It’s arbitrary, my dear

  • Books
  • Sunday, 25 Oct 2009

Given broad, vague guidelines that keep changing, publishers and authors are hard- pressed to decipher what books get banned.

ON March 9, 2001, a day after the start of the Kampung Medan clashes in Kuala Lumpur, Suaram chairperson K. Arumugam was chased by 20 motorcyclists when he drove into the area.

The experience affected him so much that he decided to write a book about it.

After spending two years on research and RM10,000 on printing, 5,000 copies of March 8 (written in Tamil) rolled off the press in April 2006.

Nine months later – on Jan 19, 2007 – Elizabeth Wong (now Selangor exco member) informed Arumugam that his book, which had sold about 3,000 copies by then, had been banned.

His initial reaction was surprise – someone had taken the trouble to translate the book for the Home Ministry, which then decided to ban it.

“Banning a book which documents history is wrong as it denies me the right to record history,” Arumugam says. We met in Petaling Jaya last week.

“I brought out a rational view of what occurred and what the government should do to correct the situation (in Kg Medan).

“Sue me in court (for defamation) or write another book to prove me wrong. I have a right to express myself the way I want to. You can’t take that away from me.”

As of July this year, the Home Ministry banned 22 books, 13 of which were Bahasa Malaysia titles. The rest were in English.

Among the banned titles were The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones (a controversial historical novel about Aisha, one of Prophet Muhammad’s wives) and 55 Masalah Seksual yang Anda Malu Tanya (55 sexual problems you’re embarrassed to ask about) by Rosaida Roslan.

No notice

Local publishing company ZI Publications – which brought out Datuk Zaid Ibrahim’s I, Too, Am Malay and Farish A. Noor’s Di Balik Malaysia: Dari Majapahit ke Putrajaya (From Majapahit to Putrajaya: Searching for Another Malaysia) – found itself in a quandary when Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam Today (published in 2004) was included in the list. ZI had bought translation rights to the book and started translating it into Bahasa Malaysia.

ZI director Ezra Mohd Zaid only found out about the ban when he read the news in the papers.

“Theoretically, we can proceed with a Bahasa Malaysia version. But can we get any guarantee, as a business that has pumped money into the translation project, that the BM edition won’t be banned as well?” he asks.

Under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA), the Home Ministry can ban books that are “prejudicial to public order, morality, security or ... alarm public opinion”, or which are “contrary to any law” or “prejudicial to public interest or national interest”.

Banned titles are placed in a gazette and, to date, there are 1,458 on the list.

“The PPPA has wide provisions which allow government agencies and bodies to confiscate materials at their personal discretion,” adds Ezra.

Books are banned in an arbitrary way at all levels, from the decision-making right down to the implementation, says Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), over the phone.

For one, there isn’t a committee to decide what books should be banned. Although there is a set of guidelines, it often changes, and is vague and broad, they both point out.

“At entry points where books are brought in, customs officers can enforce a ban (following the guidelines),” says Gayathry. To compound things, authors or publishers are rarely given a reason for that.

In 2007, CIJ and Sisters in Islam (SIS) had a meeting with the Home Ministry to discuss book banning. Both NGOs have been following the issue closely for some years.

“They told us that they were in the process of streamlining everything so that the operating procedure would be standard. But how do we know if it has become more systematic or less arbitrary (since)?”she adds.

When contacted by StarMag, officials at the Home Ministry declined to comment.

In the West, where freedom of expression is valued, books continue to be banned or challenged till this day. According to the American Library Association, 3,736 books were challenged in the United States between 2001 and 2009.

But, unlike here, readers are still able to find banned titles at various outlets.

“You might have to work slightly harder, but not a great deal,” Ezra says.

In Malaysia, however, the implications of book banning are greater.

When a book is banned, some bookstores will take their stocks off the shelf, of their own accord. When this happens in one bookstore, news leaks to the other stores, which may then take it upon themselves to self-censor – to avoid any problems, he adds.

As a result, one may have to resort to getting a banned title “under the table”.

Doing so is tantamount to a crime! The PPPA states that individuals who print, import, publish, sell or distribute prohibited books can be charged under the Act. The offence carries a jail term of up to three years and a fine of up to RM20,000.

Section 8(1) of the PPPA has it that anyone who possesses a “prohibited publication” is liable to be fined RM5,000.

Unfortunately, not many Malaysians are aware that the Home Ministry has drawn up a list of banned books. It doesn’t help that the list isn’t widely circulated.

“If the public doesn’t read the report in the newspaper, there’s no way they can know that officially or legally they’re not supposed to read a particular book or hold a copy of it in public,” says SIS research and publications manager Masjaliza Hamzah.

