Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) has slammed the RM10,000 fine imposed on popular radio station BFM for carrying an interview with an Islamic scholar on the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims.
The press freedom watchdog called on the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to adhere to the federal constitution and international standards on freedom of expression.
"MCMC should review the licence conditions imposed on broadcasters and remove any requirement for the pre-approval of all content that place overly broad and onerous requirements on the broadcaster," it said in a statement.
CIJ also urged MCMC to cancel the fine which the centre felt had been wrongly imposed.
BFM was fined over an interview in October last year with Iranian-American Islamic scholar Reza Aslan (left) who was critical of the court ruling that banned non-Muslims from using the term 'Allah'.
MCMC deemed BFM had breached the conditions under their Individual Content Applications Service Provider (CASP-I) broadcast licence.
Under the licence, the regulator's approval must be obtained before any live or delayed telecast.
However, CIJ described it as "extremely onerous" to require broadcasters to submit all their content for pre-approval by the regulator.
"Such a condition produces a chilling effect on broadcasters as it may cause them to be overcautious and practise self-censorship.
"This is an infringement on the freedom of expression and damaging to media freedom, in particular," it said.
As for the dispute over the ban on the usage of the term ‘Allah’, CIJ noted that there were strong opposing views in relation to this subject.
"It has also been shown however, in various forums, that we could discuss this issue calmly, even if we might disagree.
"If the government and the MCMC disagreed with Reza's views, they could have made their own arguments against them, rather than attempting to shut down healthy debate," it lamented.
CIJ noted that MCMC had stated in a previous case involving another radio station that the CASP-I licence has a prohibition on content that might upset the sensibilities and sentiments of any race or religion in this country.
"CIJ calls on the MCMC to ensure that any licence conditions imposed on broadcasters are subject to and read in the light of the federal constitution, in particular Article 10 which guarantees freedom of expression.
"Restrictions on freedom of expression can only be imposed by Parliament in the interests of national security, public order, and public morality.
"These restrictions must be shown to be necessary and proportionate," it stressed.
CIJ argued that the prohibition on upsetting the sensibilities and sentiments of any race or religion is an extremely broad condition and overly onerous to place on broadcasters.
"Fulfilling this condition would require the regulator to artificially construct what a particular race or religion's sensibilities and sentiments are.
"Given the breadth of views encompassed by any one race, this is an impossible task. Race and religion are not established, static notions but constructs that are fluid and constantly in flux," it added.
Therefore, CIJ said the above condition was susceptible to various equally valid interpretations including different interpretations by both the broadcaster and the regulator.
"It is not the job of the broadcaster to second guess what is meant by the state or the regulator, but rather for any conditions to be expressed in specific and narrow terms.
"Views and discussions on ethnicity or religion should not be unnecessarily and disproportionately curbed, simply on the notion that the feelings of a particular religion's adherents might be hurt.
"Not only is this a breach of human rights standards on freedom of expression, it is also harmful to proper discourse and debate in our multi-ethnic, multi-religious country."
The move by regulator MCMC to fine BFM has outraged many Malaysians.
Press freedom advocate Masjaliza Hamzah has yesterday launched a Facebook page, 'I pledge RM10 for BFM', and it drew significant support.