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Ministry's show-cause letter to "The Star" unnecessary, says CIJ

(CIJ/IFEX) - 2 March 2012 - The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) Malaysia regrets the Home Ministry's decision to issue a show-cause letter dated 28 February 2012 to English daily "The Star" for publishing a photograph of singer Erykah Badu with body art that included two markings with the Arabic word for "Allah", on 27 February. In response to the Ministry's letter, the newspaper has had to suspend two editors, Lim Cheng Hoe and Daryl Goh, on 1 March for an unknown period.

CIJ regrets the disproportionate action from the Home Ministry for a few reasons. The ministry's letter came after "The Star" apologised for using the photograph, which was used for an article to promote Badu's 29 February concert in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. "The Star", following an alert from its own staff, put up an apology on their website and social media platforms and removed the said photograph the same day it was published online, and printed an apology in its newspaper the next day.

Although some Muslims in the country regard the word "Allah" as sacred and would deem insulting any use of the word perceived to be inappropriate, the publication has not caused any harm to the Muslim community, nor to the newspaper's readers. The issue only caught the attention of some sectors of the public - who have called for the paper to be suspended - after an apology has been issued and after news of the show-cause letter became public knowledge.

The outcry also led to the banning of the concert on 28 February, for transgressing the guidelines of the Foreign Artiste Performance and Film Screening Central Application Agency, "under religious sensitivity and Malaysian values", clarified Information, Communications and Culture Minister Rais Yatim in one of his tweets.

According to a journalism blog, , "The Star's" Group Chief Editor Wong Chun Wai and a team of editors have had to meet the ministry's secretary-general on 2 March to explain the 'mistake' in person. The others were Managing Editor June HL Wong, Chief News Editor T Selva, and the two suspended staff, Lim and Goh, who are features senior editor and deputy editor, respectively.

CIJ views the Home Ministry's intervention as unnecessary and detrimental to media freedom. Media needs to be free to report on matters perceived to be sensitive without being accused of perpetuating the perceived offence. If "The Star" had committed a mistake, these are easily rectifiable without the use of law - through dialogue and discussion of issues.

Such incidents should not be used as an excuse by the Home Ministry to revoke a paper's annual publishing permit under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984. More importantly, it reflects the extent of the power accorded to the Home Ministry over print media under this draconian law. This latest sorry episode shows yet again how the PPPA is easily used as a tool to keep print media under executive control and why it must therefore be abolished in the people's interest.

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