Censorship is a growing issue in Malaysia as it attempts to adapt to a modern knowledge-based economy. Malaysia has one of the world's strictest forms of media censorship, with nearly a hundred movies banned in this decade alone on the pretext of upholding morality. Most recently, a number of websites critical of the Malaysian Government had been pulled off.
In 2016, Malaysia was ranked 146th (out of 180) in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. It was also given a "Partly Free" status on the Freedom in the World report by Freedom House in 2008. On the Freedom in the World index, graded on a scale of one to seven, with one being the most free and seven being the least, Malaysia obtained four points for both political rights and civil liberties.
Unlicensed use or possession of a printing press is illegal under the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984. Journalists are frequently given guidelines by the Prime Minister's Office when reporting 'sensitive' issues, and media self-censorship is encouraged.
The Film Censorship Board of Malaysia is the government agency responsible for granting licenses to the films for commercial viewing.
Malaysia's film censorship guidelines were further tightened in 2003 amid rising Islamic conservatism: In addition to nudity and sex scenes being strictly censored off, kissing scenes and cleavages were also censored and many movies were banned altogether. Many movies have been banned for high impact violence and/or cruelty, which is also not allowed by Malaysia's film censorship guidelines. Censorship guidelines for local movie productions were only slightly eased in March 2010 to allow LGBT characters who could only portray their sexual orientation through hugging the same sex. No kissing was allowed between two men or two women.
Pornography of any kind is strictly banned in Malaysia.
After the negative reactions towards the censoring of an article concerning the 2011 Bersih 2.0 rally, in mid-August 2011, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak stated that media censorship "is no longer effective" and that the government will review its current censorship laws.
Despite this promise, the Malaysian government again censored reports by the BBC and Al Jazeera on the 2012 Bersih 3.0 rally. Both organisations sent very strongly worded complaints to Astro Malaysia, the broadcasting company delivering the news, about the doctoring of their news reports. The complaints were dismissed with Astro saying that the news agencies "did not take cognizance of the duty of Astro to comply with local content regulations". The Minister of Culture and Information, Rais Yatim, went on record to say that "only the best parts of the report" were shown. There were also reports of the police seizing and destroying cameras and attacking journalists who attempted to take photos of what appeared to be police brutality.
Ex-Malaysian Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar said in 2003 that the guidelines surrounding censorship, which were drawn up in 1993, would be restudied because some of the rules "were no longer applicable". He reiterated that the main objective of the code was to build a better "Bangsa Malaysia". On the current film censorship guidelines, he said that if a scene was "too sexy", then the scene would be axed. "It's up to the Board. They watch the scene and if it's too glaring then they will cut it. If it's not pornographic in nature, then they will allow it. It is very subjective." He also said, "Today's standard of morality and spirituality must be strong because people are exposed to all sorts of challenges" and "There is a correlation between criminal offenders and sex and violence shown on screen."
The censors pay special attention to political and religious themes in films. Sex and nude scenes are strictly disallowed by the censors. Films are rated to guide Malay audiences on the nature of the content, or banned outright if the material is considered inappropriate. Any Hebrew and Yiddish-language movies and movies from Israel are not allowed to be shown in Malaysian cinemas. Rastafarian reggae is often censored, as it refers to "Zion".
Concerns have been raised over the board's political neutrality, as it is under the control of the Malaysian home office. All newspapers need an official permit to print, which must be renewed annually. The licensing system allows the government to close media outlets at will and often encourages publishers to toe the line.
Up till 11 June 2011 and beginning July 2014, Internet content was officially uncensored, and civil liberties assured, though on numerous occasions the government has been accused of filtering politically sensitive sites. Any act that curbs internet freedom is theoretically contrary to the Multimedia Act signed by the government of Malaysia in the 1990s. However, pervasive state controls on traditional media spill over to the Internet at times, leading to self-censorship and reports that the state investigates and harasses bloggers and cyber-dissidents.
As of 28 January 2014 many political sites have been blocked by the Malaysian government. Internet users will encounter a blue and black box with "This website is not available in Malaysia as it violates the National law" announcement.
The OpenNet Initiative found no evidence of Internet filtering in Malaysia in the political, social, conflict/security, and Internet tools areas in May 2007. and is on the Reporters Without Borders 2011 list of countries under surveillance.
