Malaysia Bans Books

Making fun of the government is not allowed

A Malaysian High Court judge has upheld the banning of books by a popular political cartoonist for the online news site Malaysiakini and by a columnist closely connected to the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

The ban, requested by Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein under the country’s Printing Presses and Publications Act, is on two books by the cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaq, known by his pen name Zunar, and a third by columnist Yong Thye Chong, who writes under the pen name Kim Quek.

The authors’ lawyers argued that the ban violated the right to freedom of speech, which is guaranteed under the country’s federal constitution, was not implemented fairly because the authors weren’t given the chance to explain themselves before the ban was made, and weren’t told the reasons for it.

However, Justice Rohaya Yusuf, in delivering her decision, said Hishammuddin was correct in banning the books if the court “takes into view the sensitivities surrounding the country.”

The Printing Presses and Publications Act, passed in 1984, has long been under fire by press critics who say it has curtailed freedom of speech, restricted political discourse and silenced political opponents. The critics say the act allows the home affairs minister virtually total control over the print media.

Newspapers and other periodicals must apply for the renewal of their licenses annually, giving the minister the power to ban them according to his discretion. All of the conventional media are owned by political parties, with the biggest newspapers owned by the United Malays National Organization and the Malaysian Chinese Association, the two biggest components of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. While opposition parties also own newspapers, they are not allowed to circulate freely.

As a result, the country ‘s bloggers have developed one of the strongest online presences in Southeast Asia, with several strong websites including Malaysiakini, Malaysian Insider and Malaysia Today, run by gadfly Raja Petra Kamarudin. The blogs were given credit for playing a major role in the upset March 2008 election that broke the 50-year two-thirds hold of the Barisan on the Dewan Rakyat, or national parliament.

The decision to uphold the ban was assailed by the Committee for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur, which said in a press release that the two cases “illustrate yet again how the vagueness of the Printing Presses and Publications Act, especially in defining problematic phrases and terms, such as ‘prejudicial to public order,’ as well as the overbroad powers the law grants the Home Minister, continue to pose a formidable challenge to freedom of expression in Malaysia.”

Kim Quek’s book, “The March to Putrajaya,” was originally ordered banned by Hishammuddin on September 30, 2010, allegedly for inciting hatred against the constitution. Although Kim is a Malaysiakini commentator, he is a supporter of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, headed by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. The Home Ministry’s secretary general, Mahmood Adam, said the book is “not suitable for general reading,” containing what he called “elements of baseless accusations and speculations” against national leaders and could incite public hatred and anger.”

Illustrating the porosity of the ban, the 375-page book, a collection of Kim’s columns, is readily available on the Internet at http://www.mediafire.com/?yxy1yzc73lkl5cl. The author has offered it for free for those who wish to download it.

Most of the material in the books has long been available. “1 Funny Malaysia" is a collection of cartoons that Zunar published in the column Cartoonkini on the Malaysiakini news site between 2005 and 2009. "Perak Darul Kartun" is published by Zunar's own company, Sepakat Efektif Sdn Bhd, and features the works of Zunar and several other local cartoonists and writers.

Dismissing the request for review of the ban filed by Zunar's publisher Malaysiakini Dotcom Sdn Bhd, Yusuf said she did not find the decisions to ban the books “to be in defiance of logic that it is arbitrarily made, or that it is based on improper facts. Because of this public order issue, there is therefore a need to restrict fundamental liberties provisions guaranteed under the federal constitution."

Both Zunar and Kim said they would appeal the decision to the highest level possible although both added that they were skeptical that higher courts would rule in their favor.

"The Malaysian courts are like the atmosphere,” Kim Quek told reporters. “The higher you go up, the less oxygen there is."

Despite the ban, Zunar's other books are available from Kinibooks, including his latest title 'Even My Pen Has a Stand'.

In a prepared statement, Kim Quek said the judgment “cannot help but convey the unmistakable signal that the present political hold on the judiciary to deliver what the political masters want is intact. It means that Malaysians will continue to be denied their fundamental liberties guaranteed under Part Two of the Constitution – which include the freedom of expression – through abuse of power by the Executive, which will be ultimately protected from legal accountability by a compliant judiciary.”

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