Fahmi Reza is no stranger to Malaysia’s political scene, not as a politician but as a political graphic designer with 21 years of experience. His creative flair earned him the best mechanism to freely express criticism against the government and politicians in his country.
His first encounter with the authorities this year was on 3 May 2021. He was brought in for the questioning of two of his artworks satirising the Malaysian Health Minister Dr Adham Baba and a satirical graphic design of a university’s logo published in his social media platforms, reported The Vibes.
The artist is being investigated in relation to Section 504 of the Penal Code on “Intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of the peace” and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, “Improper use of network facilities or network service”.
“I think in Malaysia right now, the biggest threat, as far as laws are concerned, is the Communications and Multimedia act. It is the main law that they [authorities] constantly use to go after people and critics that are on social media,” the artist told Freemuse.
One of the artworks in question depicts the Minister as a Dracula. Reza was satirising Minister Baba, who, according to Malay Mail, received public backlash after he made a dubious statement in public that “drinking warm water can help to prevent the COVID-19 infection”.
As for the University Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) case, the University filed a police complaint against Reza over “insulting an educational institution” through his graphics. In his defence, Reza explained that he had no intention to insult the institution. Instead, he simply satirised the University’s logo to shame politicians who continue to change political parties as if they earned higher learnings from a ‘party hopping University’ just so to remain in power.
But these questionings were nothing in comparison to what the graphic designer had to endure next. On 23 April 2021, more than 20 police officers forcibly came without notice to his home, left a hole in his front door, had his devices confiscated, and him arrested. DW reported that Reza was probed for “insulting the queen” after a Spotify playlist that he curated to satirise the word “dengki ke” (aka “jealousy”) after she has used it profusely in response to her social media followers inquiries of the royals’ vaccination allegations.
In a conversation with Freemuse, Reza shared that the 3R —Race, Religion and Royalty, are themes that should be tread delicately. More often, discussing issues surrounding these topics in public is avoided as it can be perceived as offensive and insulting the “bedrock to Malaysia’s peace”.
The artist said, “if you post satire about race or religion or royalty, or you make a joke about these three topics, it is very likely that you will get into trouble and be arrested and investigated or charged under the Communications and Multimedia act.”
“People started reporting my cause via a report function on Spotify, where you can report against offensive titles,” Fahmi Reza explained to Freemuse. “I think because there were so many reports, they [Spotify] just automatically took down the image, the title and the description, even though I appealed against it,” the artist added.
Back on 20 February 2018, Reza was sentenced to one month in prison and was fined 30,000 ringgit (around 6,000 euros) under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 over graphics of the former Prime Minister Najib Razak presented as a clown published on Facebook in 2016, where he sensationalised a national campaign against Najib’s 1MDB scandal.
“Even after I got arrested for the caricature and charged, I continued resisting and fighting using my graphics […]”, said Reza.
The artist has been subjected to public scrutiny because of his provocative visual graphics against public officials since 2004. The artist shared with Freemuse that 28 February 2004 gained him many eventful firsts. His artworks were first targeted during peaceful demonstrations against police brutality. It was the first time he ever experienced physical assault by the police and ever stepped in a police lock-up. Although it was one of the most difficult days in his life, the day marked a turning point for him to use graphic design as a weapon in his activism work to fight for free speech and against injustice.
Fahmi Reza is now being investigated in seven separate ongoing police investigations in 2021 regarding his artworks.
“[…] I want to see changes in this country. I want to see social and political changes, and it’s not going to happen if I […] do nothing. We all contribute in our different ways to push for change,” said Fahmi Reza.
Fahmi Reza is a self-taught graphic designer. Aside from his daily satirical post on Malaysian politics on his social media platforms, he also uses his artistic skills to help movements and organisations deliver their messages to the public, working towards social change in Malaysia.