Malaysian artist’s arrest for ‘insulting’ queen sparks backlash

Malaysian artist’s arrest for ‘insulting’ queen sparks backlash

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The arrest of well-known Malaysian graphic artist and activist Fahmi Reza for allegedly insulting the country’s queen – who is under fire for a social media faux pas – has triggered an outcry among free speech advocates who say authorities are being trigger-happy in using the law to clamp down on satire.

The police action follows rare public condemnation of the country’s revered royal families, with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warning earlier in the week that the constitutional monarchs may be inadvertently bearing the brunt of frustration over the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

Fahmi, who uses the handle “kuasasiswa” on social media, was arrested on Friday evening under the colonial-era Sedition Act and for sharing “offensive and menacing content” under the country’s Communications and Multimedia Act, according to his lawyers.

The lawyers, Yurendra Nadarajan and Rajsurian Pillai, told reporters on Saturday that Fahmi was set to be released later in the evening pending the completion of police investigations. “In a country where a graphic artist is being censored, arrested and locked up for his artwork, it is absolutely important that such artistic expression – parody and satire as a form of protest – should continue to be allowed to be practised and defended,” they said, reading out a statement from Fahmi.

The Sedition Act carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison, a fine of 5,000 ringgit (S$1,614) or both, while those convicted under the communication law are liable for a penalty of up to a one-year jail term, a 50,000 ringgit fine, or both.

The authorities are believed to have taken issue with a playlist Fahmi curated and uploaded to the music streaming platform Spotify on Wednesday.

The playlist was titled “Dengki Ke” and was posted along with a cover depicting the queen, Tunku Azizah Aminah. Fahmi uploaded the playlist amid consternation among some Malaysians over her remarks on Monday to an Instagram user.

In a now-deleted post, the queen had said she spent an afternoon with chefs in the palace kitchen who were preparing dishes.

A commenter asked if the chefs had received their Covid-19 vaccines , seemingly referring to an unverified report about the royal family receiving a gift of 2,000 Sinopharm vaccines – currently not authorised for use in Malaysia – from the United Arab Emirates.

A government official has denied the report and the national palace has not commented on the matter.

In response to the post, the queen wrote: “Dengki ke?” (Are you jealous?). Then, beginning Monday night, thousands of social media users began using the hashtag #Dengkike.

The queen deactivated her account after the hashtag began trending but returned to the photo-sharing platform on Tuesday morning.

Fahmi’s playlist included popular tracks Jealousy by Queen and God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols. After uploading the initial playlist, Fahmi had complained on Twitter that Spotify had repeatedly removed the image of the queen and the title “This is Dengki Ke”.

In another tweet, he wrote: “In a country where artists & satirists have been censored, arrested and incarcerated for their art, it is important that this vital form of artistic impression – parody and satire as a form of political protest – is continued to be practised and to be defended at all costs”.

A similar playlist with a cover image showing Tunku Aminah was uploaded to Apple Music. As of Saturday morning, the playlist remained online on Apple Music with its original and cover image. On Spotify, the playlist was also still online, but without the image or title.

Fahmi, 44, has over the years built a reputation for his irreverence towards the establishment. He has a large following on Twitter, where he frequently posts works that lampoon the country’s political figures.

In 2018, he was jailed for a month and fined 30,000 ringgit for publishing a caricature of then Prime Minister Najib Razak looking like a clown, with a judge ruling that he had breached the same Communication and Multimedia Act that he is being investigated under currently.

Fahmi was among a number of critics who faced legal action over their condemnation of Najib’s involvement in the 1MDB financial scandal .

Authorities have previously also targeted political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque – commonly known as Zunar – over his works.

Police have long been particularly sensitive about criticism aimed at the country’s nine royal families, whose respective male heads of household, or sultans, each take turns to be the country’s constitutional monarch for five-year stints.

Strident criticism of the royalty has in the past been met with sedition investigations.

The Centre for Independent Journalism Malaysia, an advocacy group, on Friday said Fahmi’s arrest was “concerning”.

“Satire is protected by our constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and speech. The state shouldn’t arbitrarily undermine these freedoms,” it said.

Amnesty International Malaysia meanwhile urged authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release Fahmi for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression”.

“Time and time again, the draconian Sedition Act and Communications and Multimedia Act are used as a tool by the authorities to silence critical voices and dissent. This needs to stop,” it said on Twitter.

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