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‘Even my pen has a political stance’: Zunar on Malaysia’s ‘press freedom crisis’

Best known for his provocative cartoons that lampoon government corruption and authority figures, Zunar visited Sydney recently as part of the Carnival of the Bold festival. In a one-on-one interview with The Point Magazine, Zunar – his real name, Zulkiflee Anwar Haque- tells said that although he’s scared, he is not putting his pen down anytime soon.

Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar has been arrested twice by his government for inciting political disorder. His books have been banned and publishing companies threatened by authorities for printing his work. And he is currently facing nine charges under the Sedition Act, which can carry a penalty of forty-three years in jail.

This year, Reporters without Borders ranked Malaysia as 146th out of 180 in Worldwide Press Freedom Index. In recent months the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented how authorities have censored individual journalists and media outlets for critical coverage of the government, labelling it as a Malaysian ‘press freedom crisis’. 

As a cartoonist, it’s my responsibility to expose corruption and speak up about injustices. When I was arrested, questions came up if I was afraid. Yes I am, like anyone else, but which is bigger - fear or responsibility?

 Why did you get into political cartoons?

I always wanted to be a cartoonist, but I didn’t have any formal education or go to art school but I always wanted to draw. At school I would always draw on the toilet walls and everywhere. When I was young, in my early twenties, I wanted to cover political issues. At the time I would attend political forums and take part by asking questions, but one day I thought, why don’t I combine my two passions, politics and cartoons and that how I became a political cartoonist.

Why has the Malaysian government criticised your work?

I can’t speak on behalf of the Malaysian government. For those who don’t know my cartoons I focus on two major issues, one is corruption, the other is injustice in Malaysia. This is considered a very sensitive issue in Malaysia because the mainstream media is controlled by the government and we aren’t allowed to publish these sorts of messages.

The government has banned seven of my books on the grounds that the content was detrimental to political order. The police went to bookstores around Malaysia and confiscated my books and the publishers received a warning and were threatened that they would lose their publishing licence if they reproduced my content. The police also raided three printers for printing my book and threatened them too.

After that the police also raided my office and I was arrested twice under the Sedition Act.

What is the difference between raising awareness about politics through traditional news compared to cartoons?

Cartoons have become a very powerful media outlet of communication; it’s very powerful and used all over the world. Why? Because cartoons carry quick messages. Cartoonist also can put down everything in one picture and people get it within one minute. Compared to when people read the newspaper and need more time to understand the issues addressed. Secondly, cartoons provide laughter.  It’s very comfortable for people to see difficult issues through cartoons, they remember it because it’s a visual medium.

Cartoons are very universal no matter where you are in the world people can understand them. They go beyond race, religion and social class. This is why cartoons can be a much more effective tool. 

Why is laughter and humour important when it comes to politics?

I believe that many people aren’t happy with the government in Malaysia but they’re not ready to go to the street and protest, because they don’t want to be arrested or lose their job. So I provide a platform through cartoons. I provide a way of protest. I always say if you cannot beat them, you laugh at them. No regime in the world can stand it if you keep laughing at them. No government can take away laughter, and there is no law from stopping people from laughing. This is a powerful thing. It’s a safe yet hopeful way of protesting. When we have this medium more people can take part as opposed to the traditional form of protest.

You were arrested for tweeting, what was that experience like?

I was arrested twice; once for the cartoons and the other for tweeting. I criticised the judiciary and the Prime Minister of Malaysia through those tweets. I was handcuffed and put in a jail cell with other criminals like murders and drug dealers. That was an interesting experience, it was hard but it won’t affect my work.

Will you stop doing cartoons because you fear the possible outcome?

For me, my talent is not a gift, it’s a responsibility. As a cartoonist, it’s my responsibility to expose corruption and speak up about injustices. When I was arrested, questions came up if I was afraid. Yes I am, like anyone else, but which is bigger - fear or responsibility? I think its responsibility and I will continue to do what I love. 

Why is freedom of expression important to you and to Malaysia?

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. Everyone should be given a chance to express their view. It doesn’t matter if the view is right or wrong you can’t stop people from expressing themselves. Only then we can achieve a real democracy and create a better world. We need to listen first and encourage free speech. Secondly, people in government in Malaysia or elsewhere don’t see it as freedom of expression they see it as criticism and that’s why they react by using force or weapons to stop people from expressing themselves.

Where do you hope to see Malaysia in the future when it comes to freedom of expression?

In Malaysia, we have been governed by the same political party for more than sixty years and now it’s become a regime. Any regime in the world, will do whatever they can to ensure they are in power. When more and more people stand up, they will use more laws to maintain their position. What we want is to be free and have real democracy where people are allowed to express their view.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I really want people to take a stand. The reason regimes survive is because people stay quiet and they stay silent for too long. How can I be neutral when even my pen has a stance? This is a point everybody needs to remember, you have a right to make a stance.


The Point

Zunar is defying limitations of press freedom in the hopes of bringing about political change.


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