Cartoonist Fights for Free Speech in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia's Flag

Image by .ET. via Flickr

Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better-known among comic fans as Zunar is pushing against the Malaysian government in a fight over free speech and censorship.  In September 2010, police arrested Zunar on a sedition charge just hours before a book release party.  He’s one of the few cartoonists willing to take on the government in the country.  The government claimed he violated the Printing Presses and Publications Act because he didn’t have a license to publish.  He was later released without charge.

The majority Muslim nation is finally easing it’s strict censorship laws, but that’s only after decades of repressive and strict control over free speech.  Last month, authorities banned a television commercial made by famous actors and musicians urging Malaysians to exercise their right to vote and featuring both government and opposition politicians lip-synching to a pro-democracy song.  The government claimed it wasn’t ok’ed to air.

While there is some easing of laws in the lead up to elections that must be called in 18 months, that doesn’t include sedition laws which are used to prosecute against speech the government doesn’t like and you’ll still need to apply to print if you don’t have one already.

As a whole the Asian region has issues with freedom of political speech and freedom of expression, especially those that falls in the category of criticizing the government.  Luckily many are turning to the internet where such laws can’t be enforced.  But, Zunar has already felt the force of the existing laws.  While there’s lots of talk, the real test will be if we see political cartoons by Zunar printed in his nation’s newspapers.