Arbitrary censorship violates freedom of expression, curbs dialogue and debate, and cripples democracy as a whole, says Mustafa K Anuar.
Pas president Abdul Hadi Awang called on Muslims, especially those who were troubled by Nanyang Siang Pau’s caricature of himself as a turbaned monkey, to “forgive” ― if at all appropriate ― the daily in the supposed interest of ethnic harmony and solidarity in the country.
This seemingly conciliatory political overture stands in stark contrast to his party’s youth wing which seemed so eager to flaunt its misguided “youthful” bravado, zeal and haughtiness in urging the government to reconsider the Chinese-language newspaper’s publishing permit, which, when taken to its logical conclusion, would lead to its shutdown.
Although the daily has by now retracted the said cartoon and offered a public apology, Hadi has actually missed a good opportunity to do the right thing, ie to demand his right of reply to counter some of the various allegations that were levelled against him in this matter.
It is here that he could have countered, for instance, accusations of him making a monkey of himself (as well as of the ordinary Malaysians) in the RUU355 saga, and furthermore he could have explained why his protracted attempt to table the bill should not be interpreted as using or abusing religion (in this case, Islam) as a political tool to win the hearts of the Malay-Muslim constituency in the face of an impending general election.
In many ways, a civilised retort and informed dialogue of this nature would be instructive to the reading public so that an unruly and violent mob would be unnecessary in a democracy.
At the very least, the general public would have been made aware of the issues involved and of possible entry points for intellectual intervention.
To call for a shutdown or ban on a newspaper is obviously undemocratic and smacks of intellectual laziness and sheer arrogance.
By the same token, it would be horrendously undemocratic and anti-intellectual if the state were to initiate a move to ban Pas-owned mouthpiece Harakah simply because its reporting, editorial or even cartoon was felt to have hurt the feelings of the country’s political leadership.
But what is equally, if not more, disturbing is the rising trend of non-state actors such as the Pas Youth behaving and thinking in a manner that parallels that of the state, ie to liberally call for the censorship (in various forms) of something that they disagree with or would harm their vested interests.
It appears that there is a lack of appreciation of differences on the part of certain quarters in our multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious society which in itself can lead to political conflict and disharmony. There is a tendency by some quarters to insist on promoting and protecting a singular definition of things.
One remembers vividly the case of a BFM video presenter, Aisyah Tajuddin, who received death and rape threats after her satirical commentary titled “Hudud isi periuk nasi?” (Does hudud fill our rice bowls?).
The fact that the video had to be taken down eventually points to the harsh reality that even faceless objectors are in a position to insist on censorship of something that does not concur with their beliefs or political viewpoints.
Like many other forms of censorship, such threats obviously did not allow for refined debate or dialogue to occur for the benefit of the general public. If anything, it cultivates ugly forms of censorship that can take on aggressive characteristics.
It appears that the world of art too is not spared from crude censorship. It doesn’t promote intellectual development in society when, for instance, an unruly mob stormed an art exhibition of political cartoonist Zunar in George Town, Penang in November last year just because they disagreed politically with the message that was transmitted by the cartoons concerned.
Indeed, this form of censorship doesn’t augur well for democracy in Malaysia especially when the conscious combination of art and politics is deemed taboo.
Political pressure of a seemingly subtle nature resulted in the removal, for example, of an artwork of Sabah-based art collective Pangrok Sulap in the “Escape from the SEA” exhibition in Kuala Lumpur recently because it was politically “too provocative”. This form of censorship is not only undemocratic but also discourages artistic creativity and free expression.
Showing films that have educational value can court trouble as exemplified by the case of activist Lena Hendry who, as Pusat Komas programme manager, helped screen a documentary film on the Sri Lankan civil war and its consequent violations of human rights. She was found guilty of doing such a mundane thing.
Which brings us to the question of censorship in Malaysia that can be arbitrary and discretionary in nature. It has been argued that there surely had been other documentaries of similar ilk that were screened by other people and yet they were not prosecuted.
And it is this very arbitrariness in terms of the criteria used by the censors that helps to spawn a culture of censorship and, worse, self-censorship and, in turn, adversely affects the creative impulses of artistic people in the country.
Another serious implication of censorship is, of course, on freedom of information, the kind of information that is required by the general public in order to make informed decisions and choices in their daily lives.
The danger with the harsher kinds of censorship is that they help to further normalise censorship, especially of the arbitrary variety, in our society to the extent that it violates freedom of expression, curbs dialogue and debate and cripples democracy as a whole.