Malaysia: End use of vague legal provisions to censor freedom of expression

Malaysia: End use of vague legal provisions to censor freedom of expression - Media

Earlier this month, the Minister of Home Affairs banned the locally produced film Mentega Terbang from screening in Malaysia under Section 26 of the Film Censorship Act (2002). The order was gazetted as Film Censorship (Prohibition) Order 2023 on 1 September 2023. Since earlier this year, the movie’s filmmakers and artists have faced a distressing witch hunt and physical threats with the State, non-state and social media users targeting them.

“Censorship should not be wielded recklessly, based on assumptions of what serves the public interest. It demands a thoughtful, measured approach that respects diverse perspectives and artistic expression,” said Senior Malaysia Programme Officer Nalini Elumalai.

“Freedom of artistic expression is an essential component of nation-building and fostering a culture that celebrates creativity. Censorship, if employed without discretion, can jeopardize our collective journey toward a more enlightened and inclusive society. The ban is further deepening the polarisation that we are already facing now. Let us remember that the power of art lies in its ability to challenge, inspire, and provoke thoughts,” said Nalini.

The vague and over-broad language of the Film Censorship Act 2002 leaves it open to selective and arbitrary enforcement. Section 26 grants special powers to the Minister and, most significantly allows the Minister absolute discretion to withhold permission to exhibit a film if it would be contrary to the public interest. While safeguarding public interest is a legitimate concern, it’s crucial to avoid arbitrary or hasty decisions that stifle artistic freedom and diverse voices. Section 26 is inconsistent with international standards governing freedom of expression and is contrary to Malaysia’s obligations under international law and Article 10 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia.

The authorities’ actions underscore the far-reaching implications of censorship on the broader cultural and societal landscape.  Emphasizing the need for a balanced approach that only limits artistic freedom when it meets the criteria under Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Human rights law holds that restrictions on the right to freedom of expression placed by the State are permitted only if they are provided by law and in pursuit of a legitimate aim. Measures taken by the State must be necessary and proportionate to that aim.

In her report to the Human Rights Council after the visit to Malaysia in 2017, the Special Rapporteur on the field of cultural rights addresses that ‘there is an urgent need to review and clarify the criteria for censorship of books and films and to make the decision-making process more transparent so as to guarantee freedom of artistic expression’. She also stressed that ‘the government of Malaysia needs to develop concrete plans to guarantee freedom of artistic expression and encourages the government to support a diversity of spaces and platforms for people to engage meaningfully with one another about culture, including in relation to issues upon which they do not agree’.

ARTICLE 19 calls upon the government to end the practice of utilising vague provisions of law to curtail freedom of expression and artistic freedom in Malaysia. The Minister of Home Minister must explain the explicit reason behind the ban to uphold accountability and transparency. In addition, ARTICLE 19 urges the Malaysian authorities to immediately repeal or amend all laws, including the Film Censorship Act 2002, which restricts the right to freedom of expression, and to ensure that they comply with international human rights law and standards.


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Nalini Elumalai, Senior Malaysia Programme Officer