The Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, better known as Zunar, has been released on bail after being charged with nine counts of sedition for allegedly insulting the judiciary in tweets about the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy.
After posting bail of 22,500 ringitt (2,500 for each charge), Zunar was immediately rearrested under Section 233 of the 1998 Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission Act, which covers alleged improper use of network facilities or network services.
The deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, said: “Hitting the cartoonist Zunar with nine sedition charges and then re-arresting him on a separate charge after he posted bail shows that the Malaysian government has completely abandoned any pretence of respecting the basic right of freedom of expression.
Roberston said Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, and the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Khalid Abu Bakar, “have now declared it’s open season to hunt down cartoonists and other humourists on social media, which shows both a disturbing lack of perspective and a new-found tendency to equate repression with effective governance”.
He added: “Day by day, Malaysians are losing more and more of their rights and democracy at the hands of an increasingly oppressive government.”
Lawyer Syahredzan Johan tweeted: “I think we should call it as what it is – a crackdown.”
Latheefa Koya, who is one of the lawyers representing the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, tweeted: “Nobody’s ever been charged for nine sedition offences. Nobody.”
The Star newspaper said the IGP defended the sedition charges, saying Zunar “asked for it”. According to The Star, Khalid said Zunar “should know by now” to be careful when making comments on the Internet that might “stir anger or jeopardise public peace”. Zunar was rearrested, Khalid was quoted as saying, because he abused the Internet, which was an offence under the Communications and Multimedia Act.
Yesterday, the international organisation ARTICLE 19, which defends the right to freedom of expression, called on the Malaysian government to drop all charges against Zunar and repeal the Sedition Act.
ARTICLE 19’s executive director, Thomas Hughes, said: “This is clearly an attack on freedom of expression, and an attempt to stifle all legitimate criticism of the government, who have been carrying out a sustained campaign of harassment against Zunar for almost five years.”
He added: “The Sedition Act, which is a legacy of colonial rule, should have no part in a modern Malaysia, and it is being used to support an ongoing crackdown against any voice of dissent in Malaysia, including political opponents, academics, human rights lawyers and artists.”
On Twitter, Zunar describes himself as a political cartoonist, whose cartoons are “directed towards fighting the tyranny and corruption of the government of Malaysia”.
One of the cartoons he posted on Twitter after Anwar’s jailing showed Najib as the judge in Anwar’s case. “Those in the black robes were proud when passing sentence,” he tweeted. “The rewards from their political masters must be lucrative.” He also tweeted: “Today Malaysia is seen as a country without law.”
Zunar, who turned up in court today in mock prison garb, and clowned around with a pair of handcuffs, has been investigated several times under the Sedition Act. In addition to his detention in February, he was detained for two days in 2010, and, in November 2014, he was investigated for sedition and offences under the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Penal Code.
Between 2009 and 2010, Malaysia’s Home Minister banned five of Zunar’s books. In November 2014, three of Zunar’s assistants were arrested for selling his books, and the webmaster managing his website has also been investigated for sedition. The police have also sought details of individuals who have purchased Zunar’s books through his website.
In January this year, his offices were raided by police, who confiscated 155 copies of two books – “Pirates of the Carry-BN” and “Conspiracy to Imprison Anwar”. BN refers to the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional.
In February, police twice disrupted his attempts to launch his latest book, “ROS in Kangkong Land”, and the authorities again threatened to detain him and confiscate his books. ROS refers to the prime minister’s wife Rosmah Mansor.
In 2011, Zunar received the “Courage in Editorial Cartooning” award from the Cartoonist Rights Network International NGO, based in the United States.
In 2014, “Pirates of the Carry-BN”, was accepted by the Library of Congress in Washington in the US.
Zunar is just one of numerous people arrested recently under Malaysian’s Sedition Act.
Three editors from The Malaysian Insider (TMI) news portal were arrested on March 30, and executives from the Insider and The Edge media group were taken into detention on March 31.
