The government’s decision to prosecute the company that published the new cartoon magazine Gedung Kartun for not having a permit is a setback for press freedom in Malaysia. The decision was announced by Jamilah Taib, the head of the interior ministry’s communication unit. The company insists it did get a verbal go-ahead.
“We urge the interior ministry to reverse its ban on Gedung Kartun,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It is regrettable that the authorities reacted to its appearance by confiscating copies and threatening the publishers with prosecution. The government should allow cartoonists to express themselves freely on social and political issues. This ban is a grave act of censorship.”
Gedung Kartun’s publisher and editor, known as Zunar, told Reporters Without Borders: “I did not get a reply from the ministry about the licence. I want to continue publishing this cartoon magazine even if we have to change its name. I want to promote a cartoon culture, which is new in Malaysia.”
Zunar added: “People continue to come to me to buy the magazine. We printed 15,000 copies… [The authorities] are afraid of cartoons because they are independent and reach out to all generations. As we are not an opposition publication, it scares them.”
The interior ministry said Zunar’s company, Sepakat Efektif, would be prosecuted under section 5 (2) (b) of the Printing Presses and Publication Act 1984 for "publication without a licence.” As its owner, Zunar faces up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 20 million rupees.
After the first (and so far only) issue was published in late August, officials searched Sepakat Efektif’s office and seized all the copies they could find. The issue’s cover was a cartoon alluding to events of a political and criminal nature that are embarrassing for the prime minister.
Zunar told Reporters Without Borders he obtained verbal confirmation from the interior ministry in early August that he is given a publication permit. The first issue, which had a print run of 10,000 copies, was such a success that another 5,000 copies were quick printed.
The government uses draconian conditions to make it very hard to obtain a publication permit. Malaysia was ranked 132nd out of 173 countries in the 2008 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.