JULY 22 — When we think of censorship in Malaysia, we might immediately think of the Lembaga Penapis Film (LPF) which sits under the Ministry of Home Affairs and vets and certifies all moving image productions for broadcast, sale, and exhibition.
The LPF not only classifies content for different audiences but has long been used to excise critical content and ensure ideological compliance with the state’s version of the world.
It is therefore extremely worrying that in the last two weeks we have seen a new kind of censorship being practised in Malaysia that threatens the viability of information about Malaysia.
I refer to the investigations of the Al Jazeera journalists for their report Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown (July 3, 2020) and the book Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, And Hope in New Malaysia (2019) edited by Kean Wong and published by Gerak Budaya.
In both cases, the Malaysian state and its enforcement agencies have concocted methods to delegitimise both publications and to treat the contributors and creators as criminals by calling them in for police questioning.
In the case of Rebirth, the cover image was claimed to denigrate the national coat of arms, provoking a swift response from the minister who could justify the banning of the entire book under the Printing Presses and Publications Act.
The irony, of course, is that the cover image has been duplicated and reproduced multiple times in news reports, online, and in the hands of “protestors.”
The image itself was by the artist Shia Yih Ying and first publicly displayed in 2014 to neither protest nor opprobrium.
It is obvious that the confected outrage over the cover image is merely a pretext to banning a book which provides a counter narrative to the political transition following the 2018 election.
Al Jazeera, on the other hand, has been targeted by questioning their legal status as a media agency in Malaysia, and recently have been investigated by Finas for producing a “documentary” without a licence.
Al Jazeera is a news organisation who has had an office in Malaysia for almost a decade. If their licence is invalid, surely it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia as the licensing body to have done their due diligence before this case.
It reveals further the murky regulatory world in Malaysia where a news organisation’s investigative report can be re-classified as a documentary arbitrarily and for political expediency.
This sudden classification to facilitate Finas' administrative sanction sets a dangerous precedent because all news reports would now need this licence.
By allowing themselves to be politicised in this way, Finas has opened a regulatory “Pandora’s Box” as Hariz Mohd writes in Malaysiakini (July21, 2020).
In both cases, it is clear that we are witnessing censorship by another name. By going after Rebirth and Al Jazeera over technicalities, not only is the Malaysian government shifting goalposts it is acting increasingly like an authoritarian regime such the Philippines or Turkey.
In both countries, media outlets have been de-licensed, and reporters and critical voices arrested on secondary charges to silence them.
It also sets a dangerous precedent because other future publications, news reports, and content critical of the government, its policies, and its agencies, can be investigated and targeted.
Licensing systems are always problematic in that they are open to political abuse in much the same way that the Printing Presses and Publications Act has been used to hobble news outlets in the past.
If a government is weak and threatened, harassing critics and silencing critical voices is one method of shoring up support. But it exposes further the weakness and insecurity of the government and can rapidly spiral out of control. Already the Al Jazeera case has made international news and drawn attention to the Malaysian government’s new tactics.
It further normalises the idea that the government is the sole arbiter of truth, and that critical voices are unpatriotic, seditious, and that the creative and informational work needs to go through a state gatekeeper.
Malaysia risks falling into a new era of censorship that uses the agencies of the state and its licensing authority to silence voices.
This affects all media workers, content creators, academics, and writers. To use licensing regulations in this way is censorship in all but name.
* Thomas Barker is an Associate Professor, Film and Television at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer(s) or organisation(s) and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.