The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charged Malaysian cartoonist Zunar vows to fight on as he receives CPJ Press Freedom Award


WHEN THE call comes, I move briskly to an unassuming quick-bite coffeehouse in Northwest Washington. Because when a man from Malaysia says his nation’s “corrupt regime” is trying to put him behind bars for decades, and that he’s maximizing his time while out on bail, awaiting trial and charged with nine counts of sedition — well, his minutes are especially valuable right now.

The man is Zulkiflee Anwar Alhaque, a fairly fearless political artist better known by the nom-de-toon Zunar, and he traveled to the United States this week to pick up the 2015 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists — the first time the group has so honored a cartoonist.

It’s been a dramatic past 12 months even for Zunar. Last November, he says, 150 of his books were confiscated by authorities during a raid of his offices, and three of his assistants were arrested for selling his books (the cartoonist was away on a speaking tour at the time).

Zunar’s cartoons unflinchingly lampoon abuses and crimes by high-ranking officials, and five of his books have been banned in his home country. I think about that when Zunar shows me the original art of a cartoon he drew that very morning. As we sit several blocks from the White House, he has rendered President Obama as turning a blind eye to certain issues in Malaysia:

Zunar hands me one of those banned books — this cartoon contraband is titled “Sapuman, Man of Steal,” and the cover depicts Malaysian leadership as a thief in tights — and I think of what Zunar has noted before: that the government has even pressured his staff to turn over its customer lists.

Early this year, Zunar was charged with sedition and still awaits trial; if found guilty, he says, he could serve up to 43 years. Zunar tells me if he were only facing one charge, and happened to get a fair judge, then he might stand a chance. But he sees nine charges as a rigged game.

Given those odds against beating the house, I ask him whether he’s considered becoming a fugitive and, as some cartoonists have done, be tried in absentia. No, he replies immediately, he wants to be there to back up his political convictions, even if he receives a conviction for his politics. As Zunar likes to say: “How can I be neutral when even my pen has a stand?”

Zunar talks about facing down his nation’s Sedition Act, Penal Code and the Printing & Press Act, and I glance at his book’s back cover. In what is effectively Zunar’s self-portrait, an artist paints with a brush in his mouth, even as his limbs are shackled by those very acts and code.

Zunar has faced down the government for years now. He came under especially great scrutiny five years ago, and was briefly locked up before going free. He was not deterred; if anything, he intensified his criticism of the prime minister and his administration. The following year, he received the Courage in Cartooning Award from the Washington area-based Cartoonist Rights Network International.

Before long, the previous week’s Paris terror attacks spark new conversation about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices, by jihadists. Zunar notes that he himself, unlike the Hebdo cartoonists, does not satirize religion. “I don’t need to provoke a reaction over religion,” he says. “For me, the common enemy to us all is the corrupt regime. That is why I draw cartoons for the people.”

Zunar does emphasize, though, that the Hebdo attack raised world awareness about cartoonists around the world who face harassment, assault and imprisonment by their governments. “We are all Charlie Hebdo,” he says.

Our time is up, and Zunar — who spoke at a United Nations forum this year about press freedom — has a message to spread. We pack up at the door, and as the rain spits over the facade’s overhang, Zunar waits for his wife to pull out his hat, to shield him from this gray, persistent spit of raindrops.

After we shake goodbye, I look again at his book’s back cover. There, in print, is a scrawled promise from Zunar: “I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.”

One in Comic Riffs’ yearlong “Journalists in Peril” series.