Artist Fahmi Reza remains defiant. Source: YouTube
A Malaysian graphic artist has been charged with violating multimedia laws by depicting Prime Minister Najib Razak as a sinister clown in protest at corruption charges.
Fahmi Reza’s drawing went viral in recent months with posters and stickers appearing in public places. The image shows Najib in powder-white clown make-up, arched eyebrows and a blood-red mouth.
Communications and multimedia legislation forbids disseminating online content deemed to “annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass” others.
Fahmi, 38, could face a year in prison and a 50,000 ringgit (US$12,200) fine, said his lawyer Syahredzan Johan.
“This is essentially criminalising expression,” said the advocate.
Fahmi denied the charges in court and Syahredzan said the police were also investigating him for sedition.
The artist posted on Facebook that he would “defend my rights to criticise the corrupt rulers by using art as a weapon”.
He first posted the clown image in January, saying the Sedition Act was used “to charge Malaysians brave enough to rise up and speak”.
The caricature was accompanied by the hashtag #KitaSemuaPenghasut or #WeAreAllSeditious.
The police warned Fahmi that his posts were being monitored, but the art collective Grupa and other Malaysians began spreading the image and the #KitaSemuaPenghasut online protest spread.
Fahmi and three others were arrested for at an arts event where they had been selling T-shirts with the clown depiction.
Najib has faced ongoing accusations that billions of dollars were taken from a state-owned development fund he oversees, and is under pressure for apparently accepting a US$681 million overseas payment.
Investigators believed some US$700 million had been transferred into his personal bank accounts ahead of the 2013 general election through entities linked to troubled state investment firm 1MDB.
Najib denies the accusations and Malaysia’s attorney general closed investigations into the premier earlier this year, saying he found no evidence of wrongdoing.
He also confirmed Najib’s assertion that the money was a political donation from the Saudi royal family.
But Najib is accused of curbing investigations, replacing government figures who have demanded a probe and clamped down on media freedom.
Dozens of government opponents, including opposition politicians, have been charged with a range of offences over the past three years, often sedition.