Pens Un­der Pres­sure

Text Mangai Balasegaram

Asian Geographic - - Heritage - Badiucao


have been ha­rassed, threat­ened, pub­licly scorned and sur­rounded by large, ag­gres­sive mobs. They have been held be­hind bars, and faced the wrath of fu­ri­ous govern­ments. Yet, they ap­pear not to have lost their moral com­pass, their pas­sion, or their hearts. Their “crime”? Art. De­spite gov­ern­ment pres­sure, Malaysia’s Zunar and South Korea’s Hong Sung-dam con­tinue with their “crimes”. In fact, both con­sider it a moral im­per­a­tive to do so. Zunar, whose car­toons of­ten flag cor­rup­tion and cen­sor­ship is­sues, says tal­ent comes with re­spon­si­bil­ity. “It’s my duty as a car­toon­ist,” he says em­phat­i­cally. This month, he is sched­uled to face trial for sedi­tion charges, which could land him in prison for 43 years. He re­mains un­de­terred. “The risk is very high, but I have to keep do­ing this.”

Satir­i­cal artist Hong likens the role of artists to rab­bits in sub­marines. Sen­si­tive to oxy­gen, rab­bits were taken on sub­marines to mon­i­tor oxy­gen lev­els.

Like­wise, artists are watch­dogs who work to help “up­hold hu­man dig­nity”. In his na­tive Korean, in an email in­ter­view, Hong ex­plains: “Artists are peo­ple who tell the world about the pre­cious­ness of Na­ture and life. I have an obli­ga­tion to com­mu­ni­cate through art all the con­spir­a­cies to de­stroy hu­man dig­nity and Na­ture.”

Artists Zunar and Hong are among Asia’s “rab­bit watch­dogs” who have, metaphor­i­cally, found it hard to breathe at times. In some Asian coun­tries, it can be a lux­ury for artists to have the un­re­stricted space and free­dom to ex­press their in­ner vi­sion and views.

Shrink­ing civic space

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s lat­est an­nual re­port warns of a “shrink­ing civic space” in the Asia-pa­cific re­gion, with govern­ments “chok­ing dis­sent” and crack­ing down on cit­i­zen rights. Artists ex­press­ing ideas with a ra­zor-sharp po­lit­i­cal edge may have to wres­tle with au­thor­i­tar­ian govern­ments. China’s most fa­mous dis­si­dent is the artist Ai Wei­wei. He has pre­vi­ously said that the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment was “afraid of free­dom” and that “art is about free­dom”. Ai has been in and out of prison for chal­leng­ing the gov­ern­ment on hu­man rights abuses and cor­rup­tion.

Af­ter the 2008 Sichuan earth­quake, Ai launched a “cit­i­zen’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion” on the deaths of chil­dren in re­sponse to the gov­ern­ment’s lack of trans­parency. Shoddy con­struc­tion was blamed for part of the de­struc­tion. Ai col­lected names of more than 5,000 chil­dren, and later hon­oured them in ex­hi­bi­tions.

De­spite a near-fa­tal beat­ing – which re­quired emer­gency brain surgery – soli­tary con­fine­ment, and a four-year travel ban, he is res­o­lute and un­re­lent­ing. In 2011, Ai was named “the most pow­er­ful per­son in the art world” by Artre­view mag­a­zine. He has also re­ceived Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s Am­bas­sador of Con­science Award, for “ex­cep­tional lead­er­ship” in the fight for hu­man rights.

The limited con­fines artists have in China forced one of the coun­try’s lead­ing car­toon­ists into ex­ile in Aus­tralia. He goes by the pen name Badiucao – for “safety” rea­sons. Af­ter his ac­count on the Chi­nese so­cial me­dia site Weibo was shut down 30 times, he took to Twit­ter to dis­trib­ute his work. Within China, peo­ple have to find a way around the in­fa­mous “Great Fire­wall” to ac­cess his work, yet some still do. Badiucao says:“i want to use my art to con­front the of­fi­cial record. It’s harder to censor vis­ual lan­guage.”

In Turkey, the sit­u­a­tion for renowned car­toon­ist Musa Kart is dire. He has been be­hind bars for months, af­ter a failed coup last year. He was ar­rested along with 18 other jour­nal­ists and staff from the lead­ing op­po­si­tion news­pa­per Cumhuriyet. Upon his ar­rest, Kart was quoted as say­ing: “I have been taken into po­lice cus­tody be­cause I drew car­toons!”

Re­porters Sans Fron­tières (RSF) called the in­dict­ment of Cumhuriyet staff – which could re­sult in sen­tences of seven to 43 years in prison – an “ab­so­lute disgrace”. RSF said ear­lier this year: “Only too of­ten, car­toon­ists pay a high price for their irony and im­per­ti­nence. The threats they re­ceive are barom­e­ters of free speech, act­ing as in­di­ca­tors of the state of democ­racy in times of trou­ble.”

One of Asia’s more lib­eral coun­tries is Thai­land. Yet last year, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional called for the gov­ern­ment to “re­lax” its grip on free­dom of ex­pres­sion. An ex­hi­bi­tion en­ti­tled sim­ply “FEAR” cap­tured the pub­lic con­cern for the fu­ture amidst re­cent po­lit­i­cal tur­moil – mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion, the king’s death and street protests. Manit Sriwanichpoom, who uses pho­tog­ra­phy and video to raise so­cial and po­lit­i­cal is­sues, was uneasy when he made vi­su­als pok­ing fun at the army gov­ern­ment. “No gov­ern­ment likes crit­i­cism… I was so wor­ried that the army might call me to go through [an] ‘at­ti­tude ad­just­ment’ pro­gramme like other com­men­ta­tors, but the show went on smoothly,” he says.

