Malaysian Cartoonist Charged With Sedition Over Tweets Visits Australia


New Matilda’s weekly cartoonist Lindsay Foyle caught up with Zunar, whose work has caused political controversy back home.

In Australia we still have a free press and cartoonists can basically cartoon on almost any topic they choose. In Malaysia things are different. There, cartoonists have to avoid upsetting the government. Not an easy thing to do if the cartoonist intends to poke fun at things that need fun poked at them.

One Malaysian cartoonist who has often been in trouble is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque – best known as ‘Zunar’. In Sydney this week for the Amnesty International media awards he gave a talk about the 43 years in prison he is potentially facing on nine charges of ‘sedition’ relating to his outspoken criticism of Malaysia’s Najib government.

Earlier in the evening Zunar attended a reception at the NSW Parliament House, hosted by Balmain MP Jamie Parker and Newtown MP Jenny Leong, in conjunction with Sydney Bersih and Global Bersih.

He told both gatherings his five cartoon books are banned for allegedly carrying content “detrimental to public order”. Police have confiscated thousands of copies of his books. While he has had support from local printers they too are in trouble and have been told not to print any more of his books. He cannot sell them in bookshops and has resorted to marketing them on the Internet and selling copies in person. All the books he brought to Australia found buyers in the NSW Parliament House.

Among his alleged crimes are a series of tweets. According to Amnesty International, Zunar’s treatment at the hands of the Malaysian government is part of a broader crackdown on freedom of expression. Printers and vendors of his work have also been targeted.

zunar, cartoon, new matilda
A Zunar cartoon.

Zunar’s fight for the freedom of expression in Malaysia was recognised with this year’s Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, and his winning of the Hellman-Hammett 2015 award from Human Rights Watch.

Zunar started cartooning in 1973 while still at school. No stranger to trouble, he said, “My first controversial cartoon was a work of satire in the school magazine in 1980, titled Tom Tombak, which was meant to criticise the school and the teachers.”

“Many ask how I get my ideas,” said Zunar. “It may come in a split second, or I might be fumbling over it for days. My cartoons are not drawn by brush, but by brain. In general my ideas are based on current issues, especially politics. The first step is to understand the issue from different sources and perspectives. The second step is to take a stand. The right stand will convey the right message. I do not want to convey the wrong message just to get people to laugh.”

In the past his cartoons have been directed at the politicians. Recently he has refocused and is now directing his cartoons at what people are saying about the politicians. It might not stop him getting into trouble, but it may help find more readers who are happy to buy books.

Zunar returned to Malaysia today in order to fight the charges against him.

Born in Sydney, Lindsay Foyle has been involved in the media since he left school near the end of 1960 and has been drawing cartoons professionally since 1975. He was deputy editor of The Bulletin in the 1980s and worked on The Australian from 1996 to 2009 as a journalist and cartoonist. He is currently working as a freelance cartoonist while writing books on Australian cartooning. He is a past president the Australian Cartoonists’ Association and has been active in the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance for over four decades.