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Two Malaysian artists face police probe for online commentary and artwork

Screenshot of the Spotify playlist ‘This is Dengki Ke’ created by artist Fahmi Reza.

Malaysian artists Fahmi Reza and Zunar are facing police investigations for social media posts deemed insulting to authorities.

Fahmi was detained for one day on April 23 after the police received a complaint about a satirical Spotify playlist uploaded by the artist. The playlist titled “Dengki Ke” (“jealousy”) contains 101 songs. It allegedly ridicules Malaysian Queen Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah.

#Dengkike trended on Twitter on April 19 after an Instagram user asked the Queen if the rumors are true that her personal chefs had already received COVID-19 vaccines. The Queen reportedly responded as saying: “Dengki ke?” (“Are you jealous?”). The royal family had been criticized earlier after reports that some of its members had taken vaccines that are not yet approved by the government.

Fahmi was released on bail but continues to face investigation of whether he violated Section 4(1) of the Sedition Act and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA). Section 233 refers to the posting of offensive online content with the “intention to annoy”.

Before his arrest, Fahmi defended the right of artists to express dissent:

This is not the first time that Fahmi has faced harassment for his online work. He was threatened by authorities in 2016 for posting clown memes mocking the country’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak who was embroiled in a corruption scandal.

Last March 2021, Fahmi received notices from the police that two of his tweets are being investigated for allegedly defaming the country’s health minister. He was interrogated by the police for two hours on March 10.

The Freedom of Expression Cluster, which is organized by civil society groups, has highlighted the case of Fahmi to push for the overhaul or repeal of laws, including the Sedition Act and CMA, which they said are being abused by authorities to silence criticism. In a joint statement issued on April 23, the cluster added that satire is a legitimate form of expression:

Satire plays an important role in society as a space for commentary, discussion and debate on shared values. Political satire in particular, plays an important role to engage with institutional power in a way that creates space for humour. Such a space should be defended as a vital part of public participation, to enable a robust civic discourse and healthy democracy that is able to withstand critique and differing opinions.

Meanwhile, cartoonist Zunar wrote on April 28 that he received notice from the police that his political cartoon published in January is being probed for potentially violating Section 233 of CMA.

The cartoon alludes to the decision of the Kedah state government not to grant a public holiday for Thaipusam, an annual Hindu festival, because of the federal government’s COVID-19 restrictions. The decision of Kedah officials has been criticized by some groups which warned that it might disturb the racial harmony in the state.

Zunar defended his right to comment about his home state and asserted that his caricature is open to various interpretations.

Like Fahmi, Zunar has been prosecuted in the past for his cartoons deemed offensive to PM Najib. His books were previously banned by the government and he was prevented from holding exhibitions until the Najib government lost in the 2018 election.

Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19’s Malaysia Programme Officer, warned that the police investigations against Fahmi and Zunar could send a chilling effect in society:

The investigation of Zunar is a further example of the Malaysian government’s intolerance of public criticism. The persecution of artists such as Zunar and Fahmi stifles creative expression, chills public discourse, and undermines trust in Malaysian authorities.

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