Ac­tivism in art was im­por­tant, he felt. “I care about my so­ci­ety... I don’t want to live my life with fear. There is no other way but to do what I got to do,” he says. FEAR passed without in­ci­dent.

Else­where though, ex­hi­bi­tions have turned vi­o­lent. In Novem­ber last year in Pe­nang, Malaysia, a mob of 30 peo­ple aligned to the rul­ing party stormed an ex­hi­bi­tion of Zunar’s car­toons. The mob sur­rounded

“I want to use my art to con­front the of­fi­cial record. It’s harder to censor vis­ual lan­guage”

and threat­ened the artist, and de­manded that he re­move some of his car­toons, which they deemed “of­fen­sive” for in­sult­ing their lead­ers. They also van­dalised his art­work.

Zunar, a pen name for Zulk­i­flee An­war Ul­haque, was forced to call off the ex­hi­bi­tion. The po­lice of­fered him no pro­tec­tion. In­stead, they later con­fis­cated 20 of his draw­ings and took him into cus­tody. A month later, Zunar was ar­rested again while sell­ing books to re­coup fi­nan­cial losses from the ex­hi­bi­tion’s can­cel­la­tion.

Zunar has also been locked up for “sedi­tion” twice be­fore. Sev­eral of his books have been banned, his staff ar­rested, his of­fice raided and his pub­lisher warned not to pub­lish more books.

De­spite this, Zunar has not put down his pen. His tagline is: “Even my pen has a stand.” In­stead, the lead­ing dis­senter uses the In­ter­net to share his car­toons freely, without copy­right. His bold car­toons ridicule con­tro­ver­sial laws like the Sedi­tion Act, cen­sor­ship, the US$700 mil­lion cor­rup­tion scan­dal that has em­broiled Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Tun Razak, and the US$17 mil­lion ring that the prime min­is­ter’s wife al­legedly bought.

Al­though he re­ceives lit­tle lo­cal me­dia at­ten­tion, he has drawn wide in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est, win­ning the 2015 In­ter­na­tional Press Free­dom Award and the Car­toon­ist for Peace Award. His de­fi­ance was cap­tured in a self­por­trait where he is bound in chains, with the text: “I will keep draw­ing un­til the very last drop of my ink.”

Asked about his up­com­ing court case, he says: “I don’t want to think so much about the out­come. I want to con­cen­trate on draw­ing car­toons. If I think about it then it will af­fect my out­put. I will start to prac­tise self-cen­sor­ship.” He adds: “We’re not a cul­ture to con­front the gov­ern­ment. Some peo­ple don’t want to be in the front row, but they do sup­port me.” When he was charged in 2015, his USD12,000 bail money was raised overnight through crowd­fund­ing.

An­other Malaysian artist who has found a space on­line is Fahmi Reza. He is fac­ing charges that could land him in jail for two years for paint­ing clown lips on a pic­ture of the prime min­is­ter and shar­ing it on­line.

“I don’t want to think so much about the out­come. I want to con­cen­trate on draw­ing car­toons. If I think about it then it will af­fect my out­put”

“I be­lieve that in a coun­try where artists, de­sign­ers, car­toon­ists and satirists have been cen­sored, ar­rested and charged in court for their art, it is im­por­tant that this vi­tal form of artis­tic ex­pres­sion – par­ody and satire as a form of po­lit­i­cal protest – con­tin­ues to be prac­tised and de­fended at all costs,” Fahmi told Be­narnews.

In South Korea, the strug­gle be­tween artists and govern­ments – which has in­volved bans, de­ten­tions and even jail terms – cul­mi­nated in cat­a­clysmic change re­cently. The rev­e­la­tion that the pres­i­den­tial of­fice kept a black­list ban­ning 9,000 artists from state fund­ing was a key scan­dal that led to the down­fall of Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye, who was ousted in March, af­ter months of protests in­volv­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple.

The black­list caused deep re­ver­ber­a­tions in Korean so­ci­ety, par­tic­u­larly be­cause it evoked mem­o­ries of Park’s fa­ther, who had ruled the coun­try with an iron fist. Hong be­lieves that Park up­held her fa­ther’s ide­ol­ogy, say­ing, “She re­turned Korean so­ci­ety to 50 years ago.” He said many artists joined the large protests in Seoul’s Gwangh­wa­mun Square to crit­i­cise a gov­ern­ment that “sup­presses the thoughts of peo­ple.”

“All artists want free­dom to ex­press them­selves,” says Hong. But most “pur­sue free­dom of form only” rather than “so­cial free­dom”. Hong ar­gues that free­dom should pre­cede na­tion­hood, which he sees as “a means of sup­press­ing peo­ple’s thoughts”. He also be­lieves that a “new power struc­ture” will emerge in this cy­ber era, which artists will have to guard against. “It is an age when artists need more in­tu­ition and sen­si­tiv­ity.”

Be­ing a rab­bit in the sub­ma­rine of so­ci­ety was “very dif­fi­cult” at first, Hong says. Yet, this for­mer Amnesty In­ter­na­tional pris­oner of con­science now feels vin­di­cated with the re­cent vic­tory of the peo­ple. ag

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