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Stop clamping down on freedom of expression!

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Aliran notes the ‘clarification’ from Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah that the Perikatan Nasional government does not intend to use the National Film Development Corporation (Finas) to restrict individual freedom on social media.

Many had assumed the worst given the dizzying speed with which the Perikatan Nasional government has been clamping down on freedom of expression and eroding democracy in Malaysia. The mere thought of having to apply for a licence for social media films sparked a barrage of comments from social media users.

Saifuddin’s clarification still leaves open the question of whether video reports by media organisations, films by political parties and documentaries from NGOs would require a Finas licence.

If so, this will effectively legitimise censorship on a whole range of topics. It will encourage self-censorship by producers who will be hoping for a speedy, hassle-free approval of their licence applications.

If the government tries to restrict media freedom by imposing such “licence” requirements, it would send Malaysia crashing down the global world press freedom rankings. As it is, the action against the Al Jazeera investigative documentary, Locked Up in Malaysia’s Locked Down, has had a chilling effect on media freedom.

The PN government holds a wafer-thin majority in Parliament, and its insecurity could partly explain the slew of arrests of activists, journalists and critics in recent weeks.

It looks as if the possibility of this licence requirement was raised with the next general election in mind. Opposition parties, NGOs and activists are likely to rely heavily on social media and media organisations to transmit their messages, in written, oral and visual forms, to their target audiences. Any attempt to impose a licence requirement would effectively stymie their output and make the playing field less even. The odds will then be stacked against the opposition.

We call on the minister to put to bed this talk of having a “licence” in this digital age. Malaysians, especially younger voters, were stunned with disbelief at just the idea they would need a licence to produce films, as the minister no doubt now realises from their comments on social media.

READ MORE:  Use social media to broaden democratic space

Enough of this crackdown on freedom of expression!

Aliran executive committee
23 July 2020

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