Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – In 1968, the Atelier Populaire’s striking posters captured the mood of French students agitating for change. Nearly 50 years later, the movement has inspired a whole new generation of activists, thousands of kilometres eastward in Malaysia.
Decades before, on the streets of Paris, the Atelier’s hand-drawn posters vividly conveyed the anger of people frustrated by increasing unemployment and the rising cost of living. In Malaysia, 38-year-old activist Fahmi Reza and the collective of artists who call themselves Grafik Rebel untuk Protes & Aktivisme (GRUPA), are motivated by outrage at a ballooning scandal over state investment firm, 1MDB, and hundreds of millions of dollars transferred into the private bank accounts of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The allegations are still under investigation in the United States, Switzerland and Singapore, but Malaysia’s own top prosecutor decided in January not to press charges because he said the money was a “gift” from Saudi Arabia, and the prime minister has denied any wrongdoing.
‘Weapons in the service of the struggle’
Outraged by the decision, Reza was inspired to draw a caricature of the prime minister as a clown and shared it with his 7,500 followers on Twitter. The image, shared widely across social media, was accompanied by a caption that read: “In a country full of corruption, we are all seditious.”
“I hope that my defiance and disobedience against authority will inspire others to do the same,” Reza said. “People need to have the courage to stand up against injustice, against corruption.”
Like the Atelier Populaire, which saw its posters as “weapons in the service of the struggle”, Reza sees his art playing a vital role in raising awareness about political issues and agitating for change. The clown itself was inspired by Jamie Reid’s God Save the Queen artwork for the Sex Pistols, which showed Queen Elizabeth with a safety pin through her mouth, and was one of the defining images of the punk era.
His decision to depict Najib as an “evil clown” was designed to draw attention to “the level of absurdity that’s used to cover up the scandal and corruption”, Reza said in an email to Al Jazeera from Thailand, where he is working. “Our country is being governed by fools and crooks.”
Social media taken too far
Social media has proved immensely popular in Malaysia, where mainstream media is owned and tightly controlled by the government or parties from the ruling coalition. Malaysians use Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to discuss the situation in their country, share stories from the media and chat with friends. Politicians are some of the most enthusiastic users.
But in recent months, authorities have issued warnings against those deemed to have gone too far, blocking websites, including Asia Sentinel and Sarawak Report, both of whom have been critical of the prime minister. Sarawak Report was among the first news sites to report the 1MDB scandal.
The blogging platform, Medium, was also blocked after the company refused to remove Sarawak Report from the site. The Malaysian Insider, a prominent news website, was also blocked and its editors questioned about a story related to the investigation into the allegations against the prime minister.
“From a solely digital perspective, we are seeing things we’ve never seen before,” said Malaysian digital culture analyst Niki Cheong, a PhD candidate and researcher of social media at Nottingham University in the UK. “To my knowledge, this is the first time a platform has been banned as opposed to individual sites owned by particular individuals or organisations being targeted. This is a massive blow to all the freedoms – speech, press, expression – because there is so much more to Medium than just articles by Sarawak Report.
This is akin to banning Facebook and Twitter just because Fahmi chose to post those images there.”
‘Things we’ve never seen before’
Electronic media and social media were brought under the Sedition Act in 2015, according to Amnesty International, and a newly formed committee to monitor social media met this year for the first time. Chaired by the Minister of Communications and Multimedia, Salleh Said Keruak, its members also include the police and the attorney general.
Commenting on the Malaysian Insider’s suspension, Keruak said Malaysians were still free to express their views. “There’s freedom of speech in Malaysia. We can have different opinions; we can give our views,” he was quoted as saying by Singapore broadcaster Channel News Asia. “It’s not a problem, but there are certain things we have to careful [with].”
Keruak did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Reza’s clown drew a warning over Twitter from the Police Cyber Investigation response centre, which had apparently set up its own account on the platform. Shocked but undeterred, Reza followed up the sketch with a mock warning from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), which included the original caricature, and a request for people to share it.
Meanwhile, a collective of more than 60 graphic artists known as GRUPA – Graphic Rebel for Protest and Activism – started drawing, and sharing, their own clown images.
“If dissent is the highest form of patriotism, then our dissension had to be registered visually,” GRUPA told Al Jazeera in a collective email.
Ezrena Marwan, a freelance designer and lecturer, has been developing an archive of Malaysian graphic design, charting its development under colonial rule, during the Japanese occupation and into the independence era, when graphic design was largely used by those in power.
“I actually feel quite proud that designers are taking a stand over something that is beyond aesthetics, beyond their industry, to say something that is political,” Marwan told Al Jazeera. “It is good to see people trying to disrupt the narrative – what we consider to be the norm.”
“We wanted to play our role in visualising the anger and outrage of regular citizens like us, who were taking the streets to make their voices heard,” said GRUPA, which produced more than 90 new clown motifs and is looking to develop more.
Gayathry Venkiteswaran, a Kuala Lumpur-based researcher and former executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, fears that the hardening digital climate might prompt some Malaysians to limit their social media activity. “There are those who might retreat because of one incident,” she said. “It’s quite insidious.”
Reza, however – an activist for more than a decade who has been barred from university campuses and even the Borneo state of Sarawak – is not worried.
The man who calls himself a “dissident designer” and “graphic rebel” was recently questioned by the police and regulator last. Still, in the spirit of 1968 and the punks who inspired him, Reza continues to create – and broadly share – provocative images on Twitter and Facebook.
“I am not afraid of being detained for speaking up,” he said. “I believe that in a country where artists and satirists have been censored, arrested and incarcerated for their art, it is important that this form of artistic expression – parody and satire as a form of political protest – continues to be practised and defended at all costs.”