Malaysia Trips Up Filmmakers as it Seeks to Tangle Political Opponents and Stifle Dissent

In a move that could outlaw millions of TikTok users and YouTubers, the Malaysian government says filmmaking of any scale or purpose requires a license.

The ruling was announced in parliament on Thursday by Malaysia’s Minister for Communications and Multimedia Saifuddin Abdullah. He was responding to a question from another legislator, who had spotted political motivation and encroachment on press freedom behind recent enforcement actions.

“No one can participate in any film production, distribution or broadcast activities or any combination of these activities unless a licence is issued authorising the person to do so,” Saifuddin said, quoting the National Film Development Corporation Act.

He defined films as “recordings on any material, including features and short films, short subject films, documentaries, trailers, and short films for advertisement, for viewing by members of the public.”

All license applicants must be registered as owners of a private limited company with a paid-up capital of at least $11,800 (RM50,000). That is a sum beyond the reach of casual social media users or students, who are increasingly required to use video as part of distance learning. Filming permits need a minimum of seven days advance notice to be given to the National Film Development Corporation (FINAS).

“[What if today’s] interpretation is done as selective prosecution? And the rest are not affected… I hope the minister or the ministry can give an explanation. Because this affects all social media users and requires them to obtain a licence from FINAS,” said lawmaker Fahmi Fadzil.

Days earlier, Saifuddin had threatened to take away the media accreditation of news channel Al Jazeera, which the NFDC said had broken the law by making “Locked up in Malaysia’s Lockdown,” a documentary highlighting social injustices caused by the government’s coronavirus response. The crew were questioned on July 10, by police enquiring if they had broken laws on sedition. The film aired as a segment of the channel’s weekly current affairs TV show “101 East.”

Giles Trendle, MD of Al Jazeera English issued a statement explaining that by the NFDC’s own definitions, the show does not require a separate license. He suggested that, having been unable to contest the channel’s journalistic integrity, the government was instead creating problems by raising the red herring of a license.

Muhyiddin Yassin, Prime Minister and head of the current government, appears to be using a growing number of legal tools to crack down on dissenting opinions in the media. The judiciary last month began contempt of court proceedings against online site Malaysiakini over reader comments. The editor-in-chief of another news site, CodeBlue, was called in for questioning having reported the findings about a 2016 hospital fire.

“It is clear the government will take action on all parties, whether politician or social media user, over content which might not be in line with its views,” the country’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim said in a statement.

Although it has its Asian headquarters in the country, Al Jazeera has been a repeated thorn in the side of Malaysian governments.

Pay TV group, Astro was this week fined $940 (RM4,000) for showing a 2015 Al Jazeera documentary “Murder in Malaysia” which linked the 2006 murder of Mongolian socialite Shaariibuugiin Altantuya to former Prime Minister Najib Razak. Altantuya was killed and her body destroyed in spectacular fashion with explosives.

The 2006 film’s producer Mary Ann Jolley was deported in 2015 because she was a “nuisance” and was “making lies,” according to Najib in early 2018, shortly before he was voted out of office. Najib himself now faces a battery of corruption charges, many involving the siphoning of billions of dollars through the 1MDB fund.

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