Satirical cartoonist Zunar, who was arrested last year after the youth wing of Malaysia’s ruling party disrupted one of his exhibitions, canceled a similar show in Penang state over the weekend, saying he feared potential threats from the same group.
Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, a BenarNews contributor whose pen name is Zunar, said he called off Sunday’s exhibit in George Town because of fears that young members of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) intended to create another ruckus.
“I’m sad as my freedom as a cartoonist have been interrupted by UMNO who does not support the freedom of an individual, a cartoonist and a citizen who is trying hard to expose the weaknesses in the government,” Zunar told BenarNews on Monday.
The prize-winning cartoonist, who is known for skewering government officials in his drawings – especially Prime Minister Najib Razkak – is due to appear in court in November to face nine charges of sedition stemming from messages that he posted on Twitter that criticized his country’s judiciary.
Last November, Zunar was arrested after about 30 people, led by the chief of UMNO’s youth wing in Penang State, Rafizul Abdul Rahim, disrupted a similar exhibition and demanded that he remove his drawings.
‘An act of physical intimidation’
Zunar said he had not decided if he would take legal action over the alleged threats that caused him to cancel his latest show, the “Ketawa Pink Pink” exhibit. Ketawa means “laugh” in Malay.
On Saturday, Zunar alleged that UMNO’s youth wing in Penang had distributed posters urging its members to “visit” his show.
“Based on last year’s experience, this is not a normal visit, but more of an act of physical intimidation,” Zunar said in a statement on Saturday.
Rafizal said the planned visit was intended to see if Zunar was mocking their leaders – not to create a commotion.
“These are just the assumptions and wild accusations of an unethical, biased and rude cartoonist,” he said in a statement.
According to Zunar, the pieces that he planned to display focused on the financial scandal around the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state investment fund, which led to calls for the prime minister to resign over alleged corruption tied to it.
Zunar said he might make his works available through a digital platform for fans to download and distribute freely if he received funding for the initial printing.
His show was also to feature cartoons depicting a related civil lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department, and the controversial purchase of the “pink diamond” – a multi-million-dollar gem that was allegedly bought with money linked to 1MDB, as claimed in an American lawsuit.
In June, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit seeking to recover $540 million (2.3 trillion ringgit) in assets purchased with 1MDB money. Officials said U.S. $27.3 million (116 million ringgit) was used to buy a 22-carat pink diamond pendant and necklace for the wife of “Malaysian Official 1.”
Last year, the justice department filed another lawsuit to forfeit and recover more than $1 billion (4.2 billion ringgit) in assets associated with what it called a global conspiracy to launder funds stolen from 1MDB. The department did not name Najib in either suit, but Malaysian and U.S. government officials had previously confirmed that the person identified as “Malaysian Official 1” in court documents was the prime minister.
An eventful year
In the November 2016 incident in George Town, a group who deemed his artwork offensive surrounded Zunar and threatened him to take down his cartoons. Later, the cartoonist was arrested and his artwork was confiscated, but he was released from jail the following day.
Rafizal said the UMNO youth wing did not have problems with Zunar’s other cartoons.
“But we have a problem if the cartoon touches and are damning of our leaders,” Rafizal said. “That is our intention to go and see his exhibition, we have no intention of making it into a mess.”
A poster of the canceled exhibition “Ketawa Pink Pink.” (Courtesy of Zunar)
In December 2016, Zunar was arrested while appearing at a charity event, “Tea with Zunar,” where police seized more than 1,000 copies of his cartoon books, sketches and T-shirts, which he valued at about 40,000 ringgit ($9,000).
Zunar and four other people were taken to a Kuala Lumpur area police station under Section 124 of the penal code covering activities deemed detrimental to democracy. He was released six hours later.
Zunar is due to appear in court on Nov. 1 to face the sedition charges for allegedly insulting the judiciary in tweets made regarding the conviction of de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in a sodomy case in February 2015. If convicted on all charges, he could be sentenced to up to 43 years in jail.
The winner of the 2016 Cartooning for Peace Award has been barred from leaving Malaysia since June 2016.