Prime Ministers Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak, on many occasions, have pledged that Internet access in Malaysia will not be censored and that it is up to parents to install their own censorship software and provide education to their children (provide self-censorship). The ISPs also actively deny that there are Internet filters in place when asked. However, the Communications Minister has occasionally announced that they are working on a nationwide filter, but each time such an announcement is made the Prime Minister makes a rebuttal to emphasise that there will be no Internet censorship. The state ministries of Terengganu and Kelantan have also announced that they have statewide filters in place in their respective states.
In 2006 Deputy Science and Technology Minister Kong Cho Ha announced that all Malaysian news blogs will have to be registered with the Ministry of Information. He justified this by stating the law was necessary to dissuade bloggers from promoting disorder in Malaysia's multi-ethnic society.
In April 2011, Prime Minister Najib Razak repeated promises that Malaysia will never censor the Internet. In 2016, the blogging platform Medium was blocked in Malaysia, after an investigative blog hosted by it, Sarawak Report, covered allegations of corruption against Prime Minister Najib Razak.
In February 2012, Malaysian authorities deported a Saudi journalist accused of insulting the Islamic prophet, Muhammad in a tweet.
In May 2013, leading up to the 13th Malaysian General Election, there were reports of access to YouTube videos critical of the Barisan National Government and to pages of Pakatan Rakyat political leaders in Facebook being blocked. Analysis of the network traffic showed that ISPs were scanning the headers and actively blocking requests for the videos and Facebook pages.
In 2006 alone, 56 publications were banned by the Internal Security Ministry, including the Indonesian translation of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.
Malaysia once banned the release of the Bible in Iban language. The translation of the word "God", i.e. "Allah Ta'ala" was deemed to be specifically for Muslim use. The ban has since been lifted.
In August 2008, the Sisters in Islam (SIS), an Islamic organisation in Malaysia, was surprised to find that a book published in 2005 featuring a compilation of research papers was banned by the Home Ministry of Malaysia. SIS research and publications programme manager Masjaliza Hamzah said that activists and academics from Southeast Asia and the Middle East contributed to the book in 2003 and that it mainly focused on challenges Muslim women faced in their countries. A statement from SIS described the book: "It discussed strategies...used to curb extremism and promote women’s rights".
On 27 October 1987, Operation Lalang was carried out. In this operation, two daily newspapers, The Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh, and two weekly newspapers, The Sunday Star and Watan, were closed down for several months. They also had their publishing permits suspended temporarily. Prior to the operation, The Star was the primary English newspaper that provided news in the Opposition's point of view. This was considered treason, and during Operation Lalang, this newspaper was shut down. Most of the staff working for the four newspapers were laid off or otherwise threatened with prison and detainment, under the Internal Security Act.
In 2003, Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad, the former editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times, wrote an article criticising Saudi Arabian policies that aided the United States invasion of Iraq among other things. As a result, the Saudi government reduced the Malaysian quota for haj and in the same year Abdullah "was fired without warning by the daily’s management at the request of the ruling UMNO party following a complaint by the Saudi ambassador in Malaysia." UMNO, which holds a stake in the paper, later stated that he had jeopardised Malaysia's close relationship with Saudi Arabia.
In June 2010, Suara Keadilan's publication was not renewed because it published a report which claimed that a government agency was bankrupt. Suara Keadilan is run by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's Keadilan party. The Home Ministry, which overseas Malaysia's newspapers, said it was not satisfied with the paper's explanation for the allegedly inaccurate report.
In July 2011, parts of The Economist's article about the 2011 Bersih 2.0 rally were found to be censored by the Home Ministry on claims that the censored parts were "incorrect and misleading". The move was later slammed by politicians, who called it an outdated move in a maturing society. MCA vice-president Senator Gan Ping Sieu even recommended a better approach of rebutting the claims with facts and "lodging a complaint against the publisher" and that the censoring of the printed article which is also available online would only stir public curiosity and "would only result in more people learning about the article, thus defeating the ministry's purpose of censoring it in the first place."
