Political cartoonist Zunar, pictured in his Kuala Lumpur office in 2015. A court in Malaysia dropped nine sedition charges against Zunar. (AFP/Mohd Rasfan)
Political cartoonist Zunar is seen in his Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, office in 2015. Police recently interrogated Zunar over a January 2021 cartoon mocking a state official. (AFP/Mohd Rasfan)

Malaysian cartoonist Zunar investigated over criticism of state official

Bangkok, May 17, 2021 – Malaysian authorities must cease their legal harassment of cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, known as Zunar, and drop any pending charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On May 7, police in the northern state of Kedah summoned Zunar, who publishes his political cartoons on the Malaysiakini news website, and questioned him about a cartoon that lampooned Kedah Chief Minister Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor, according to news reports and the cartoonist, who spoke with CPJ in a video interview. Authorities also confiscated his phone during the interrogation and did not return it, Zunar said.

Zunar told CPJ that police said he was being investigated under Section 233 of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Act, a criminal provision that bars the improper use of network facilities, and Section 505 of the penal code, a law that broadly bans statements, rumors, or reports that could cause public mischief. Convictions under Section 233 allow for one-year prison sentences and fines, while violations of Section 505 carry possible two-year prison terms, according to those laws.

The investigation was initiated by complaints filed by Muhammed, one of the minister’s associates, and members of the public, Zunar said.

“Authorities should stop their legal harassment of cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, known as Zunar, return his phone immediately, and allow him to continue drawing his political cartoons without fear of reprisal,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “These bogus legal threats against journalists make a mockery of Malaysia’s democracy.”

In his January 24 cartoon, Zunar mocked Muhammad’s decision to cancel the state’s Thaipusam Hindu religious festival due to COVID-19. Muhammad, a member of the Malaysian Islamic Party, which rules Kedah and is part of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s ruling coalition, has been accused of marginalizing non-Malay and non-Islamic groups in Malaysia, according to news reports.  

Zunar told CPJ that police interrogated him for several hours and asked about the cartoon’s political meaning; he added that he was not allowed to see the official police complaint sheet relating to his case.

CPJ emailed Muhammad’s office and the national attorney general’s office for comment, but did not immediately receive any replies.

Zunar, a 2015 winner of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, has previously faced harassment and legal threats over his work, as CPJ has documented.