International News and Malaysia's Censors

In Malaysia, the international television news you watch may not be the same television news watched across the rest of the world. It appears that the major broadcast networks beamed into the country including BBC, CNBC, Australian Broadcasting, Al Jazeera and other international news feeds are put on a five-minute tape delay while electronic devices scan the broadcasts for objectionable keywords, including the name of the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.

The censoring of news came to public notice during the April 28 Bersih 3.0 rally to protest what the NGO claims are Malaysia’s unfair election laws. When violence broke out, Al Jazeera reporter Harry Fawcett attempted to film police beating protesters into the ground. However, Fawcett was roughed up and his own camera was pushed to the ground. When the episode was shown on the Al Jazeera broadcast that night, an Al Jazeera spokesman said the police violence had been excised in Malaysia. It appears that similar BBC film was also edited to remove police beatings, other sources say.

All of the major news feeds are routed through Astro, the Malaysian direct broadcast satellite pay television service, which is owned and operated by Measat Broadcast Network Systems, which in turn is wholly owned by a subsidiary of Astro Holdings Sdn Bhd, controlled by Malaysia’s richest man, the reclusive businessman Tatparanandam Ananda Krishnan, a longtime friend and close associate of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as well as a long string of UMNO cronies.

According to a former Astro employee, the television news feeds are routed through a small room in the Astro headquarters, where electronic devices search the broadcasts for keywords that may be objectionable to government officials. The censorship section is headed by a “news controller” named Vincent de Paul, Asia Sentinel was told. Repeated calls to the Astro office in Kuala Lumpur, including attempts to speak with de Paul, were unsuccessful.

Malaysia’s mainstream media are all controlled by the country’s major political parties and all are closely monitored to present the most favorable possible view of the political situation to readers and viewers of local television stations. It had been assumed, however, that the international news from satellite channels had remained uncensored.

The violence that Fawcett filmed apparently led to censorship of the Al Jazeera broadcast, an irony in a Muslim country since the Qatar-based television network has long been accused of pro-Muslim bias by Americans and is not allowed to be broadcast in the United States. In actuality, Al Jazeera’s broadcasts are some of the most professional in the world on television today. The network’s China office was closed by Beijing last week for Melissa Chan’s reporting on human rights abuses by the Chinese government. Chan has been denied a visa, the first reporter to suffer that fate since 1998.

“We will be asking Astro for an explanation as to why Harry Fawcett’s report of the rally in Malaysia was apparently censored,” said Osama Saeed, head of international and media relations for Al Jazeera in Doha, in a prepared release. “If Astro are indeed saying that it breached ‘local content regulations,’ they would need to outline exactly what these alleged breaches were and how they arrived at their decision.

“If Astro are censoring output, then they should make clear to viewers and to broadcasters as and when it happens. We have had no communication on this incident from Astro. Our news report was a factual account of events that day, and intrusion in our editorial process is unwarranted. We have not been censored in this way by another distribution platform anywhere in the world.”

The Fawcett report was later broadcasted on Youtube at http://youtu.be/y8fzCE_gjAI. Some 250,000 people have viewed it, Saeed said.

“They always censored stuff in that room downstairs and they were very proud of it,” said the former employee. “Vincent de Paul basically watches it. The worry was CNBC. He was carving out word for word what they were saying because they often mentioned Anwar.”

Astro appears to operate under the 61-page censorship guidelines on Film Censorship prepared by the Ministry of Home Affairs of Malaysia. It is a stunningly complete document, although there is nowhere in it that indicates the government publicly wishes to censor television news broadcasts.

The guidelines “focus on four important areas that need to be examined in detail and considered in film making, namely security and public order, religion, socioculture, decorum and morality,” the document reads. “These aspects require serious attention to avoid exploitation that could have undesirable effects on the public and the nation.”

The guidelines “also have the objective of building the nation’s identity by depicting and displaying the noble values and good societal practices through the medium of film. The regulations that are contained in these guidelines are important as film can have tremendous influence on the thinking and actions of society, especially children and the youth.

The government seeks to protect the public from negative influences such as engaging in “immoral activities that can threaten security and public order;” making sure nobody imitates, practices or sympathizes “with ideologies that are contrary to Rukun Negara (principles of nationhood) and a long laundry list of other do’s and don’ts.

These include “Matters that are contrary to the principles of the Federal Constitution and Rukun Negara;” including violence and anarchy that overthrows the rule of law; discrediting of a government or derision and denigration directed at a foreign government; Disdain or mocking of a leader or government, thus creating tension within the country; dialogue, lyrics or actions that are provocative, slanderous or stir social unrest by bringing about doubt and uneasiness which finally threaten safety, public order and national security; a detailed modus operandi for wrongdoing that can easily elicit the urge to imitate it; the victory of evil over justice and truth; scenes that glorify the riding or handling of a vehicle in a manner dangerous to the self and others as well as in contravention of traffic laws without retribution upon conclusion of the story.”

There are a wide variety of other taboos including “the portrayal and interpretation that a criminal offense can be profitable or worthwhile; legal authorities do not take any action against the criminals even upon conclusion of the story; actions that cause serious physical injury, death or mental disturbance to an individual or a group of individuals and the destruction of property; the use of destructive weapons in a violent and shocking manner on an individual or a group of individuals; scenes of crime and violence with close-up images of people being repeatedly shot, stabbed, slashed, beaten, kicked, punched and hurled; scenes of torture of humans or animals; and films that show scenes of drug abuse up close.”

There are 36 separate prohibitions over religious issues too detailed to go into. Likewise for “an unrestrained lifestyle without any principles, deviant and contrary to religious teachings and culture that can lead to the destruction of the noble values of society; scenes and dialogue with sexual connotations, display of full nudity of the human body and excessive violence” and many more.

Specific objectionable language is that is “obscene or directed at obscenity and coarse speech in any language is discouraged. A long list of banned words is listed in nine languages including Malay, English, Tamil and Hindi, Punjabi, Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien and Teochew.

In none of the guidelines, however, is there any mention of censoring the news.