In January 2012, eagle-eyed readers of the AFP website found that the local tabloid The Star had removed the mention of Malaysia from an article sourced from the AFP. This discovery was posted to the 1 Malaysia Don't Want SKMM Block File Sharing Website page where many of the members criticised The Star for their action. Malaysia was removed from a mention of countries that practice internet censorship, reaffirming the readers that the country is indeed practising internet censorship and is trying to hide the truth from the readers of the tabloid.
In January 2014, the image of pigs were censored in the Malaysian edition of International New York Times, which was partnered with The Malaysian Reserve in the country.
In March 2014, the Malay-language version of the comic book Ultraman the Ultra Power was banned in by Home Ministry, due to it referring to God as Allah, raising the ire of Malaysian netizens.
Pornography is strictly prohibited in Malaysia.
Malaysia has a history of music censorship.
In 2003, American rock band Linkin Park was told to refrain from wearing shorts while performing and in 2004, singer Mariah Carey was asked to cover up. Madonna has been banned from Malaysian television and a scheduled concert by Norwegian metal band Mayhem was banned earlier in 2006. Malaysian organizers of a Pussycat Dolls concert were fined for flouting decency laws.
The country's opposition party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, urged the government to order the cancellation of a concert on 29 August 2008 by Canadian rock singer Avril Lavigne. Her onstage moves were considered too provocative for Malaysia's teenage population. Eventually the concert went on as scheduled; it sold over 10,000 tickets and was a critical success in Malaysia. After the event, the government lifted some bans, allowing musicians to perform in Malaysia to boost tourism.
In September 2009, the Malaysian government agreed to let Muslims attend a concert by US hip-hop stars The Black Eyed Peas, reversing an earlier ban imposed because the show was sponsored by an alcoholic beverage company. The government did not give further details on the U-turn, which had caused an outcry in the Muslim-majority nation. The protest reflects growing conflicts between moderate and conservative Muslims, including many occupying positions of power in the government and judiciary, in a country that has long been considered a moderate society in the Islamic world.
Shows by Gwen Stefani and Beyoncé Knowles (two concerts were cancelled in 2007 and 2009, respectively) have also faced protests by conservative Muslims over immodest clothing, forcing the artists to don attire that revealed little skin. Moderate Muslims, Chinese, Indians and other non-Muslims criticised conservative Muslims, calling them "narrow-minded" in the wake of these events.
In July 2010, the Wonder Girls were allowed to return to Malaysia for MTV World Stage Live in Malaysia, along with Katy Perry, despite her songs and clothing being too "sexy" for the Malaysian teenagers. In October the same year, Adam Lambert scheduled concert in Malaysia was given the green light amid moderate protests from fundamental Muslims over controversies pertaining to his sexuality.
In February 2012, an Erykah Badu concert was cancelled because it was found that she had applied a Temporary Tattoo of the word Allah on a part of her body.
In October 2013, a Kesha concert was cancelled at the 11th hour which has brought so much anger to the Malaysians. Although Ke$ha has tried to fit the rules set by the authorities but they still warned her that she will be imprisoned if she disobey the rules.
Any songs whether from local or foreign singers, may be censored if the song contains explicit lyrics or sexual references. For example, in 1989, the nation's public broadcaster, Radio Televisyen Malaysia, bans 71 songs by local artists in just three months alone. Lagu-lagu yang diharamkan oleh RTM (1989)
Ownership of satellite receivers other than those provided by Astro is illegal without a license (which in itself is difficult and prohibitively expensive to obtain). Owners of such receivers without a license can face confiscation of equipment as well as a hefty fine if discovered. This is enforced through tip-offs, and owners can be found out quite easily, as many of these receivers rely on dishes that are significantly bigger than those provided by Astro.
In other aspects, kissing onscreen on local television networks, whether free-to-air or pay television is prohibited, as are homosexuality, sex scenes/nudity and strong graphic violence. As well, strong language is also muted, whether on both free-to-air or pay television. For a short time in the early 2000s, images of pigs on terrestrial TV were also censored, although images of pigs are now apparently allowed, and there was no such censorship on satellite/cable TV. Although contractually, satellite networks cannot be censored in the country, Astro has censored news footage that is critical of the ruling government. It is the network's duty to ensure that the feed provided to cable and satellite providers in the country is free of all banned content. Therefore, the Malaysian feed of most channels is often the one meant for conservative areas, i.e. Cambodia and Indonesia.
