Malaysia intensifies harassment of award-winning cartoonist

Bangkok, November 28, 2016―Malaysian authorities should drop all criminal charges against award-winning cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, popularly known as Zunar, and cease harassing him for his work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Police on November 26 arrested Zunar under the Sedition Act on the charge his editorial cartoons insulted Prime Minister Najib Razak, according to press reports. Zunar has often satirized Najib, including by calling attention to allegations of corruption in Najib’s management of a government development fund known as 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Authorities released Zunar on bail the following day pending the conclusion of the criminal investigation, reports said.

Zunar’s arrest came a day after a pro-government mob linked to Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization disrupted and destroyed parts of an exhibition of his cartoons displayed at a literary festival in the northern Malaysian state of Penang, according to news reports.

Zunar said in a statement before his arrest that more than 30 pro-government “thugs” “verbally abused,” “physically attacked,” and “vandalized” his editorial cartoons on Friday in a public exhibition area of the festival. “The thugs demanded that I take down the exhibition and some of them proceeded to destroy my artworks,” the statement said. Zunar said police who arrived on the scene were “unable to control the thugs” and that he was “fortunate” that members of the public at the festival came to his rescue.

“Rather than arresting and threatening one of Malaysia’s most prominent cartoonists, authorities should instead identify and prosecute those responsible for this crude and egregious attack on press freedom,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “The government’s harassment of Zunar has reached dangerous proportions. It should stop immediately.”

News reports and CPJ research show that Najib has used the Sedition Act and other legislation to stifle critical reporting on the 1MDB scandal. Najib’s government has been hit by allegations that as much as US$3.5 billion was inexplicably transferred from the development fund Najib created and oversees. Najib has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Zunar, a 2015 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, already faces nine charges of sedition for remarks he made on Twitter criticizing a court’s decision to jail the country’s main opposition leader last year. The tweets included an embedded cartoon that depicted Najib acting as a judge in the case. In other remarks on Twitter he referred to judges as “lackeys” of Najib’s ruling party.

If convicted on all charges, Zunar could face a maximum sentence of 43 years in prison under the Sedition Act. Zunar filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of the Sedition Act that will begin hearings on January 24, according to a statement Zunar sent this month to rights groups and journalists, including CPJ. His sedition case will be heard after that trial is complete, the statement said.

A Malaysian appeals court ruled on November 25 that a clause of the Sedition Act which removes requirements for the prosecution to prove intent was unconstitutional because it violated the principles of free speech and equality under the law–rights protected in Malaysia’s constitution, according to news reports. Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali said after the ruling that the government would appeal the decision, reports said. It wasn’t immediately clear how the ruling would affect the charges against Zunar.

Authorities imposed a travel ban against Zunar in October that bars him from leaving the country ahead of his sedition trial, reports said. Zunar had frequently traveled internationally to exhibit his work, to speak at freedom of expression related events, and to receive a growing list of awards for his editorial courage in the face of persecution. He said in a statement he will challenge the travel ban in court.