Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Why censorship is evil

When I signed the Arts Community Position Paper on Censorship and Regulation, one of the ArtsEngage folks emailed me asking if I could blog about it. I wanted to, but never quite got around to it. Until now.

The catalyst was the ban on Martyn See's film on Dr Lim Hock Siew. I won't go into the substantive content of the film, or the comments by Dr Lim -- that is for another day and another forum, and I will only say here that detaining someone for 19 years without trial is quite unacceptable, to say the least. But I will talk about censorship.

The point here is that this was a factual recording of a speech, nothing more nothing less. No deceptive editing, no emotive music, no crafty juxtaposition of images. So the usual arguments trotted out by the Government about the "special emotive power" of film do not apply.

If there was anything in this film that could possibly be the subject of a bandeserved to be banned, it would have to be the words used by Dr Lim. If his speech was somehow illegal or unlawful, then the authorities should go after him for having made that speech and used those words. Go to the source and address the root problem, so to speak. Instead, the Government has chosen to suppress the film, without prosecuting Dr Lim for the speech. If the speech itself was lawful, then how can the possession or distribution of the film be unlawful? Why should the film be banned? How can the recording of words be somehow more illegal than the words themselves? And if Dr Lim had acted unlawfully, so much so that the Government saw fit to take action and ban the film, then why are they not prosecuting him?

And so we get to the nub of the matter. Censorship by administrative fiat, as in this case, allows the censor to hide and suppress inconvenient or unfavourable facts, ideas and/or words, regardless of whether those facts, ideas and/or words are true, justified or lawful. It gives the censor a convenient tool that obviates any need to confront or address the facts, ideas and/or words in question. It denies one's right to speak words that are lawful. And the fact that all this can be done, in itself has a censoring effect.

That is the nature of censorship in Singapore. That is why I signed the ArtsEngage paper. That is why regulation and not censorship has to be the way.

And this case shows why the Internet is such a powerful tool against censorship. The Acting Minister's order was for Martyn to take down all copies of the film uploaded by him onto YouTube and his blog. Well, the video is already widely available elsewhere, presumably thanks to the efforts of others subsequent to the issuance of the order. Martyn can comply fully with the letter of the order, without affecting the availability of the film on the Internet.

(As an aside, there may in fact be a procedural flaw in this exercise by MDA. They served on Martyn a letter from BFC and a press release from MICA, but it seems, at least from his blog, that the actual order by the Acting Minister was not served on him. This may be a procedural defect. How do we know whether or not an actual order has been signed, or that even if signed, it was without defect? A defect in the order can render it null and void -- ironically, a legal principle recognised by Dr Lim in the film when he recounted how the court once ordered his release because the detention order was signed by a civil servant instead of the Minister, as was required.)

Ultimately, this is again another exercise where Singapore is embarrassed (EDB and STB can do all the branding and marketing campaigns they want, but actions speak louder than words and incidents like this shout things out loud), with very little real effect. Well, I should correct myself -- maybe this incident has had a net positive effect. After all, the film is still available and has received a lot of free publicity, and the spotlight has been cast yet again on the dangers of censorship.


Alan Wan said...

If only LKY and the rest of our PAP Ministers including all those who walk in the corridors of power are as sensible as you, Singapore would definitely be a much better place to live !

b said...

What I don't understand is this: Why such intense fear of making this film more publicly available? It isn't as though most people would choose to watch a film like that; I don't imagine the filmmaker would get much of a profit if any from the distribution. And if someone were to watch the film and shift from being pro-PAP to anti-PAP somehow, will they necessarily be politicised? Would they necessarily decide to vote differently or act on the thoughts provoked by the film? Is MICA afraid the film would be shown in international festivals, thus tarring the international image of Singapore some how? Is it about "face"?? If so -- do the bureaucrats honestly think anything more than a niche audience would go to smaller film festivals? Why can't there be room for thinkers/philosophers/artists to raise these concerns? The alternative space is necessary. The act of questioning - fundamental to any art - is precisely what the government is looking for in encouraging entrepreneurial practices, isn't it?

Mohan said...

'b', i think the reason for 'non-approval', which is not necessarily a 'ban', is that should the BFC have allowed the film to be shown in Singapore, it would have been seen as if the BFC in some way agreed to the content & therefore allegation, mentioned by Dr Lim.

Quite honestly the 'non-approval' was good for the film because it has raised a lot of interest & made more people aware of what Dr Lim has said, plus it puts the censors in a poor light.

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