and his wit, Zunar has fired back with a case of his own, challenging the very constitutionality of the sedition laws that could potentially land him in jail for many years.
On 10 February 2015, following the conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Zunar, Malaysia’s most well-known political cartoonist, took to Twitter to criticize the verdict. Not long after, in what could be read as satire, Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar tweeted to his officers to make an arrest. Zunar was greeted by six policemen later that night.
This is why Zunar keeps drawing his cartoons every day, wielding his pen as his best and most effective weapon against corruption and injustice. Loathe to call them “political,” Zunar says his are “cartoons for the people,” published without copyright for his fellow citizens and supporters worldwide to share, and hopefully change minds.
Talent is a responsibility
Growing up, it was clear that Zunar had a talent for drawing. His cartoons were first published when he was 12 years old, but he never took an art class. His path, at the behest of his parents, was in science. Yet he continued to draw and submit to children’s magazines, and in 1986, he left his job at a hospital to draw full-time as a freelancer. He drew for teenagers’ magazines, commenting on current affairs, but realized he needed to reach a more adult audience, and joined a newspaper in 1992.
“At the time, though, all Malaysian newspapers were controlled by the government, so I was unable to draw the political cartoons I wanted. There were so many restrictions, censorship, everything – I lasted six months.”
It was another six years until Zunar was able to find his voice and use it in the way he believed he was meant to. 1998 saw Malaysia’s political awakening with the sacking and imprisonment of Anwar Ibrahim, then deputy prime minister.
“The political situation completely changed during the ‘Reformasi Era’– people started to protest, more and more started to criticize the government, to stand up and say no. It was eye-opening. And during that time, I made a comeback, too.”
Readership of independent news sources skyrocketed. People were hungry for alternate views, for the kind of commentary Zunar was able to provide. This was his turning point, and he soon turned to an even wider audience.
In 2003 Zunar joined Malaysiakini, the country’s leading independent news website, for which he still draws, and later began offering his cartoons to his thousands and thousands of followers all over the world via Facebook and Twitter.
“I tell my international colleagues that your job as a political cartoonist in your country is to criticize the government of the day, to fight through cartoons. So this is what I’m doing. For me, talent is not a gift. Talent is a responsibility. My responsibility is to use my talent for my people, for the benefit of Malaysia and for the people of the world.”
Until the last drop of my ink
But his fame has not made him invincible – instead, it has made him the ultimate threat to a government many see as repressive. In 2010, authorities banned his books under the Printing and Presses Act. After years of legal battle, the ban was finally lifted in an unprecedented judicial victory in November 2015, but he was already in trouble again.
In the same year, authorities confiscated his new books from bookstores, and raided and threatened his printers and the bookstore owners who carried them. And when Zunar began selling his books online, authorities threatened his webmasters, too, demanding the names of his customers. Zunar was interrogated several times.
“I told the police that you can ban my books, you can ban my magazines, but you cannot ban my mind. I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.”
Zunar’s 10 February tweets, criticizing the conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, were used to try to silence him. Citing the 1948 Sedition Act enacted by the British during Malaysia’s colonial era, authorities informed Zunar that he was being charged with one count of sedition, and demanded 5,000 ringgit (approx. USD1,210) for bail. Hours later, he was told he needed to come up with 45,000 ringgit (approx. USD10,870) for nine charges – one for every tweet he made criticizing the government. If convicted, Zunar could face up to several decades in prison.
With the help of his supporters, Zunar managed to raise the money and stay out of jail while the trial against him is pending. And still, he draws.
“They want me to stop, but I won’t stop. I don’t want to practice self-censorship. I’m still looking for the best formula to change people’s minds.”
Over the last several years Zunar has won international acclaim. His work has been featured in exhibitions in Geneva and London, and he has won awards from organizations like Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists for his fight against corruption and injustice through his chosen medium.
“If a cartoonist can be charged and can face 43 years in prison, what type of freedom of expression do we have in Malaysia? I want people to know this through my case. And if more and more people know, it will create more pressure on the government.”
MLDI continues to support him in his fight. And that support, Zunar said, is critical not just for the country, but for him. “When you get support from people, it gives you confidence, and shows that you are doing the right thing.”
An Endless Marathon
In the midst of the criminal charges, Zunar has launched a battle against the sedition laws themselves, which were amended in April 2015 to give the government broad powers to censor online media, and have been used to target hundreds of critical voices over the past three years. His next hearing is 22 November. If he wins he would set an incredible legal precedent, and the criminal charges against him – and many other scholars, students, and citizens – would be moot. But he’s not taking any bets.
“Legally, it should happen, but the charges are clearly politically motivated, and there is almost a zero percent chance of a Malaysian citizen winning in court against the government on any politically motivated charge.”
“But,” he continued, “even if there is only a 0.1% chance, it is still a chance, so we need to fight – not for my case alone, but for everybody. This is, in essence, an endless marathon. But it’s okay, we’ll keep going. I don’t know if we’ll see change even in my lifetime, but it doesn’t matter. We’ll keep fighting.”
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