THE trial of cartoonist Zunar, who is challenging his travel ban, begins today, a case that will serve as a barometer of the freedom allowed to one of the government’s most vocal critics.
No reason was ever given for the arbitrary ban. It was imposed in June last year after Zunar received the 2016 Cartooning for Peace Award from former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in Geneva.
The trial is expected to be a lengthy and laborious fight, pitting the might of the government against the minimal resources, but formidable spirit, of the internationally acclaimed artist.
“It will take some time, and then, another month for the decision. And only after that will I know if I can travel,” says a stoic Zunar, whose real name is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque.
“The process to challenge takes a very long time.”
Zunar is up against a high wall. In July, an appeals court judge ruled in the case of Tony Pua that the “right of Malaysian citizens to travel overseas is at the absolute discretion of the government”.
The judge also declared that a passport to travel was “a privilege” accorded by the government.
Yet, freedom of movement is actually a right provided for under the Federal Constitution, which, thus, makes a travel ban unconstitutional.
For Zunar to lose his case means another blow to the fundamental rights of Malaysians.
Zunar’s ban came from police orders rather than Immigration authorities. Currently, he is the only person facing such a ban in the country.
Others linked to terrorism or violence, or are clearly corrupt, have been free to go, but a man who draws cartoons has been deemed so great a threat.
How dangerous can a cartoon be?
Homebound, Zunar was unable to attend many invitations to speak abroad in the past year.
“I missed the launch of my first solo exhibition overseas in Switzerland. I had prepared for that for six months.
“Of course, I feel frustrated. It’s not democratic at all,” he says.
While his work is celebrated overseas, back at home, it has been a rough road.
Like Ai Weiwei, China’s celebrated artist and leading dissident, staying true to his art, his spirit and his convictions has come at a cost.
Zunar has been continually harassed by the authorities. He has been detained, arrested, imprisoned, threatened and physically attacked.
His work has been banned, seized and vandalised, and his office raided.
When he tried to hold an exhibition of cartoons last November in Penang, a mob of 30 people surrounded him and threatened him.
Police responded to this by confiscating 20 drawings and taking him into custody.
Currently, he is facing nine charges of sedition over tweets, which could land him a possible jail sentence of 43 years.
It is a daunting prospect, but Zunar defiantly vows to continue. He still draws daily.
Last week, yet another one of his books, Sapuman: Man of Steal, was banned by the authorities. This was Zunar’s 10th book to be banned.
One book, Ros in Kangkongland, comes under the Sedition Act, which makes it dangerous to simply have. Anyone carrying a copy of it risks imprisonment.
No bookstore or printer would want to have that book on their premises, Zunar says.
This is an astonishing extreme for a book of cartoons.
Perhaps, the biggest threat that Zunar poses is his unfaltering determination to continue.
“They used so many tactics, but I kept continuing to draw. So then, they used different tactics.
“After that, they raided bookstores selling my books and gave them warnings. They also threatened printers.
“Now, nobody wants to print my books or sell my books. I have to sell online. Then, they went for my webmasters,” Zunar explains.
Among the laws used against him are the Printing and Publications Act, Sedition Act and Penal Code, and a new law, 124 (C), covering anything “detrimental to parliamentary democracy”.
“When people ask me if I’m afraid, I say yes. I am now facing nine charges, and one charge is five years.
“But, responsibility is bigger than fear. I have to fight with cartoons,” he says, adding that cartoons are a “very powerful tool”.
“This is a marathon. And in a marathon, the important thing to do is to just keep moving.”
At a time when a tweet can be seditious, his fight is significant.
Zunar is carrying the yoke of fighting for the civic space and freedom of all Malaysians, including the right to freedom of movement and the right to express oneself. – October 13, 2017.
* Mangai Balasegaram is a Malaysian journalist who reports on HIV and other issues of the day.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.