Zunar’s cartoons: A picture paints a thousand words

By Mariam Mpkhtar, Malaysian Mirror

The great sporting event of last week was the own goal scored by the government when they arrested the political cartoonist Zunar, just hours before he launched his latest publication, Cartoon-o-phobia.

The government must be congratulated for ordering Zunar’s arrest (real name Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque). There is now an upsurge of interest in Zunar’s works, both locally and worldwide.

Zunar need not have engaged any marketing firm to promote his books at great expense. The police have done that publicity stint for free. If the intended result was to silence Zunar and make an example of him to other political satirists, cartoonists and journalists, then they are wrong – their plan has backfired.

It is obvious that those depicted in the sketches have no sense of humour. They lack political maturity and cannot laugh at themselves, as seen from the eyes of a cartoonist. It can only mean that by ordering Zunar’s arrest, they are showing signs of desperation.

The familiar adage is that ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. Malaysia is a country of reluctant readers and many would rather watch a film than read a book of the same title. Similarly, the story told by pictures can easily convey the message of the artist. A good cartoon needs little explanation and is ideal for those who dislike reading.

A cartoon is visible, has the power to speak the truth and mirrors real life. I would imagine that the impact of such caricatures rather than lengthy text, when shown in the rural areas and longhouses (both, where internet is unavailable) for disseminating information is a powerful tool.

Whilst few will argue that freedom of expression is non-existent in Malaysia, our political masters have managed to ignore one simple fact. Since when did democracy involve silencing the voices of dissent? Secrecy and silencing those with opposing views is the best weapon of a dictatorship.

Zunar’s arrest is outrageous. He is a gifted artist who, pricked by his conscience, draws Malaysian life as he sees it. Many responsible people in his profession, who express their views and opinions through drawings or through prose, have a strict code of ethics – they tell it to us, just as it is. Those who presided over his arrest show a worrying display of stupidity. It is not just silencing freedom of expressions, it is also stifling creativity.

The Sedition Act – for publishing books considered ‘detrimental to public order’, that could ‘influence the people to revolt against government policies’ –  was used against Zunar.

This is idiotic as there are many government policies or lack of action that qualify for ‘public revolt’ better than the cartoons. What about the two school principals and their racist remarks? How about Deputy Muhyiddin Yassin’s apparent powerlessness to censure them? What about the mysterious death of Teoh Beng Hock? What about the several unexplained deaths of people in police custody? What about the debacle in the Perak state government? Public subsidies? No justice for the Penan rapes? Indigenous Sarawak peoples protesting about the seizure of their NCR lands? The list is long.

Don’t forget the racist rhetoric of certain journalists and writers in some of the government owned newspapers. Or the racist rants of individuals and certain race-based NGOs? These have failed to attract intense government scrutiny and police interest. Why the double standards?

The most free and fair societies possess an independent judiciary but also an independent press that tirelessly works every day to keep their governments accountable, by publishing what the governments may not want the public to know.

Responsible people like Zunar and his peers in journalism are brave and principled people. Is their work in poor taste? Are they of a sexual nature like some Japanese ‘manga’ cartoons which depict sex? Do the publications touch on religious sensitivities like the prophet Mohamed cartoons?