Karima Bennoune also calls for the repeal of the Sedition Act and other repressive laws.
The Special Rapporteur was pleased to engage with parts of the diverse and dynamic arts world in Malaysia.
She was pleased to note the work of Aswara, the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage, and the pride which some federal officials expressed to her regarding traditional art forms (even some that are banned in the state of Kelantan), as well as the fact that especially radio programming is available in multiple languages and dialects through Radio Television Malaysia, the public broadcasting system. She does note civil society calls to increase local multi-lingual content on television.
On the other hand, she has serious concerns about the restrictions and sometimes full bans that have been imposed on a number of artistic and cultural practices at the state level in Kelantan, and on certain authors, publishers, filmmakers and artists at the federal level that seem to have become stricter over time. Many of those consulted criticised the lack of transparency and dialogue in the process of reviewing their works and the difficulty for them to challenge the decisions.
Of particular concern are the bans and restrictions in the State of Kelantan, that target strong living heritage practices and their practitioners, that have contributed to the international reputation of Malaysia and its inscription on the Unesco world representative list of intangible cultural heritage. These restrictions and the negative discourse around them and their practitioners have already threatened the transmission of these art forms. They are also setting a negative tone for other, informal restrictions in social and cultural practices that involve women performing on stage with mixed audiences.
The bans on Mak yong, Wayang Kulit, Main Puteri and Dikir Barait, and the restrictions on women performing for mixed audiences in Kelantan must be lifted without delay. Steps must also be taken to make up for the negative impact – including stigma – caused by these bans and restrictions and to support these art forms and their practitioners in close consultation with the latter.
Simply moving practice of these art forms elsewhere, away from the very region where some of them emerged, is insufficient to guarantee cultural rights. Measures should be taken to provide better understanding and explanation about the meaning of these practices, and their long histories in Malaysia to overcome prejudicial views about them. In doing so, it is important not only to focus on the ritual elements but also on the social function these arts play in society, as spaces to engage in an intergenerational manner, to explore discuss problems and difficulties, as well as shared human universal experiences.
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 cultural rights, including freedom of artistic expression. Terms like “controversial” or “sensitive” are too subjective to conform to international standards on freedom of expression. In addition, more support should be provided for independent and documentary film producers, including platforms in national media to present these.
She was also surprised to hear of the banning of books, including some about moderate and progressive Islam, in the country when the government extols these very concepts abroad. This can have a chilling effect on needed debates. The UN expert encourages the Government to support a diversity of spaces and platforms for people to engage meaningfully with one another about culture, including on issues where they do not agree.
The Special Rapporteur calls for the repeal of the Sedition Act, for the amendments currently being made in the Communications and Multimedia Act to be consistent with international standards for freedom of expression and cultural rights, for the repeal or clarification of sections 211(1) and 233(1) of the CMA, and for the abolition of prior censorship bodies and processes.
She is also deeply concerned about the fact that cartoonist Zunar is facing nine charges related to tweets, and calls for those charges, as well as the travel ban on him to be dropped. When his trial commences next week, the Special Rapporteur and other UN human rights experts will be following developments closely.
The Malaysian government needs to develop concrete plans to guarantee freedom of artistic expression.
The above is an excerpt from Karima Bennoune’s full report of her preliminary observations.
Karima Bennoune was appointed UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights in October 2015. She grew up in Algeria and the United States. She is Professor of Law and Martin Luther King, Jr Hall Research Scholar at the University of California-Davis School of Law where she teaches courses on human rights and international law. Bennoune has worked in the field of human rights for more than 20 years.