On 6 April 2012, Information Communications and Culture Minister Rais Yatim said in a Twitter post that there is no censorship regarding the portrayal of LGBT characters on state-owned TV channels, including the portrayal of effeminate men; however the ministry has the right of select content suitable for the Malaysian public.
On 1 May 2012, the BBC strongly condemned Astro for tampering with their content on the BBC World News programme which was broadcast on 28 April 2012, the day when a rally which demanded electoral reform named "Bersih 3.0" was held in Kuala Lumpur. According to the video posted on YouTube, some short interviews with two demonstrators were removed from the news clip. On top of that, a scene which showed the riot police firing tear gas and chemical-laced water at the protestors was also censored. On the next day, Astro admitted to censoring the BBC's Bersih 3.0 coverage but expressed their disappointment with the world-renowned news agency for failing to understand their intention to "comply with local rules". Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera asked for an explanation from the local satellite television operator to clarify reports it had censored their coverage of the same Bersih rally.
Books, magazines and prints containing nudity (including nudity of aboriginal peoples) or government sensitive material are censored manually by shading areas in black ink. Some books are censored by removing entire pages.
Silverfish Books in Kuala Lumpur has reported on the censorship of foreign books in Malaysia. They have discovered the censorship of Czech author Milan Kundera, the banning of works by Khalil Gibran, Chinua Achebe, and Iris Chang, and the restriction of books by Rushdie and many others. They also managed to get a list of some of the restricted books from one of their distributors. The list includes literary fiction (e.g. work from Salman Rushdie, Irvine Welsh, Anthony Burgess, New Village Zine, Rebecca Wells), a fantasy novel by Robert Jordan, children’s books (e.g. SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer titles).
Among the academic titles banned for "disrupting peace and harmony" in 2006 were Mona Johulan's The Bargaining for Israel: In the Shadow of Armageddon, Mathew S Gordon's Islam, Trudie Crawford, Lifting the Veil, Bobby S Sayyid's A Fundamental Fear of Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism and Christine Mallouhi's Mini Skirts Mothers & Muslims. In 2014, the Home Ministry banned the novels "Perempuan Nan Bercinta" by Faisal Tehrani (for promoting Shiism), Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (for promoting homosexuality), Jacob Appel's "The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up" (for criticising Mohammed) and three other works of fiction.
Censored comics include It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, Ultraman the Ultra Power and The Best of Drawn and Quarterly. Censorship of nonfiction varies; it includes academic works such as: Mao: A Life and Making Globalization Work, as well as a host of books dealing with human bodies and/or sexuality, such as The Vagina Monologues, Breastfeeding Your Baby: Revised Edition and How to Talk to Your Child About Sex.
Among the titles that were blacklisted include:"A Wedding" episode on Glee
"The Queen Bee" episode on Ally McBeal
"The Video Tape" and "But I'm A Cheerleader", two Friends episodes
South Park is banned outright due to excessive vulgar content, sexual content and offensive, high impact violence, but is now available on Comedy Central Asia through HyppTV.
Family Guy has been banned outright due to depictions of vulgar and sexual content along with offensive depictions of sexual behaviour. It was unbanned in 2010 due to the availability of FOX Asia through Astro, but remains heavily censored.
Under subsection 48(3) and (4) of the Penang Islamic Religious Administration Enactment 2004, non-Muslims in Peninsular Malaysia are penalised for using the following words, or to write or publish them, in any form, version or translation in any language or for use in any publicity material in any medium: "Allah", "Firman Allah", "Ulama", "Hadith", "Ibadah", "Kaabah", "Qadhi'", "Illahi", "Wahyu", "Mubaligh", "Syariah", "Qiblat", "Haji", "Mufti", "Rasul", "Iman", "Dakwah", "Wali", "Fatwa", "Imam", "Nabi", "Sheikh", "Khutbah", "Tabligh", "Akhirat", "Azan", "Al Quran", "As Sunnah", "Auliya'", "Karamah", "Syahadah", "Baitullah", "Musolla", "Zakat Fitrah", "Hajjah", "Taqwa" and "Soleh".