Malaysia’s communications minister caused an uproar Thursday by saying that anyone shooting footage in the country for publication on social media or traditional news platforms would be required to obtain a permit.
As journalists and press advocates pushed back and Malaysians joked online that the regulation would make everyone in the country a criminal, Minister Saifuddin Abdullah clarified that the government had no plan to restrict freedom on social media.
“[The] Communications and Multimedia Ministry is evaluating all the laws under its supervision. I would like to stress that the PN [Perikatan Nasional] government has never and has no intention to use the act to restrict one’s freedom on social media, a platform that did not exist when the act was made,” he said in a statement, referring to the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) Act of 1981.
“Because of that we at the ministry are open to accept any ideas to improve not just the act debated on Thursday morning but also all laws under the ministry’s purview to suit the current needs,” he said.
Earlier in the day, while responding to a question in parliament, Saifuddin had said media agencies or anyone shooting and disseminating footage via social media were required under the FINAS law to obtain a permit first.
“Film producers must apply for a film production license as well as shooting permit regardless, whether they are mainstream media agencies or personal media that publish film on social media platforms or traditional channels,” the minister said, citing the 1981 law.
“The government encourages everyone, young or old, individuals or organizations to produce any form of films, as I mentioned just now, as long as it follows the law,” Saifuddin said.
He said this after Wong Shu Qi, an opposition MP, asked him whether media agencies or anyone filming video for dissemination on social media or traditional channels would be required to obtain a permit from the film development agency (FINAS), which falls under Saifuddin’s ministry.
The discussion on the parliamentary floor stemmed from a statement issued by FINAS on Monday, in which the agency said the Al Jazeera network had failed to apply for a permit to shoot a news documentary about Malaysia’s crackdown on undocumented migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 25-minute documentary by the Qatar-based network angered Malaysian authorities, who branded it as “full of baseless accusations.” Soon after, police summoned production crew-members for questioning on July 10 as part of an investigation into a case of potential sedition and defamation.
In its statement on July 20, the film agency said it found that Al Jazeera did not have a film production license and had not applied for a certification letter “for the documentary filming purposes.” The agency added it would cooperate with police in a probe into whether Al Jazeera had shot its documentary “without a valid license from FINAS.”
Later in the day, Wong panned the minister’s response to her on the parliamentary floor, and described them as a move to apply the FINAS law to the Al Jazeera case in order “to silence dissidents or media agencies.”
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim echoed her comments, saying the law regulating filmmaking was being used against critics of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government, which came to power unelected in early March.
“Clearly the government wants everyone, be it politicians or social media users, to be actionable upon the breach of any content that is not in line with the views of the government,” Anwar said in a statement.
Reporters, media groups respond
On Wednesday, Al Jazeera, in responding to the statement by the Malaysian film agency, asserted that it was not bound by the FINAS law to obtain a permit to shoot its news documentary.
“Unable to contest the integrity of our journalism, we believe the authorities are now attempting this new gambit of claiming we did not have a proper license,” Giles Trendle, the managing director of Al Jazeera’s English channel, said in a statement. “We do not believe this is a credible line of argument.”
Jahabar Sadi, the CEO and editor The Malaysian Insight, a news portal, agreed that news agencies were not bound by the act regulating the making of films in the country.
“I don’t agree that news falls under FINAS. The FINAS Act is clear that it covers the development of the film or movie industry, not news or broadcast which is under the Communications and Multimedia Act,” he told BenarNews.
“I also don't agree that documentaries made by news agencies is a separate category from news, and thus falls under the FINAS act,” he added.
Meanwhile a Malaysian media advocacy group, GERAMM, called on Minister Saifuddin to clarify his comments to parliament, in particular those about media agencies being required to apply to FINAS for licenses to film.
The day before, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Malaysia (FCCM) also voiced concern as it responded to the statement by FINAS about the Al Jazeera case.
“We are unaware of any requirement to obtain permission from FINAS for a news video production. Whether it is termed a documentary or otherwise, such material broadcast on news channels have not previously needed any clearance from FINAS, be they for foreign or local news agencies,” the press club said.
“Various news documentaries have been produced by and aired on television channels both local – including state media – and foreign, without this issue ever cropping up before,” FCCM said. “That the matter has now escalated into criminal investigations is alarming given the wide swathe of news workers that have made video productions in the past.”
Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.