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Political satirist takes government to court over "Cartoon-O-Phobia"

UPDATE: Ruling on cartoonist's suit awaited, ban on political cartoons still in place (RSF, 19 July 2012)

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - Kuala Lumpur 18.01.12: Celebrated Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar (née Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque) appeared at the Kuala Lumpur High Court today for the first hearing of a civil suit brought by himself against the government and the police, in which he challenges them for his wrongful arrest and detention in September 2010. The case looks set to revisit public discussion on sedition and free speech, and ARTICLE 19 welcomes this as a meaningful opportunity for the Malaysian government to review its controversial censorship laws.

Represented by the group Lawyers for Liberty, Zunar is seeking the return of confiscated property as well as aggravated losses and damages incurred in the incident which took place on 24 September 2010. That night, hours before the launch of Zunar's latest compilation of political cartoons titled 'Cartoon-O-Phobia', the police raided the artist's office in Kuala Lumpur, seized all copies of the book and arrested him for sedition.

"ARTICLE 19 fully supports Zunar in his efforts to seek damages from the Malaysian government. We recommend that the High Court sanction his wrongful arrest and detention and immediately lift the ban on all of his publications," said Dr Agnes Callamard, ARTICLE 19 Executive Director. "Ahead of anticipated elections in Malaysia later this year, Zunar' s case calls into question the government's commitment to bolster free speech," continued Dr Callamard.

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about the continued use of restrictive legislation to silence legitimate, creative forms of political expression in Malaysia. Zunar was initially arrested under the Sedition Act 1948, government officials later claimed that he had also violated the Printing Presses and Publications Act. Both offenses carry punishment of up to three years' imprisonment and/or fines.

ARTICLE 19 finds the deliberate ambiguity surrounding Zunar's arrest and detention process problematic. Despite being moved to several police stations over the course of the night, the police neither offered a definitive explanation as to Zunar's offense, nor questioned him during his wrongful detention. After being held on a further day of remand, Zunar was then released without charge. Under international law, arbitrary arrest and detention such as that experienced by Zunar is prohibited.

In a career spanning two decades, Zunar has produced popular political cartoons which dare to lampoon public figures and institutions in Malaysia, with the aim of exposing the abuse of power by the police, judiciary, election commission and government officials. His work is considered sensitive, even radical, in Malaysia.

ARTICLE 19 therefore urges the Malaysian government to hasten progress on a raft of reforms, including an immediate review of regressive media and censorship legislation such as the Sedition Act 1948 and the Printing Presses and Publication Act 1984, both of which exert a serious chilling effect on freedom of speech and of the media.

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