A Malaysian cartoonist known for his criticism of the ruling coalition has been charged with nine counts of sedition over a series of tweets condemning the country's judiciary.

The charges issued on Friday against Zulkiflee Anwar Alhaque, better known as Zunar, came amid a widening government crackdown on opposition politicians and the media using the colonial-era law, slammed by critics as a move to stifle freedom of expression.

"This is a record, being charged nine times and using the sedition law. It is excessive and targeted at silencing vocal critics," said Zunar's lawyer, Latheefa Koya.

Zunar faces up to 43 years in jail if found guilty on all nine charges, she said.

The nine tweets criticising the judiciary were posted on February 10 when opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim began serving a five-year prison sentence after losing his final appeal on a sodomy charge.

"The lackeys in black robes are proud of their sentence. The rewards from the political masters must be plenty," said one of the tweets. "Today Malaysia is seen as a country without law," said another.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Benjamin Ismail, head of Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk, condemned the charges against Zunar as "unacceptable" and called on the Malaysian prosecutors to drop the charges.

"This basically translates to intolerance towards any criticism against the government," Ismail said, adding that it could also lead to muzzling and self-censorship among the press in Malaysia.

"But I think the charges are counter productive, because they will not only make Zunar's work more visible to the international community, but also trigger a lot of report that puts more attention on the government of Malaysia."   

 

Opposition leader targeted

Anwar's arrest was seen by many as politically motivated to eliminate any threat to the ruling coalition, whose popularity has slowly been eroding since 2008 after more than five decades of dominance.

Anwar and his three-member opposition alliance were seen as the most potent political threat to Prime Minister Najib Razak's coalition.

Anwar led his alliance to unprecedented gains in 2008 elections and made further inroads in polls in 2013 when Najib's National Front coalition won with a slimmer majority and lost the popular vote to the opposition.

Zunar posted a new cartoon on Twitter after his release on bail, vowing to "draw until the last drop of ink". The cartoon showed Zunar being cuffed and with a metal chain on his neck, but still drawing with a brush in his mouth.

Sedition as defined by Malaysian law includes promoting hatred against the government.

Scores of people including opposition politicians, activists, academics and journalists are being investigated or have been charged under the Sedition Act since last year, mostly for criticising the government or ruling officials.

On Monday, police raided the Kuala Lumpur offices of the news website, The Malaysian Insider,  and arrested managing editor Lionel Morais, Bahasa news editor Amin Shah Iskandar and features and analysis editor Zulkifli Sulong under the same law.

Then on Tuesday, the website's chief executive Jahabar Sadiq and Ho Kay Tat, publisher of The Edge business weekly and CEO of the Edge Media Group, which owns TMI, were also arrested after responding to a summons from the police, who said all five were questioned about “inaccurate and confusing” reports published in the website.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has said the government planned to eventually abolish the Sedition Act, which was introduced in 1949 during British colonial rule. But he backtracked after the 2013 elections.

With reporting from Al Jazeera's Ted Regencia

Source: AP