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Spate of censorship incidents in Malaysia over religious issues

The Malaysian home affairs ministry has issued to leading English-language daily, The Star, a warning about an article criticising the caning of three Muslim women under Sharia law, Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) has said.

“As one of the country’s most widely-read newspapers, The Star should have a free hand to provide its readers with the broadest range of news and views on social issues,” Paris-based RSF said. “We urge Prime Minister Najib Razak to reconsider this decision and to quickly amend the 1984 Publishing and Printing Presses Act, whose licence renewal system denies newspapers the security they need.”

In response to the pressure from the government and Muslim groups, the newspaper was forced to publish an apology and withdraw the offending article from its website ( Written by managing editor P Gunasegaram and published in the paper on February 19, the article, entitled “Persuasion, not compulsion,” said the sentence of caning passed on February 9 on three Muslim women accused of adultery was disproportionate. It was the first time in years that a Malaysian court has issued such a sentence.

After receiving the home affairs ministry’s warning letter, the newspaper refused to publish an article by one of the newspaper's contributing columnists, Marina Mahathir , in which she argued that Sharia laws were written by men, not God, and as such were open to debate. She finally posted the column on her blog

Urging the media to do their duty as a “fourth estate,” the Centre for Independent Journalism, a Malaysian NGO, noted that, “When censored content surfaces online, it only entrenches the public’s impression that the mainstream media are less reliable than their online counterparts.”

The Publishing and Printing Presses Act, which covers books and foreign publications as well as Malaysian newspapers, provides the government with a powerful array of legal instruments for enforcing its will, above all the ability to grant and revoke publishing permits.

Copies of two books published by, Where is Justice? and 1 Funny Malaysia, were recently confiscated in two states. They contained cartoons by Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, a cartoonist better known as Zunar, whose magazine was banned last year. A book by a foreign journalist about a former prime minister, Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times, has also been banned in Malaysia.

On the other hand, in January a court authorised the sale of a book published by the organisation Sisters in Islam which had previously been banned by the government.

These acts of censorship come amid continuing tension about the Malaysian Catholic weekly The Herald’s use of the word “Allah” to refer to the Christian God in its Malay-language publications. The office of the newspaper’s lawyers was broken into and ransacked on February 14. After banning Christian publications from using the word, the government is now reportedly ready to permit it in certain states.

Malaysia is ranked 131th out of 175 countries in the 2009 RSF press freedom index.

Date posted: March 9, 2010 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 236