So, scores of Malaysians may unwittingly be keeping contraband items on their bookshelves – unaware that they can be prosecuted.

Bad for business

According to Kinokuniya Bookstores’ corporate affairs manager, Teresa Chong, the Home Ministry conducts spot checks at its Suria KLCC premises to remove banned books.

“They also routinely check all our book shipments. Or, we’ll be informed by the distributor or publisher of a (banned) title to remove it from the shelves,” says Chong via e-mail.

“The Home Ministry issues a letter to inform booksellers of books retained for inspection, and a notification if any title is deemed unsuitable after inspection,” Chong says.

Masjaliza says that the Home Ministry officials also confiscate books that are not banned.

“Last November, they went to a bookstore in Kota Baru to take copies of books which are actually not banned, such as Asian Renaissance by Anwar Ibrahim, Two Faces by Dr Syed Husin Ali, 13 Mei: Dokumen-dokumen Deklasifikasi Tentang Rusuhan 1969 Malaysia (May 13: Declassification of Documents About the Riots in 1969) by Dr Kua Kia Soong and Keganasan, Penipuan & Internet (Violence, Fraud and the Internet) by Hishamuddin Rais.”

“According to the law, Home Ministry officials need to account for the books they take from a bookstore. But who pays for the books? Is it a loss you have to absorb?”

The bookstore is usually given written notice of the seizure, but the officials are not obligated to return the seized publications, Masjaliza explains.

Section 19 of the PPPA states that if a book is not “prosecuted” (meaning banned), the bookstore has a month to write to an authorised official at the Home Ministry to claim it back.

“The onus is on you to find out if there’s any prosecution,” Masjaliza says.

Upon receipt of the letter, the Home Minister may direct the publication to be returned, or disposed of. “The minister may also direct the official to refer the case to the courts as well.”

Alternatively, Chong says bookstores can seek compensation from suppliers when a locally-published title is banned because “it’s the latter’s responsibility to ensure that they have permission to publish it.”

However, bookstores will not be able to get compensation for banned books which they imported, she adds.

Ezra says publishers, booksellers and distributors are caught in a bind because they are uncertain about which books to publish, translate or bring in.

“Banned books usually revolve around five topics: religion, culture, sexuality, race and politics,” he explains.

Such publications usually do very well because there’s a demand for them. But, much as publishers want to meet the needs of readers, they face a dilemma: after spending money on producing and promoting books on the above topics, there’s no guarantee that they can stay on the shelves.

“As publishers, this is business. How can we operate well if the product we put out can arbitrarily be taken off the shelves without any explanation or due process?” Ezra asks.

Authors and publishers are given 40 days from the date of the imposition of a ban to submit their application for leave for judicial review of the ban to the court. “There’s no option to appeal under the PPPA,” says Masjaliza.

Gayathry adds: “Often, many authors and publishers miss the deadline as most are not notified about their books being banned.”

Currently, Arumugam and SIS are challenging the Home Ministry’s decision in the courts. Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism, which SIS published in 2005, was banned last year.

The next step

Legal action aside, there are people who have voiced concern about innocuous books that get banned.

“You have books on breast-feeding and tea-making banned,” says Erna Mahyuni, a sub-editor with a local news portal.

In 2006, Erna and her Australia-based friend, Zona Marie, started a blog called Manuscripts Don’t Burn (freethebooks.

The blog takes its name from a phrase coined by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940). “Manuscripts don’t burn” became the catchphrase for creative people in Russia in the early 20th century.

Gayathry thinks it will be an uphill battle to mobilise people into action as only “a small community of people feel angered” by the seemingly random selection of titles that get banned.

However, efforts are being made to create awareness on this issue.

Last December, 10 NGOS – including SIS, Suaram and representatives from the Bar Council – passed 1,000 postcards protesting book banning to the Home Ministry. These postcards were among batches which had been handed out to the public since September 2008.

A Home Ministry official received the postcards, but to date the NGOs have not had a chance to meet with anyone else.

On Oct 10 and 11 this year, SIS and CIJ organised Right to Read, a two-day event during which the public took part in talks and workshops.

“The aim is to start people thinking about the issue: who does it benefit when books are banned and access to information is restricted. What is imperative is to repeal laws that restrict access to information,” says Masjaliza.

Erna adds that, as a reader, “I think banning books is detrimental to a country’s thinking and discourse. Controlling books is a means of trying to exert control over the sort of information that gets into a country. But in this Internet age, that is no longer an option.”

Adds Masjaliza: “(The Government) wants to make Malaysia the leading nation in education and multimedia, yet it restricts something as simple as books.

“I really think tax payers’ money will be better spent on ensuring good public services and that people get free books instead of being restricted from getting them.”

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