Which direction should film censorship in Malaysia go?

Datuk Kamil Othman said most censorship boards elsewhere are parked under a ministry that is arts and culture-centric, or security-centric. ― Picture by Choo Choy May
Datuk Kamil Othman said most censorship boards elsewhere are parked under a ministry that is arts and culture-centric, or security-centric. ― Picture by Choo Choy May

PETALING JAYA April 30 — Malaysia’s controversial Film Censorship Board (LPF) might progress faster if it were moved out from under the Home Ministry’s purview, a ministerial advisor suggested.

Datuk Kamil Othman, creative industries advisor to the Communications and Multimedia Ministry, said that most censorship boards elsewhere are parked under the arts and culture ministry or its equivalent.

“Whereas here [it’s] under Ministry of Home Affairs, so because it’s Home Affairs, obviously they are more concerned with security and bigger picture and all that.

“So the right way is one day hopefully, if enough of us managed to say that look perhaps the situation lies more in putting the Censorship Board under the right ministry, maybe that’s the answer,” he told a public forum on censorship last Thursday night.

Kamil was responding to a question on whether it would be helpful to have people from the film industry sitting as independent members of the LPF.

While the LFP is a government body filled with government servants in its current set-up, Kamil said there are “specialists” among its board members who understand the need for flexibility even as they must consider local “sensitivities” when approving movies for Malaysian mass consumption.

“At the end of the day, it’s about reviewing the law. Reviewing the law is not as difficult as it seems, provided there’s enough momentum,” he said.

“The Censorship Act is not like something from the Holy Quran or from the Bible or the other holy scriptures which cannot be changed. It is man-made, so anything that is man-made I believe can only come with a proper engagement process and education as a tool,” Kamil said.

For change to happen, he said there must be enough public momentum to push federal lawmakers to act.

However, he said the Malaysian film industry is not a top priority locally compared to other countries due to its low level as an economic generator, and gave as example, the 2015 award-winning Western movie The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio that supported 15,000 jobs.

What do the Brits do?

To Kamil, the UK experience and shift in attitude towards censorship also offers some worthwhile lessons to Malaysia.

Originally called the British Board of Film Censorship, it is now known as the British Board of Film Classification. While its board members still propose cuts, their main task today is to act as “examiners” and decide the appropriate ratings of a film for mass consumption.

In the UK too, different local councils have great leeway in deciding what films are suitable and how they should be screened in their area. As the licensing authority for cinemas in their areas, the town councils have the final word and can even change the ratings of a movie or bar its screening locally.

Kamil later told Malay Mail Online after the forum that the LPF might have a different positioning  if a decision on the board's direction is made after proper engagement with the public.

He also noted there are some who are still concerned about the communications aspect of films rather than just seeing them as pure entertainment.

Founder and MD of Red Communications and Red Films, Lina Tan agrees that local censorship laws should be amended. ― Picture by Choo Choy May
Founder and MD of Red Communications and Red Films, Lina Tan agrees that local censorship laws should be amended. ― Picture by Choo Choy May

Tech and the law

Film producer Lina Tan, who was also one of the forum speakers, agreed that local censorship laws should be amended.

To her, technology has made censorship “outdated”; it is also a “game-changer”, particularly for independent filmmakers who have more options and who can now bypass censors and reach a wider audience directly through the internet.

But she noted that commercial filmmakers would still follow the traditional route of working within legal limits because they had business and financial considerations, as well as obligations to safeguard their employees’ livelihood.

The unorthodox online screening of Absent Without Leave directed by Sitiawan-born Lau Kek Huat for a week at the end of February this year generated much buzz among Malaysians after the LPF banned its theatrical release, especially when the award-winning film had been shown at film festivals abroad.

‘Absent Without Leave’ was made available on the Internet to local viewers for free. ― Picture via Facebook/Absent Without Leave
‘Absent Without Leave’ was made available on the Internet to local viewers for free. ― Picture via Facebook/Absent Without Leave

Responding to a question over the regulation of films viewed offline and online in Malaysia, Kamil said that the MSC Bill of Guarantees in the 1990s promising no censorship of the internet still stands, but the government had introduced the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to regulate cyber content as it was well aware that such freedom is a double-edged sword.

As “it was never defined what can or cannot be shown” online, the internet regulator will act whenever it receives public complaints, he explained.

Lawyer Syahredzan Johan says such a broad scope is ‘outdated’ and the Film Censorship Act needs a review. ― Picture by Choo Choy May
Lawyer Syahredzan Johan says such a broad scope is ‘outdated’ and the Film Censorship Act needs a review. ― Picture by Choo Choy May

Reigning in overly-broad powers

What many may not know is that the Film Censorship Act is worded broadly enough to be used against online content, including videos shared through social media platforms like WhatsApp, if the authorities wished, civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan said.

Syahredzan who was also one of the forum panellists that night said such a broad scope is “outdated” and needs a review.

He also pointed out the “ridiculous” nature of the current provisions of the Film Censorship Act — which replaced a 1952 law — where even owning a film without the board’s approval would be considered a crime.

“Just from the point of view of technology, it has moved away from 2002 when this law was first enacted, so it doesn’t make sense. Why is it that we are accepting that these people have power over us to even record something, have something in possession, circulate it?” he asked.

Syahredzan proposed several changes to the Film Censorship Act, including removing the requirement for the Film Censorship Board’s approval to screen films that are not for commercial use, while also giving the ratings system more prominence for films that have to go through LPF before screening in cinemas.

“The LPF doesn’t have to give approval, they can give classifications or ratings,” he said.

But he suggested the board should retain the power to specifically ban certain films such as those that promote hate speech, if screening them posed a real threat to public order or national security.

“I personally don’t agree we need to censor or prohibit, but maybe an argument can be made if you have a film that the objective is to spread hatred against another race group for example.

“So you can have residual power to ban, but not prior approval from the board to do anything,” he said.

He also said the law must also be amended to enable the courts the power to review decisions by the Films Appeal Committee.

Section 23 of the Film Censorship Act states that the Films Appeal Committee has the power to either affirm, vary or reverse LPF’s decisions and that the committee’s decision “shall be final and shall not be questioned in any court of law”.

The panellists were speaking at Thursday night’s “The Future of Cinema and Censorship in Malaysia”, which was jointly organised by Pusat Komas, the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights and the Freedom Film Network.

* Editor’s note: The article has been updated on May 1, 2017.

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