Malaysian censorship laws take a hit after refugee films stifled
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Malaysian censorship laws take a hit after refugee films stifled

FORTIFY RIGHTS has echoed calls from local rights groups for the Malaysian government to repeal the country’s Film Censorship Act, after several films about refugees were censored including one about Rohingya child brides in Malaysia.

Activists say the Film Censorship Board (LPF) officials came to the Refugee Festival in Kuala Lumpur late last week, subsequently demanding the partial censorship of Bou, a film about trafficked brides from Burma (Myanmar), and total ban on Kakuma Can Dance about refugee hip hop dancers in Kenya.

“This censorship is unconstitutional and violates the rights of the filmmakers,” Fortify Rights executive director Amy Smith said in a statement on Wednesday.

SEE ALSO: Humanity before security: The human face of the refugee crisis

Article 10 of the Malaysian Constitution guarantees Malaysian citizens freedom of speech, assembly and association.

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The poster for the “Bou” screening at the Refugee Festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Aug 13, 2017. Source: Twitter

Nevertheless, its Film Censorship Act of 2002 requires all local and foreign films to be approved by the LPF; those who show films that have not been approved can face charges leading to three years in jail and/or a fine of RM30,000 (US$6,980).

“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,” Smith said. “These films are in the public interest and deserve a wide audience.”

Refugee Festival organiser Mahi Ramakrishnan, who directed Bou – “bride” in the Rohingya language – said Malaysian authorities turned up immediately prior to the opening of the event to force the filmmakers to gain prior clearance from the LPF before screening their work.

SEE ALSO: Shattered dreams: Dim future for the refugee child in Malaysia

Ramakrishnan later showed an edited version of Bou on Aug 13, in which the LPF demanded certain, politically sensitive scenes were muted, played without subtitles or simply removed – including one showing footage of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak.

According to Fortify Rights, another such scene is where a human trafficker explains false passports for Rohingya child brides are made in Bangladesh before the trafficker “will pay money to clear [Malaysian] immigration.”

The award-winning documentary Kakuma Can Dance from 2013 by Swedish director Duc Mallard, meanwhile, was banned by the LPF altogether.

“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,” Ramakrishnan said.

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.”

SEE ALSO: Meet the Aussie politician who underwent the ‘refugee experience’ in Southeast Asia

Malaysia accommodates some 150,000 asylum seekers and refugees, mostly Rohingya Muslims who fled violence persecution by Buddhist nationalists and the military in Burma. Many have lived in Malaysia for decades.

“The films are important to the refugee communities-seeing themselves represented on screen,” Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter from the University of Queensland told Asian Correspondent, who is an expert on migration issues in Malaysia.

“It also helps to get corporate social responsibility on board to have films and get some NGOs involved,” he said.

Muslim-majority Malaysia has openly criticised Burma for failing to rein in ethnic tension and refusing access to aid organisations to the restive Rakhine State, where most of the remaining roughly one million Rohingya live.

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Rohingya children recite the Quran at the Madrasah Rahmaniyah managed by the Parents Association of Rohingya in Klang, Malaysia, in 2015. Source: Shutterstock/Afif Abd. Halim

Nevertheless, Malaysia is not a signatory of the Refugee Convention and while relatively tolerant towards refugees, denies them rights to education, healthcare and employment. Of the 11,000 school-age refugee children in Malaysia, only around 30 percent currently have access to education.

Moreover, rights groups have long criticised the country’s authorities for abuses against migrants. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently said at least two dozen people – most of whom were Rohingya – had died in Malaysian immigration detention centres since 2015.

Late last year, the Malaysian government announced a pilot scheme in partnership with UNHCR to allow 300 Rohingya refugees to work, lauded by many as a step forward for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers there.

“Whether this pilot will translate into something more meaningful, such as work rights for all refugees registered with the UNHCR, better access to health services … and less discrimination by authorities, remains to be seen,” wrote Hoffstaedter last year.

SEE ALSO: Film censorship is being used to quell discourse in Malaysia

Censorship has been a hot topic in Malaysia of late, with authorities delaying the release of Disney film Beauty and the Beast in March over a so-called “gay scene” thought to offend the Muslim-majority nation’s sensibilities.

Back in March, human rights activist Lena Hendry was fined RM10,000 (US$2327) for screening No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka – a film about atrocities committed against Tamils during Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war – without prior approval from the LPF.

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Lena Hendry outside a Kuala Lumpur court. Hendry was charged under Section 6(1)(b) of the Film Censorship Act in what many feel is a blow to freedom of speech and expression in Malaysia. Source: Tamils Media Malaysia

“We believe the court should have decided against Lena Hendry’s conviction in the first place to send a clear message that it is not an offence to screen a documentary film which supports human rights and educates people on that subject,” human rights NGO Pusat Komas said in a statement.

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

SEE ALSO: Malaysia rejects Disney appeal to screen ‘gay moment’ in Beauty and the Beast

The Malaysian government also recently banned the hit song Despacito over its sexually-charged lyrics, despite the words being in Spanish. Last month, it also shut down a Penang screening of the Vietnamese film Lost in Paradise, which is about the relationship between two gay men.

“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,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights Farida Shaheed in a 2013 report.

“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.”