Managing editor Lionel Morais, news editor Amin Shah Iskandar, features and analysis editor Zulkifli Sulong, Insider chief executive and editor Jahabar Sadiq, and The Edge publisher Ho Kay Tat, were all arrested under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act and Section 4 of the Sedition Act.
The five arrests are said to be over a report published by The Malaysian Insider on March 25, which said Malaysia’s Conference of Rulers had rejected proposed amendments to a federal law that the Kelantan government wants to change so that it can enforce hudud (Islamic law) in the state. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) Youth also made a complaint to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).
The officer of the Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal lodged a police report on March 26, denying that the Conference of Rulers had discussed the matter and adding that it had never issued any statement on hudud in Kelantan.
The Malaysian Insider arrests were widely condemned. Lawyers for Liberty said the authorities’ excessive reaction clearly showed the “scant respect” they had for democratic rights, press freedom, and the rule of law. “Seen in light of more than a hundred arrests in recent months against elected representatives, politicians, activists, lawyers, and now members of the press, Malaysia is clearly sliding into a totalitarian state reminiscent of the darkest days of Operation Lalang,” the lawyers said.
Operation Lalang (the Weeding Operation), also referred to as Ops Lalang, was a major crackdown launched in October 1987.
The Malaysian Institute of Journalists (IoJ) said it was greatly disturbed by the five arrests. “If the report was inaccurate, the convention would be for the Conference of Rulers to issue a statement correcting it and for TMI to make an apology or to retract the article,” the IoJ said in a statement. “We reiterate our call for the Sedition Act to be repealed and we urge the authorities to refrain from taking unnecessarily heavy-handed action against the press,” it added.
Amnesty International Malaysia condemned “these latest attacks on dissent” by the Malaysian government and called on the government “to stop attacking freedoms pertinent to democracy”, including freedom of thought, opinion, and assembly.
There were two other arrests in March over hudud. The executive director of Lawyers for Liberty, Eric Paulsen, was arrested for his comments about hudud, and the legal and campaign coordinator at Lawyers for Liberty, Michelle Yesudas, was detained after she expressed her fears about rape in Malaysia on Twitter after the presenter of a satirical video about hudud was threatened with rape and death.
A total 158 people have been arrested over the past two months. That is more than during Operation Lalang (106 were arrested). The new wave of arrests is already being referred to as Ops Lalang II. “Ops Lalang II ongoing,” tweeted Eric Paulsen. “Politicians, activists, lawyers, media – all targetted.”
Many of the recent arrests have been over the Kita Lawan (“We fight”) rallies that have been held every Saturday afternoon since Anwar was jailed for five years on February 10, but more than 80 people were detained over a demonstration about the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which came into effect on April 1.
Malaysia’s federal court upheld a ruling by the Court of Appeal last year, which found Anwar guilty of sodomising his former aide Saiful Bukhari Azlan in 2008.
Anwar (pictured left), who is de-facto leader of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party), says the case against him was fabricated by his political enemies and the verdict has been strongly criticised both locally and internationally.
After public rallies calling for reform in 2012, Najib promised to scrap the sedition laws. However, last year he went back on that pledge and said the laws would remain and even be strengthened.
Article 19 points out that the Sedition Act criminalises any conduct with a “seditious tendency”, including conduct that “excites disaffection” or “brings into hatred or contempt” any ruler of Malaysia, or the government. It does not require the prosecution to prove intent, and provides for up to three years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of 5,000 ringgit for those found guilty of a first offence. Subsequent offences may be punished with up to five years’ in jail.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) has again called on the government to repeal the Sedition Act and called it “repressive and undemocratic legislation, which directly violates the right to freedom of expression”.
The commission expressed its serious concern over the recent spate of arrests. It said in a statement that it was “appalled” at the manner in which they had been carried out, which, the commission said, appeared to be tantamount to harassment and intimidation by the authorities, and in breach of the rule of law. It said the arrests of members of the media “to prevent them from performing their legitimate duties” were a clear violation of Malaysia’s obligations under international human rights law.
“The commission recommends that the government take unwavering steps towards guaranteeing freedom of expression and assembly, including media freedom, in line with the Federal Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the statement added.
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