Malaysia’s High Court on Thursday turned down satirical cartoonist Zunar’s legal challenge to the Sedition Act, clearing the way for a lower court to set his trial date on nine counts of seditious speech.
Zunar, whose real name is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, could face 43 years in prison if tried and convicted of alleged sedition stemming from tweets he had sent out that criticized last year’s jailing of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges.
Zunar, 53, and his legal team were challenging the legality of the 68-year-old law, arguing that the Sedition Act contradicted the constitution’s guarantee of free speech.
High Court Judicial Commissioner Ab Karim Ab Rahman, however, ruled against the cartoonist and his attorneys, saying that the nation’s highest court, the Federal Court, had answered this question on Oct. 6 by then rejecting a similar challenge to the Sedition Act lodged by a Malaysian law professor, Azmi Sharom.
Eric Paulsen, one of Zunar’s lawyers, told BenarNews that his client would now try to persuade the Court of Appeal to overturn the High Court’s decision.
Zunar, who was in London on Thursday, declined comment.
The court’s rejection allows the lower Sessions Court to fix a date for Zunar’s trial. A panel of the Sessions Court is scheduled on Friday to hold a “mention” – a legal term used in Malaysia that refers to a case being called up or managed – over the cartoonist’s case.
‘An attempt to muzzle the entire population’
In an op-ed article in the New York Times on Thursday, the former chief executive officer of the recently shuttered news website, The Malaysian Insider (TMI), described this legal setback for Zunar as part of a growing campaign by the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak to use the Sedition Act to silence his critics.
“Zunar faces up to 43 years in prison on nine counts of sedition – the most counts anyone in Malaysia has ever been charged with,” Jahabar Sadiq wrote.
“[T]he Najib administration, after pledging to repeal the archaic law, is now wielding it to silence anyone who questions the state, or even the political status quo. This is an unprecedented onslaught against free expression in Malaysia, and an attempt to muzzle the entire population,” he added.
Last year, Jahabar and four TMI editors were briefly arrested under the act. In late February, Malaysian internet regulators blocked the news portal after it reported that an independent panel within the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission “had found sufficient evidence of financial improprieties by Mr. Najib,” the former TMI CEO wrote.
Because of lost advertising revenue as a result of the online blockage and a lack of bids from potential buyers, The Malaysian Insider closed last month.
‘It goes against the Federal Constitution’
The Sedition Act was enacted by the British colonial government in 1948 to combat communists, and was amended by Malaysia following race riots in 1969.
The law defines “sedition” broadly and places many limitations of free speech, particularly over sensitive political issues, according to a report by Center of Independent Journalism Malaysia.
In 2014 and 2015, some 200 people were investigated, arrested or charged under the Sedition Act, Zunar told BenarNews in an interview in Washington in November.
“We challenged the law because in our view, it goes against the Federal Constitution which in Article 10 states that every citizen has the right to freely give their views,” Zunar said then.
Editor’s note: Zunar is a BenarNews contributor.