NYT: Malaysian Court Ends Ban on Book

19 Feb

New York Times

January 26, 2010

Malaysian Court Ends Ban on Book
By LIZ GOOCH

KUALA LUMPUR – Free speech advocates were rejoicing Monday after a Malaysian court quashed a government ban on a book about the challenges facing Muslim women.
In a country where human rights organizations say that government censorship pervades many parts of public life, the decision was hailed as a victory for freedom of expression.

“We were hoping, we were praying that this would mark a good day for all
Malaysians,” said Professor Norani Othman, the editor of the banned book,
“Muslim Women and the Challenges of Islamic Extremism,” a collection of
essays by international scholars. “It’s a good day for academic freedom.”

In July 2008, the Ministry of Home Affairs banned the book, published in
2005 by Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian nongovernmental organization, on the
grounds that it was “prejudicial to public order” and that it could confuse
Muslims, particularly Muslim women.

The Printing Presses and Publications Act states that anyone who prints,
publishes or distributes a banned publication can be fined up to 20,000
ringgit, or $5,900, jailed for up to three years, or both. Anyone found in
possession of a banned publication without lawful excuse can be fined up to
5,000 ringgit.

Sisters in Islam filed a judicial review in the Kuala Lumpur High Court in
December 2008 on the basis that the ban was unconstitutional because it
infringed upon freedom of speech and religion and gender equality.

Justice Mohamad Ariff Yusof said Monday that he had failed to find that the
facts of the case supported the decision to ban the book on the grounds that
it could disrupt public order.

“There are just seven pages of text which are objected to out of 215 pages
in the book,” he said. “The book itself was in circulation for over two
years in Malaysia before the minister decided to ban it.”
He ordered the government to pay court costs incurred by Sisters in Islam.
Noor Hisham Ismail, the senior federal counsel who represented the ministry, said he could not yet say whether the government would appeal the decision.

Professor Norani, the book’s editor and a sociologist at the National
University of Malaysia, said she was overjoyed by the decision and hoped
that it would encourage others to produce books that questioned the
politicization of Islam.

Authors, journalists and human rights groups have expressed concern about
attempts to stifle freedom of speech in Malaysia, which was ranked 131st out
of 172 countries in the 2009 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

Some 397 books containing “materials that could jeopardize public order and
obscenity” were banned by the government from 2000 to July 2009, according to a report last year by the national news agency, Bernama.

Wong Chin Huat, chairman of the Writers Alliance for Media Independence,
said the government used laws like the Internal Security Act, the Sedition
Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act to control the media and
to persecute people who spoke out on issues deemed to be sensitive.

Mr. Wong, a journalism lecturer at Monash University Malaysia, said the
Monday court decision was “very heartening.”

“After the ‘Allah’ row, it shows for the second time that the judiciary has
been bold enough to defend freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” he
said, referring to the Dec. 31 court decision that Christians could use the
word “Allah” to refer to God.

Yip Wai Fong, communications officer for the Center for Independent
Journalism in Malaysia, said the decision would give writers more confidence
to challenge government attempts at censorship. She said laws requiring
print publications to have their licenses renewed annually by the government resulted in self-censorship.

“Censorship in the newsroom is still very much alive because of these laws,”
she said, adding that this had prompted a proliferation of online news media
sites in recent years.

The High Court is due to rule on Friday whether a government ban on another book, “March 8” by K. Arumugam, was valid. The book, which was written in Tamil and sold about 3,000 copies before it was banned in 2007, is described by the author as an analysis of attacks on Tamils in a Kuala Lumpur suburb in 2001.

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