by Mariam Mokhtar
OUTSPOKEN: In Geneva last week, Zunar’s revelations cast doubt on Malaysia’s claims to be a peaceful, moderate Muslim nation and instead, created panic among the Malaysian delegation, which was echoed in Wisma Putra.
Zunar had been invited to speak at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva, as a guest of ‘Article 19’, an NGO which advocates freedom of expression and freedom of information. Despite his busy schedule, he led an impromptu rally, outside the UN offices, to coincide with the March 7 ‘Kita Lawan’ demonstration, in support of the ‘Free Anwar Ibrahim’ movement.
Six weeks earlier, Zunar had stunned audiences in London and Oxford, with his description of Malaysia as a repressed nation. On the morning that he was to deliver a lecture at Sommerville College, in Oxford University, thousands of copies of Zunar’s books were confiscated during a police raid on his office, in Malaysia. This latest attack triggered the Monsoons Book Club (MBC), to secure more talks and meetings, including one interview with the BBC, to highlight human rights abuses in Malaysia.
The irony is that the raid on Zunar’s office happened in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Terrorist action caused the Paris carnage but in Malaysia, the police were bent on stifling freedom of expression.
In Geneva, Zunar took part in a forum called “Defending Artistic Freedom” which was supported by the United States Ambassador, Keith Harper. A second forum, organised by FORUM-Asia, was called “Promoting a safe and enabling environment for Asian Human Rights Defenders”. Zunar was a panellist alongside the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst. Other speakers included human rights defenders from Sri Lanka, Burma and Pakistan.
Zunar told the delegates, “Artistic expression needs defending to ensure that artists can perform their social obligations. Artists play an important role in educating and providing information through their artworks.”
Introducing, for the first time, the term “creativist”, an expression which was made popular by the MBC, he said, “When a country is ruled by a repressive regime, the role of the artist has to be upgraded to that of a creativist; one who is both creative and an activist. The creativist’s artwork is not just an expression. It becomes a social obligation.”
Zunar told the UN that the political party which had ruled Malaysia for 58 years did not allow freedom of speech. He said, “Mainstream media is controlled by the infamous Printing and Publications Act. The Sedition Act is used to silence dissidents.”
Despite being amused by Zunar’s cartoons, the audience showed concern for the 50 individuals, ranging from artists to activists and pressmen to professors, caught up in the recent sedition crackdown. He said, “I cannot just stand-back and do nothing. Silence is a crime. The artists cannot stay neutral. They have to be bold, and make a stand. Their stand must be clearly visible in their work.
“As a cartoonist, my mission is “To Fight Through Cartoons”, to protest against injustice and corrupt practices perpetuated by the government.”
Andrew Smith of Article 19 said, “Zunar made a robust argument that the situation for free expression in Malaysia is deteriorating quickly. The international community must reinforce and amplify this message.
“The onus lies on the Malaysian government to live up to its human rights obligations. Malaysia has yet to ratify important human rights treaties, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This shows how far the government is yet to come if it is to be taken seriously on the international stage as a rights-respecting nation.”
Debbie Stothard, the secretary-general of FIDH said, “For decades, Malaysian NGOs like Suaram and Aliran, with the support of international NGOs like FIDH, have highlighted the human rights challenges in Malaysia. The Malaysian authorities, have in turn, worked hard to downplay the situation.
“Zunar’s testimony was particularly shocking because he is a cartoonist and not the typical human rights activist or opposition politician, usually targeted by the Malaysian authorities.”
Remaining defiant, despite the raid on his printers, his office and his webmaster, who was forced to reveal the details of the online buyers of his books, Zunar declared, “The Malaysian government can ban my books and ban my publications but they cannot ban my mind. I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.”
In his challenge to the UN to protect artists, as stated in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and in particular ‘Article 19’ which guarantees freedom of expression, Zunar has suggested that 7th January, be designated “The United Nations International Day for Satire and Humour”.
He appealed to the UN to be firm with regimes which censor artists; “Is the UN a body which protects the people, or one which protects governments? Are the UN Rapporteur’s hands tied? Does the UN practise a “non-interference” policy?”
Referring to the Charlie Hebdo incident, Zunar said, “If the Prophet Muhammad were alive today, would he order the cartoonists to be killed?
“The answer would be, “No!” The Prophet did not use violence against those who showed him disrespect.”
He related the story of Suhail bin Amr, the poet who had blasphemed the Prophet, and whose life had been spared, after his capture, at the battle of Badar, when the Prophet had urged his companions to show kindness to Suhail.
“Blasphemy is not punishable by death, in Islam. Muslims, like myself, have a right to feel insulted by the cartoons, but nobody has a licence to kill.”
Mariam Mokhtar is “a Malaysian who dares to speak the truth”.
(Photo credit to Amy Dodds of Suaram International)
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