Do Cartoonists Have the Right to Offend?

This is the 17th in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.


It was recently the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, when two brothers who claimed to be Muslims stormed the French satirical newspaper’s offices, killing 11 people. This saddened me both as an artist and a Muslim. Freedom of expression is a universal right, and if something offends or bothers us, violent retaliation is not the right response. It is never the right response. Prophet Muhammad was a peaceful man – our response should be peaceful just as the Prophet’s response would have been, and just as other religions would espouse as well.

While people might not agree with the artist’s content or message, the right of the artist should be respected, just as a person’s right to express an opinion – whatever the opinion – should be respected. Instead of resorting to violence, Muslims should, instead, find peaceful means of expressing their opinions.

In Malaysia, where I’m from, the parameters of freedom of expression continue to shift, at the detriment of the people. Article 10 in our constitution guarantees our freedom of expression although laws like the colonial-era Sedition Act, which criminalises acts with ‘seditious tendencies’ to silence

In March 2015, I was charged with nine counts of sedition, with a maximum jail term of 43 years should I be found guilty on all counts – and all for tweeting cartoons. Instead of taking legal action against me and suing me, the government treats me like a criminal for doing the ‘wrong’ that is drawing cartoons that criticises them. 

As cartoonists, we need to make our stands clear, and if this stand is seen as ‘threatening’ the government’s power, it is cartoonists like me who suffer as a result. For this reason, I’ve removed the copyrights to my cartoons to allow people to freely reproduce them. Cartoons are powerful: often no words are needed and their messages are clear, making them accessible no matter what a person’s background. Perhaps that is what the government is most afraid of.


Laughter, after all, is the best form of protest.

The internet has been and still is a game-changer as it provides Malaysians with a place to express their opinions without fear of censorship, although the government is trying to clamp down on that. The government, through the Inspector General of Police, is known for ‘policing’ Twitter for seditious remarks and, a few months ago, whistleblowing website Sarawak Report was also blocked for publishing that $700 million linked to 1MBD, a state investment fund, had mysteriously made its way into the bank accounts of the Prime Minister. Anything that goes against how the government wants to depict itself and that causes it to lose the people’s mandate is immediately shut down.

I will continue to fight through cartoons because, not only is it my right, it is, first and foremost, my responsibility.

Zunar (Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque) is  a political cartoonist from Malaysia. Through his cartoons, he expose corruption and abuse of power committed by the government of Malaysia. His slogan is “How Can I be Neutral, Even My Pen Has a Stand”.  He is now facing nine charges under Sedition Act and facing possible 43 years jail if found guilty. He was detained and locked behind bars twice – the first time was on September 2010 for two days and recently on the 10th of February 2015 for three days.  Five of his cartoon books have been banned and his office has been raided a few times and thousands of his cartoon books were confiscated.  The printers and bookstores around the country which carry his cartoons have been raided and they have also been warned not to print or carry any of his titles.  Last October, three of his assistants were arrested for selling his latest cartoon books. The webmaster who manages his website and online bookstore, was called in by the police for interrogating. He will participate in the conference Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said.