Award-winning Malaysian cartoonist banned from travel

Bangkok, October 18, 2016–Malaysian authorities should immediately lift all restrictions on cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque’s freedom of movement, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. An officer at Kuala Lumpur International Airport yesterday prevented the cartoonist, better known as Zunar, from leaving the country, according to news reports.

An officer at the passport control desk at the airport told Zunar, who was traveling to Singapore to participate in a conference, that he was enforcing a June 24 order from Police Inspector General Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, and that the ban was imposed for unspecified “special reasons,” according to press reports.

Zunar, a 2015 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, faces nine charges of sedition for critical tweets he published after a February 2015 court decision to jail the country’s main opposition leader. The tweets included an embedded cartoon that depicted Prime Minister Najib Razak acting as a presiding judge in the case and others referring to judges as “lackeys” of Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization. If convicted on all charges, Zunar could face a maximum sentence of 43 years in prison under the Sedition Act. His trial is scheduled to begin on November 22.

“Malaysia’s persistent harassment of cartoonist Zunar has made him a symbol of the worsening state of press freedom in the country,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “We call for an immediate and unconditional lift of the ban imposed on his international travel and for all charges against him to be dropped.”

Zunar said in a public statement that he would challenge the legality of the travel ban. He told CPJ by email that the ban was likely imposed in response to critical cartoons he exhibited in Geneva in May this year after receiving the Swiss Foundation Cartooning for Peace Award. Zunar frequently travels overseas to exhibit his work, to speak at events, and to receive a growing list of awards for his editorial courage in the face of persecution.

Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was quoted saying in reports after Zunar was recognized with the Swiss Foundation’s Cartooning for Peace Award that police should investigate the critical drawings he displayed. Communication Minister Salleh Said Keruak suggested in remarks cited by the press that criticizing Najib in a foreign country could be considered “economic sabotage.” It was not immediately clear if Zunar is under formal investigation for the portraits he exhibited in Geneva.

Zunar has been temporarily detained twice, for two days in 2010 and for three days in February 2015, on sedition accusations related to his critical cartoons, CPJ reported at the time. Authorities have banned or confiscated at least five of his books of cartoons. Police have repeatedly raided his office in Kuala Lumpur and the offices of his printers. He is a frequent contributor to Malaysiakini, an independent news website.

‘They can ban my books, they can ban my cartoon, they can ban me from traveling, but they cannot ban my mind,” Zunar said in the statement announcing he would challenge the ban. “I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.”