Zunar from Malaysia: A caricaturist on trial can′t help but laugh | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 19.07.2016
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Zunar from Malaysia: A caricaturist on trial can't help but laugh

The renowned illustrator Zunar has dealt with the Malaysian government's fight against press freedom firsthand. Despite facing a decades-long prison sentence, he continues to resist, with a pencil and a sense of humor.

No matter where Zunar goes in the world, he brings his handcuffs and purple prison shirt along. In Berlin, at a recent conference held by Reporters without Borders and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, the 52-year-old Malaysian cartoonist held the handcuffs high. "You can chain my hands, my legs, my neck or my entire body." "But," he said with a wink, "I will not stop drawing."

Zunar then showed the audience one of his latest works, which depicts himself, dangling half in the air, covered in chains and clenching a colored pencil with his teeth. His works famously employ humor to illustrate the ills of his country - abuses of power, corruption among the elite, moral crises in society and the justice system.

And he has therefore long been a thorn in the eye of authorities. He's had his office searched repeatedly. He's been constantly harassed and jailed on multiple occasions. Now, after taking to Twitter to criticize the last year sodomy conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, he's also facing up to 43 years in prison.

Dark times for press freedom

Zunar's work has won awards abroad but has been banned within Malaysia. "It is quite clear," Zunar said, chuckling, that "the Malaysian government is suffering under acute Cartoon-o-phobia." His caricatures are published now on Facebook and Twitter as well as his personal website, all without copyright.

"Cartooning for Peace," a network of press cartoonists based in Switzerland, recently chose Zunar as a recipient for its biennial award. After raising $15,000 (13,600 euros) and securing parole, he was able to be on hand to accept the award from former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

In its annual Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders ranked Malaysia 146 out of 180 countries worldwide. According to Amnesty International, more than 40 journalists, academics, lawyers and activists were interrogated, imprisoned or indicted due to "seditious activities" in the first half of 2015 alone.

The Sedition Act on which the case against Zunar is based, is a colonial era relict. Yet Malaysia's government has turned to it often in recent years as a way to silence critical voices and public debate.

A lack of justice

But Zunar continues to speak out. "We have a justice minister, a chief justice and a palace of justice, but no justice," he said. Two of his lawyers have also been charged for sedition.

"The power of justice was strongly curtailed under the authoritarian regime of Prime Minister Mahathir, and this development has only grown more drastic over the last few years," said Dr. Andreas Ufen, a political scientist with the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies.

Mahatir centralized power during his time in office, from 1981 to 2003, in spite of Malaysia's federalist constitution. Now 90 years old, Mahathir is demanding the resignation of current Prime Minister Najib Razak, following accusations of corruption.

'Responsibility is greater than fear'

Ufen has hope that things may change for the better. "The corruption scandals around Prime Minister Najib have weakened the government," he said. "I see movements within the country's civil society as a possible opportunity for Malaysia's democracy."

Zunar may not share this optimism, but he demands political change and "total reform" nonetheless. He sees humor as the "best kind of protest" and approaches his work as a duty to his fellow citizens. "Responsibility is greater than fear, and I bear responsibility for my country and its future generations," he said, adding with a laugh: "I am going to continue drawing until the last drop of ink."

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