THE recent seizures of Suara Keadilan and Harakah have once again highlighted inherent difficulties posed by the Printing and Publications Act (PPPA) and its impact on our publishing industry.
One aspect that has fallen by the wayside in the rush to speculate on the seemingly arbitrary confiscation — if they were part of a routine inspection, why now?— is that such actions scare businesses.
Seizures of Suara Keadilan happened nationwide and at street-vendor level. Ministry officials carted away stock — 453 copies in one instance in Penang — and issued “last warning” letters, threatening court action should news-stands continue to sell the alleged contraband.
“They do that to frighten away other vendors … It will be difficult to persuade them to sell the next issue,” Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) information chief Tian Chua said.
He explained that these intimidation tactics were alike those employed during the Reformasi period, when offending business owners spent days in lockup and were fined up to RM5,000.
A look around Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur following the confiscations revealed a blanket dearth of both opposition-aligned papers. “No stock,” one newsagent said. “We don’t sell it here. Look elsewhere.”
Haram or halal?
The scenario Chua described is similar to the one that PTS Publications general manager Fauzul Na’im Ishak faced.
Rahsia Arqam, a book examining the banned Al-Arqam Islamic sect, were confiscated in four separate instances. No reasons were given.
Fauzul’s company has since found it difficult to persuade bookstores to stock the title. “Bookstores are afraid of selling it,” he said, attributing this to the negative perception created by the Home Ministry seizures.
Without the Home Minister announcing a ban, Rahsia Arqam remains halal. Regardless, because of the obstacles, PTS will not be reprinting it. In all practicality, the book is banned.
Unfortunately, what businesses don’t sell, customers can’t buy. News of Home Ministry officers seizing From Majapahit to Putrajaya surfaced because customers, looking to purchase the title, found it missing from the Kinokuniya’s shelves.
What allows the authorities to seize material based on suspicion alone? The Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984. Section 18 (a) empowers “any officer” of the Home Ministry to detain “any printing press or publication or any other article which he has reason to believe to be evidence … of any offence under this Act.”
The definition of “offence” itself is vague. The PPPA defines an undesirable publication as containing anything that is “in any manner prejudicial to or likely to be prejudicial” to public order, morality, security, and public or national interest.
The law also requires periodicals to operate under a permit, which has to be renewed annually. The issuance of these permits is at the absolute discretion of the Home Minister.
Party-political newspapers such as Suara Keadilan and Harakah are not the only ones to have their permit renewals called into question; religious publications such as the Herald, a Catholic weekly, also face tussles. Last year, newspapers like theSun and Sin Chew Daily were sent show cause letters, with the attendant threat of permit revocation.
Ostensibly designed to safeguard public security and morals, the media law is actually a holdover from our erstwhile colonial administrators. Its ancestor is the Printing Presses Act of 1948, which was used by the British in tandem with other Emergency-era ordinances specifically to break the popular leftist, anti-colonial movements of the day.
Intentionally unclear, the PPPA is rife with grey areas that benefit instruments of the state, giving them nearly free rein. This kind of legislation, which affords unregulated power to the Home Ministry, has arguably engendered a culture of callousness and unaccountability.
Open to abuse
Malaysian Book Publishers Association (Mabopa) secretary Arief Hakim Sani says the PPPA is outdated and easily subjected to abuse. Commenting about its antediluvian nature, Arief quips that, under the law, “Even a copier machine can be considered a ‘printing press’.”
He says the 1980s piece of legislation failed to take into account the modern landscape of the book trade.
According to Arief, there are 10 to 20 Malaysian publishers who cater for foreign markets, which may have different requirements. “If [these publishers] print according to their clients’ wishes, and those clients don’t want the book to contain the local publisher’s or printer’s name, [this would definitely violate] the PPPA,” he explains.
Of greater concern, of course, is the law’s effect on enforcement. “Some of the wording of the PPPA makes it open to abuse … Most of the time we don’t know why a book has been confiscated, or there is no reason given.”
Arief has a story that illustrates the Home Ministry’s enforcement culture. During one iteration of the Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair, a large trade show and market, officers from the Home Ministry’s Publications and Quranic Texts Control Division turned up in search of religious contraband. Because the government only authorises certain translations of the Quran, any unapproved versions of the holy text are illegal.
“There were several exhibitors from Egypt, selling Qurans. The officers raided their booths, and took those Qurans,” Arief says. “It was an international show, with so many representatives [from other countries]. It wasn’t good for our image.”
Arief explained that the fair’s organising committee, of which he is a part, could not trace the officers later. “Yes, they are right,” Arief says, “but they could have been more tactful.”
Amend and update PPPA
“I definitely think the PPPA needs amendment,” Arief says, adding that there is a need to clarify enforcement procedures to help protect book publishers and bookstores against arbitrary action.
Malaysian Booksellers Association secretary Keith Thong echoes this sentiment, saying the government should update laws governing the book industry so that they are specific.
It’s hard not to agree with such recommendations. With wide availability of less policed content on the internet making a mockery of the strict laws governing the printed word, the time is ripe to tackle antiquated laws.
A review of PPPA could serve as an acceptable stop-gap measure. When publishers, editors and retailers know what the Home Ministry can or cannot do, one assumes there will be less overcautiousness and self-censorship on the part of business owners. Such a move can only benefit the Malaysian public that is hungry for new, different and better ideas.