SUMMARY: Southeast Asian artists including filmmakers struggle with complex issues of censorship in the region. Among the issues raised at the Freedom Film Network’s (FFN) inaugural Film & Society conference in September 2023 include vague regulations, societal conservatism, and lack of transparency. Read on to learn how these issues impact the region and how artists and activists deal with censorship in Southeast Asia.
Censorship in Southeast Asia seems to find its common driving force in Moral Policing. This influence extends across the diverse cultural and political landscape of the six countries included in the 2022 Southeast Asian Arts Censorship Database Project, a collaborative initiative by ArtsEquator and Five Arts Centre. This pilot project meticulously documented 652 instances of censorship occurring between 2010 and 2022 in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines.
While the number of censorship cases varies among countries, the project’s primary focus was on documenting these incidents rather than their sheer volume. Regardless of the case count, Moral Policing accounted for 62% of the total documented cases, with 407 instances. Films (176 cases), publications (141 cases), and visual art (102 cases) were the most targeted forms, mainly due to their broad reach and established regulations, some originating from colonial-era laws.
According to Kathy Rowland, Managing Editor of ArtsEquator, in her summary analysis of the project, “Much of the impetus behind moral policing comes from narrow framings of faith.”
She emphasized that these findings highlight the substantial challenges artists face and the project’s primary objective is to equip stakeholders in formulating strategies to preserve artistic freedom.
Anna Har, the founder of Freedom Film Network (FFN), pointed out that policymakers, artists, and educators in Malaysia could benefit from exchanging knowledge and working together on strategies to better address censorship challenges.
Additionally, during FFN’s first-ever conference, filmmakers from Indonesia and Thailand talked about the difficulties they faced in expressing their artistic ideas and how they overcame them.
Here are 3 important takeaways that encompass discussions on censorship in Southeast Asia and strategies to address it.
“Filmmakers simply want to create films,” said Amanda Nell Eu, during the Freedom Film Network’s (FFN) inaugural Film & Society conference session titled “Dancing with Censorship”.
The celebrated Malaysian director of Tiger Stripes, who was a panelist at the conference pointed out that while filmmakers’ are mainly looking to gain recognition for their distinctive stories, in Southeast Asia, they encounter the added challenge of navigating intricate censorship regulations.
“We don’t want to dance with censorship, we just want to share our unique stories with everyone,” said Amanda, who is also the winner of the grand prize at Cannes International Critics’ Week 2023,
Another panelist, Thai Film Archive director, Chalida Uabumrungjit disclosed that in Thailand, where overcoming censorship authorities entailed a degree of uncertainty and guesswork, some filmmakers have adopted a similar counter strategy with some success. They produce abstract and enigmatic films to circumvent censors and effectively convey their messages to audiences.
Speaking to Eksetrika via email, FFN founder Anna Har, emphasized that vague guidelines result in inefficiency and self-censorship. This hinders creatives from reaching their full potential.
She further highlighted that accountability and transparency are essential for a healthy democracy, providing proper checks and balances.
“I think what needs clarification is the objective of the law and the purpose of censorship itself. The current Film Censorship Act (FCA) in Malaysia does not clearly state its objective or purpose, while in comparison, the Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) Act and content code set out their purposes quite clearly from the beginning.
“They emphasize principles such as equality, access, non-discrimination, and participation. Without a clear objective, it becomes challenging to evaluate the effectiveness of the law because we don’t know what it aims to achieve,” said Anna.
During the FFN conference, where ArtsEquator researchers presented their findings, it became evident that while the six Southeast Asian countries respectively possessed a unique cultural and political landscape, a common thread in censorship incidents was the tendency to cater to the notion of “loyalty to authority, the state, or religious leadership.”
For instance, Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, Thailand enforces strict Lèse-majesté laws, Vietnam follows a socialist republic model that restricts artistic portrayals of farmers and soldiers, and the Philippines, despite priding itself as a democratic nation with freedom of speech enshrined in its constitution, has faced censorship influenced by the moral values of its Catholic Christian majority.
ArtsEquator contributor and researcher for Thailand in the Southeast Asian Arts Censorship Database Project, Sudarat Musikawong aptly observed that censorship in Southeast Asia appeared to be still influenced by historical legacies, reflecting colonial-era values like “God, King and Country”.
Commenting on this, Anna said, “As per the discussion of the conference speakers, there needs to be a shift of focus from terms such as ‘censorship’ and ‘protection of the state’ to ‘building resilience and fostering global citizenship’.”
“The focus should be on consumers, their needs, and how the state can support them in achieving their goals.”
She explained that many countries have transitioned from censorship to child protection and developing media literacy programs with diverse stakeholders.
“Effective media literacy programmes and initiatives need to be urgently developed involving multiple stakeholders. Ensuring the social and moral well-being of the country cannot rest solely on one or two agencies, creative individuals, or the responsible minister.
“The state should promote exposure to ideas rather than suppression, but this must go hand in hand with fostering a culture of open and constructive discourse. To achieve this shift, the current emphasis on ‘avoiding sensitive topics’ needs to transform into an emphasis on ‘how to engage in meaningful dialogues and conversations around difficult subjects’.”
Indonesia has taken several bold steps involving collaborations in advocacy, dialogues, and legal bids to combat censorship.
In 2007, a pivotal moment unfolded in the Indonesian film industry when influential filmmakers and actors staged a boycott of the prestigious Citra Awards, akin to the country’s Oscars.
The country’s top filmmakers also launched a legal bid with the Constitutional Court to have the country’s censorship board disbanded for stifling creativity.
A collaborative effort involving activists, prominent artists, lawyers, and the public led to a court order that catalyzed the establishment of Law No. 33 of 2009. This law transformed the Indonesian Film Censorship Board into an independent institution, while still maintaining its accountability to the government.
These adjustments aimed to enhance fairness and transparency within Indonesia’s film industry, reflecting the pervasive call for reforms and a more comprehensive representation in cinema.
Tito Imanda, Head of Research & Development at Badan Perfilman Indonesia (the Indonesian Film Board), stressed that although substantial advancements have occurred since 2009, it remains crucial to sustain a culture of dialogue and ongoing enhancement in the Indonesian film industry.
He remarked, “The situation has improved, but it’s not yet perfect. We must continue to engage in dialogue and advocacy, with the key understanding that change is achievable.”
In related discussions via email, Anna expressed the value of drawing inspiration from neighboring countries, suggesting that policymakers, artists, and educators in Malaysia could benefit from sharing ideas and strategies and potentially working together on inter-regional campaigns. However, she acknowledged that this collaborative process demands a substantial amount of effort and time.
Anna further underscored the importance of integrating a comprehensive understanding of freedom of expression within a democratic nation and incorporating discussions about laws that may restrict creativity into our education curriculum.
“First and foremost, arts practitioners need to know their rights and firmly believe in their freedom of expression. They should understand that there are legal limitations to how much their right to express can be restricted. Therefore, a strong grasp of the relevant laws is essential. Without this understanding of these two aspects – freedom of expression rights and the laws affecting them – there is a tendency to merely follow authorities’ instructions and comply, rather than asserting their rights as auteurs.”
Cover image by SLAYTINA / Pexels.