Drop censorship of documentary films on human trafficking, refugees

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File pic - Photograph: themalaymailonline.com

Malaysian authorities should abolish film censorship and immediately repeal the Film Censorship Act, said Fortify Rights.

On 11 August, the Malaysian government wrongfully censored a documentary film on the human trafficking of Rohingya girls to Malaysia and banned a documentary on refugees in Kenya.

“This censorship is unconstitutional and violates the rights of the filmmakers,” said Amy Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “Malaysia’s censorship law is inconsistent with human rights law and Malaysia’s own constitution, suppressing free speech and expression — the bedrocks of a free society. These films are in the public interest and deserve a wide audience.”

The Malaysian Home Ministry’s Film Censorship Board censored selected scenes from Malaysian investigative journalist Mahi Ramakrishnan’s Bou (which means bride in the Rohingya language), a film about the human trafficking of Rohingya girls from Myanmar into forced marriage in Malaysia. Government censors banned a scene from Bou implicating Immigration Department of Malaysia officials in the human trafficking of Rohingya girls.

Malaysian authorities also banned in its entirety Kakuma Can Dance, a film by Swedish filmmaker Duc Mallard about refugees and hip-hop dance in Kenya.

Both films were scheduled for showings during the second annual Refugee Festival in Kuala Lumpur on 10-13 August – an event organised by Ramakrishnan to give visibility to refugees in Malaysia and showcase their talents. Ramakrishnan screened a censored version of Bou at the Refugee Festival on 13 August, while the screening of Kakuma Can Dance was cancelled. Mallard was not in Malaysia at the time of the event.

During the event, Fortify Rights also screened a short film In Limbo on the plight of refugees in Malaysia.

Section 6 of the Film Censorship Act provides that no person shall “possess” or “circulate, exhibit, distribute, display, manufacture, produce, sell or hire” any film that has not been approved by the Film Censorship Board. The penalty for violating this section includes up to three years’ imprisonment and/or RM30,000 (US$6,980).

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“The Film Censorship Act is an archaic law that encroaches on the civil liberties of filmmakers, robs them of their creative licence, and makes the constitutional right to freedom of expression a mere illusion,” Mahi Ramakrishnan told Fortify Rights. “Bou has the potential to instigate serious national and regional conversations about complicity in the trafficking of children. The government shouldn’t be afraid of such a discourse.”

At 2pm on 10 August, an hour before the opening of the Refugee Festival, Film Censorship Board officials arrived at the festival venue, the Black Box at Publika Shopping Centre, and ordered Ramakrishnan to obtain clearance under the Film Censorship Act in order to screen Bou. The next day, board officials reviewed the film and issued Ramakrishnan a written order to mute the audio and erase subtitle translations of selected scenes.

In the uncensored version of the documentary, a human trafficker is filmed explaining that passports of potential child brides are forged in Bangladesh and that “the trafficker will [then] pay money to clear [Malaysian] immigration”.

In another scene that was subsequently censored, the Rohingya-refugee husband of a trafficked child-bride explains that Malaysian police routinely extort money from him during his daily commute to work, saying, “I pay the police 10 to 20 ringgit all the time.”

The authorities also cut a scene from Bou showing Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak walking with other government ministers. The authorities verbally explained to Ramakrishnan that Najib had nothing to do with the subject of the film. Officials also verbally informed Ramakrishnan to cut an additional scene showing Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god.

The Guidelines on Film Censorship set out a list of topics in films that require further scrutiny by the board to avoid creating “any controversy and doubt among the general public.”

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The guidelines also prohibit the screening of three categories of films:

  • those that are “seditious, anti-religious, insult the beliefs or customs of a particular community or group, have elements that contradict the policies of the government, excessive violence and cruelty”;
  • films that may “cause foreign countries to have a poor perception of the socio-culture and noble values of the local population”; and
  • a film that “smears the good name and image of the country and its people”.

The board required Ramakrishnan to pay RM81.20 for the board’s time. The board subsequently granted her a film censorship certificate to screen the censored version of the film.

On 11 August, the board additionally verbally ordered Ramakrishnan to completely refrain from showing the documentary film Kakuma Can Dance, without reviewing the film or providing reasons for prohibiting it. A board officer threatened Ramakrishnan with arrest, saying that they would “come and nab” her if she screened Kakuma Can Dance during the festival. Board officials came to the festival during the scheduled screening times for both films to ensure compliance with their orders.

Under Section 21 of the Film Censorship Act, Ramakrishnan has 30 days to appeal the board’s censorship decisions.

Malaysian authorities previously infringed on the right to freedom of expression through the Film Censorship Act. On 22 March, the Kuala Lumpur Magistrates’ Court sentenced Lena Hendry to one-year imprisonment or a fine of RM10,000 (US$2,500) for screening an award-winning documentary on the Sri Lankan civil war entitled No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka. She paid the fine to avoid detention.

On 14 September 2015, Malaysia’s highest court rejected a constitutional challenge that the charge against Hendry violated Articles 8 and 10 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution, which protect equality before the law and the right to freedom of speech and assembly and association respectively. This was the first case involving the Film Censorship Act to reach the Federal Court.

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Article 10(a) of the Malaysian Constitution states that “every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression.” The vague dictates of the Film Censorship Act should not supersede constitutionally protected rights, Fortify Rights said.

The right to freedom of opinion and expression is also protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. The right includes the freedom to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Under international law, restrictions on freedom of expression are permissible only when provided by law, proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim.

According to a 2013 report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, “a system whereby content automatically requires official clearance before it can be released [is] unacceptable, as its harm to freedom of artistic expression and creativity would by far outweigh the benefit of its goals. In countries where prior censorship bodies exist, the immediate abolition of these bodies should be envisaged, as regulating access for children and youth can best be implemented through rating and classification procedures.”

The Malaysian authorities should immediately drop the censorship of Bou and Kakuma Can Dance, and Parliament should immediately repeal the Film Censorship Act and protect the right to freedom of expression, Fortify Rights said.

“The government uses the vague provisions of this law to suppress vital information about human rights violations,” said Amy Smith. “The law obstructs artistic freedom and violates the rights of all Malaysians. It should be scrapped without delay.”

Henry Koh is a human rights specialist for Malaysia at Fortify Rights.

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