Much ado about Finas licensing

Any initiative to fine-tune the Finas Act must be informed by an overarching philosophy that embraces the fundamental principles of freedom of information and of expression, Mustafa K Anuar writes.

Much heat was generated arising from Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah’s initial assertion in the Dewan Rakyat that all kinds of filming in the country warrant a licence under the 39-year-old National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas) Act.

This came on the heels of the minister’s tiff with Al Jazeera over its controversial investigative documentary, Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown, which alleged mistreatment by the Malaysian authorities of migrant workers amid the Covid-19 pandemic. This was also after a recent imposition of a RM4,000 fine on Astro for having aired “indecent” content in Al Jazeera’s 2015 Murder in Malaysia documentary.

The minister maintained that the Qatar-based media organisation was in the wrong as it did not abide by the mandatory licensing regulation when it conducted the recent documentary on migrant workers, an assertion that was contested by Al Jazeera.

This apparent insistence on licensing under this implicates particularly Malaysian social media users, which sparked concerns, rightly or wrongly, among Malaysians that the government was adamant about further stifling freedom of expression in the country.

Saifuddin denied that there was any intent to curtail such freedom.

Hurled with criticism from netizens, Saifuddin subsequently argued in Parliament that he was merely stating what the law entails, adding that he was misinterpreted. He also acknowledged that the law needs fine-tuning in keeping with today’s social realities and technological advancement, and was open to suggestions to improve the law, which is a welcome gesture.

This brouhaha laid bare the simple fact that in the age of the internet and multimedia, social media have become a platform where there is a convergence of consumption and production of information.

Put simply, social media users do not only consume, but also produce information that is subsequently shared among themselves. This is apart from them being interactive.

That is why the mandatory licensing poser touched a raw nerve with many social media users, who often use their gadgets to not only receive information but also to produce materials, whether in written or audio-visual form, for fun, family functions, personal relationships, religious teachings, education, business, intellectual exchanges and political awareness-raising.

To be sure, such intended licensing violates a basic human right to express and exchange ideas that is easily facilitated by information and communications technology, crossing time and space.

There are other serious implications if the wide definition of the original act is to be maintained and applied.

Many news portals, which have video components to their daily output, may be pressured to exercise self-censorship by the licensing requirement, thereby affecting journalistic professionalism and freedom of the press.

Similarly, such licensing can put a damper on election campaigns run by political parties in the run-up to a general election. Political video clips for the campaigns are likely to be subjected to censorship.

Censorship of this nature implies that a version of social reality that runs counter to that of the authorities may not be taken kindly.

Any initiative to fine-tune the Finas Act must be informed by an overarching philosophy that embraces the fundamental principles of freedom of information and of expression, which are the cornerstones of democracy.

Only then would freedom of expression – which should come with responsibility – be enjoyed by avid users of social media in the country, and film producers who cherish the freedom to imagine independently.

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