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Red Lines book was banned due to offensive religious content, not because of political nature: Josephine Teo

Red Lines book was banned due to offensive religious content, not because of political nature: Josephine Teo

Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo speaks in Parliament on Jan 12, 2022.

SINGAPORE: A publication that was recently banned in Singapore was disallowed due to its “offensive religious content”, and not because of its political nature, said Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo on Wednesday (Jan 12).

The book Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle Against Censorship, authored by Professor Cherian George and cartoonist Sonny Liew, was banned from being distributed in Singapore in November, three months after it was first launched in the US.

Responding to a question from MP Tin Pei Ling (PAP-MacPherson) about whether the political nature of the cartoons in the publication had any part to play in the Infocomm Media Development Authority's (IMDA) decision, Mrs Teo said political cartoons in themselves are not the problem, as some are already in circulation.

“It is very clear that Red Lines was disallowed for its offensive religious content,” said Mrs Teo.

She added that in the last five years, six other publications had been deemed by IMDA to be objectionable for “denigrating various religious communities”. Of these, none were about politics, she said.

“They either contained offensive and prejudicial content about other religions, or espoused polemical religious teachings which were likely to cause ill-will and hatred amongst the different religious groups in Singapore,” she said. “Red Lines is objectionable for similar reasons.”

Mrs Teo said the publication contained “multiple objectionable images” that were racially and religiously offensive.

She said Singapore's position on such content is well known, adding that Alkem – the Singapore distributor of Red Lines – had also expressed concerns about some of the book’s images being objectionable when it first approached IMDA.

Following IMDA's ban, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) expressed support for its decision.

MUIS said it had reviewed the publication and found that it contained several cartoons and drawings of the Prophet, as well as cartoons that incite discrimination against Muslims, mock the Holy Quran and demean Islam.

Responding to a question from MP Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (PAP-Chua Chu Kang) about the considerations and significance of IMDA classifying the book as objectionable to the Muslim community, Social and Family Development Minister Masagos Zulkifli – who is also the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs – said the book contained material that denigrated several religions and religious figures.

“These include caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad from the Charlie Hebdo magazine, which demean the Prophet and are extremely offensive to Muslims,” he said.

“We found it shocking that demeaning and insulting images of the Prophet should be published anywhere. These images had led to rioting and deaths in parts of the world, including in France, United Kingdom, Middle East, Africa, and Indonesia. Major media publications including in western countries have refrained from publishing the offensive caricatures,” he added.

“MUIS also said that such content that negatively depicts Islam and Muslims, or any other religions for that matter, are not acceptable, and even more so in a multi-religious society such as Singapore,” he said. “Hence, MUIS supports IMDA’s classification for this book. I am certain the Muslim community also supports this move.

“The authors may say that they do not intend for the publication to be insulting or demeaning, and their intention is to educate, but the Government rejects that. It is unacceptable to publish such caricatures and insulting images of the Prophet in the name of free speech, academia or otherwise,” he added.

REVISED VERSIONS MUST BE REASSESSED HOLISTICALLY

When asked by Ms Tin and MP Sitoh Yih Pin (PAP- Potong Pasir) about whether a redacted version of the book would be considered by IMDA for publication and distribution in Singapore, Mrs Teo said removal of offensive content would not automatically lead to publications being allowed for distribution.

“Revised versions would have to be reassessed holistically, and none of the publishers has sought to do so,” she said, referring to the six publications previously banned by IMDA.

“At this point, Alkem and the authors have not confirmed their specific plan on the treatment of the offensive content. If and when they do so, they can approach IMDA to assess the suitability of a revised version of Red Lines for distribution in Singapore,” she said.

She added that IMDA maintains a database of these publications, which importers and book distributors can refer to, to ensure that publications that have been deemed objectionable, are not disputed in Singapore.

The authority had previously also advised members of the public not to share offensive images that denigrate religions and religious figures.

WHEN AUTHORITIES WILL TAKE ACTION

In a statement on Wednesday evening, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said the Government will "assess and take action as necessary, in respect of publications which attack or insult any religion, or which may be perceived as insulting or attacking any religion".

"This is so regardless of whether the authors intended such insult or attack," said MHA. 

"Whether and what action will be taken, will depend on several factors, including the nature of the insult, attack, the extent of the publication and the likely impact on our population."

MHA added that the caricatures in Red Lines will in the ministry's view, be "deeply offensive to different religious groups, regardless of why these cartoons are dealt with in the book, and regardless of the authors’ intent in publishing them".

"The multi-racial and multi-religious harmony that we enjoy in Singapore today is not the 'natural order' of things," said MHA.

"It is a state that we have worked hard to achieve and carefully nurtured over many decades."

Under the Undesirable Publications Act, anyone convicted of importing, selling, distributing, making or reproducing an objectionable publication can be fined up to S$5,000, jailed for up to one year, or both.

Editor's Note: A quote from Minister Josephine Teo on past content found to be objectionable by IMDA has been edited following clarification from the Ministry of Communications and Information.

Comments made by the Home Affairs Ministry have also been updated following the release of a revised statement on Wednesday evening.

Source: CNA/vl(cy)

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