‘If You Don’t Like Them, Laugh at Them’

Nani Yusof and Kate Beddall
151123-MY-zunar-620 Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, who goes by the pen name Zunar, speaks to BenarNews in Washington D.C., Nov. 20, 2015.

Laughter can be a form of protest, according to Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque – better known as Zunar – whose visual critiques of government excess have led to multiple bans on his work.

“If you don’t like them, laugh at them. The government can’t make a law to ban laughter,” Zunar told BenarNews in an interview in Washington DC.

The 53-year-old cartoonist will receive an International Press Freedom Award this week from the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom. The awards recognize the bravery of journalists in the face of threats, according to CPJ.

Zunar is facing nine charges of sedition and a potential 43-year jail term for tweets sent in February criticizing the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges. Many viewed the trial as ploy to remove a potent political rival to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, in power since 1957.

But his sedition trial is currently on hold. That's because Zunar’s legal team has challenged Malaysia’s Sedition Act on grounds that it contradicts the country’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression. A court hearing on that challenge is scheduled for December 15.

Zunar – who has a daily cartoon in the online news portal Malaysiakini – views the nine sedition charges as an attempt to silence him “forever” after a years-long campaign against him.

Since 2008, he has twice been arrested and temporarily detained. His books have been banned. Printing presses and book stalls have been warned not to work with him. And, according to Zunar, the webmaster who manages online sales of his work has been investigated for sedition.

In an interview, Zunar explains why he will return to Malaysia to wage a battle in court, despite the risks.

BN: Has freedom of speech become much more restricted in Malaysia since 2008?

Zunar: I think that the space for freedom of speech is getting narrower by the day in Malaysia. This is linked to a decline in support for the government … the more people are discontented with the government, the narrower the space. The government is taking steps to ensure it is still in power.

In the last general election, in 2013, the current governing party, Barisan Nasional, got only 47 percent of the popular vote, and the opposition got 52. That means the government is now in the minority, although in terms of seats, in legal terms, they are still in power, but in terms of the popular vote, they are a minority. So, we see that 50 percent of people are not satisfied.

People will use whatever method they can if they are pressured, if they cannot express themselves in the mainstream media, or in other places. People are creative. They make satirical videos, for example, they make posters, cartoons, jokes, and so on, on the internet, above all. And because of this the government is forced to take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen.

BN: What is the special power or role of the cartoon?

Zunar: A cartoon is a very effective medium of communication. First, it’s funny, it has humor. Second, it summarizes a complicated problem in a very simple drawing that gets its message across quickly. Also, it’s universal. It can be understood anywhere. And fourth, it has what’s called a pictorial image, an image that sticks in your thoughts, better than something you read.

And other than that, it can cut across social barriers. For example, a person who can’t read can still understand a cartoon.

I want my messages to have a wide reach. So I have introduced what I call cartoons for the people. These are not political cartoons. These are cartoons for people. I don’t draw about politicians here … but about political issues that have an effect on people. Corruption is the country’s problem, not a political problem, because citizens are the ones who pay for it…

Second, in my cartoons for people, I have removed the copyright. Whoever wants to use it, please go ahead. You don’t need to ask for permission. It’s because I feel this talent that I have is not a gift, but a responsibility. Talent is not something to be used for my sake, but for everyone’s sake...

I know a lot of Malaysians are not satisfied, many want to express themselves, but maybe they don’t dare go to a demonstration. Some of them work, some don’t dare confront the police. I understand that. So I am offering protest through laughter … Just laugh at them. If you don’t like them, laugh at them…The government can’t make a law to ban laughter.

BN: Do you write about religion, and the role of religion in politics?

Zunar: Offending religion is not my agenda....I don’t criticize Islam. And I don’t criticize Christianity, or any religion. Because I respect religion. But followers of religion, yes, I criticize them… I’ve done cartoons that criticize followers of religion for exploiting religion. As an example, recently I did a cartoon about the differences between haram. In Malaysia, there is haram food. It’s a big issue. Pork is haram. But 2.6 b [billion] is halal. [Prime Minister Najib Razak has been implicated in a corruption scandal involving 2.6 billion ringgit.] So that’s what I mean by criticizing not religion, but followers of religion. I’m not going to offend religion in my cartoons, because in my opinion, the first enemy of man is not religion, but corrupt and repressive regimes.


BN: When the attacks happened against Charlie Hebdo in Paris, did people ask for your comments? And what did you have to say?

Zunar: I was the first cartoonist to make a statement, and coincidentally a Muslim cartoonist, so it was given a lot of play. My opinion is very clear. First of all, we must respect the rights of cartoonists. That right must be respected. We can’t violate that right. But Muslims also have the right, to not like that cartoon. We may not like it, but we don’t have a license to kill…

If we don’t like it, there are many things we can do. We can debate with them. We can make a good cartoon about the Prophet Mohammad. Muslims are engrossed in being insulted over the bad cartoons. Where are the good ones? They’ve never been made. So, the rights of cartoonists must be respected, but the contents are subject to debate. And the cartoonists must reply. If they insult religion, they must reply to the people they’ve insulted. That’s their task. But there is no person in this world, including Prophet Mohammad, who has a license to kill.

BN: How do you feel about the upcoming court date?

Zunar: First of all, like anyone would be, I feel afraid. But my sense of responsibility is greater than my sense of fear. This is my responsibility, and I must face it. There are people who ask me, why don’t you take political asylum, in another country, in Europe, or in America? If I do that, it’s good for me but not good for the country.

If I take asylum in another country, I won’t have to face the court. And the government would like that, because they won’t have to explain anything.  … I want to go to court, because after they arrested and charged me, they have a responsibility to publicly clarify why this was done.

I know my case is going to get extensive coverage in the international media. And because of that, I need to reveal the true face of the Malaysian government. At the very least, for the sake of freedom of expression and human rights. This is my opportunity. .. For that reason I’ll go back, although I know the risk is very high.

BN: Are you continuing to do cartoons now?

Zunar: I am drawing more than before. After I was arrested, after I was charged, I drew more cartoons than before. Every day I draw, wherever I am. … If we look at it from a positive point of view, it has given me motivation.


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