Zunar is facing a possible three-year jail term as a result of complaint brought against him on 25 January by an ally of the prime minister of the northwestern state of Kedah. It was prompted by a cartoon published on Zunar’s Twitter account that morning criticizing the prime minister’s decision to cancel this year’s celebration of Thaipusam, a Hindu religious festival that the Tamil community normally observes on 28 January.
The cartoon shows the prime minister slamming a cleaver (bearing the words “No Thaipusam”) down on a table around which representatives of Malaysia’s various ethnic groups had been seated. A caption above them says: “Kedah’s inhabitants lived in peace until he came.”
The president of the youth wing of the Malaysian Islamic Party, which support’s the state’s prime minster, initiated the defamation proceedings against Zunar with the aim, he said, “of giving a lesson to all those who think everything can be arbitrarily politicized.”
The complaint accuses Zunar of violating the sedition law, which penalizes “a tendency to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any ruler or against any government.” When reached by RSF, Zunar said he feared getting a call or visit from the police at any time.
“It is unacceptable for a cartoonist to be prosecuted over nothing more than a cartoon that annoyed someone,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “The right to criticize is the very essence of cartoons. We urge the police to ignore this absurd complaint against Zunar. Malaysia’s leaders must stop abusing the sedition law to suppress freedom of expression.”
Zunar, who was awarded the Cartooning for Peace Prize in 2016, has become a symbol of press freedom in Malaysia. The authorities have repeatedly used the sedition law against him, resulting in his imprisonment in 2010 and 2015. He was arrested again under the sedition law in 2016 because of cartoons about government corruption. During a sale of his books a few days later, the police arrested him yet again and confiscated material worth more than 20,000 dollars.
Malaysia is ranked 101st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index, 22 places higher than in 2019, but could fall again as a result of the more draconian policies now being pursued by the authorities.