by Choo Zheng Xi
A 93-page document setting out proposed amendments to the Films Act has triggered a heated debate over how the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) could be vested with sweeping powers, with wide implications for the creative industry and beyond.
It is currently the subject of a public consultation launched by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and IMDA on 4 December. One proposed amendment has sparked a public petition: a new Section 23A which will give IMDA officers the power to, among other things, break down doors and windows to enforce any breach of the Films Act.
What is the fuss about?
In a nutshell, the proposed amendments come with three implications which could affect you.
First, the additional powers proposed by the amendment are invasive. Second, these powers can be used on more people in more situations. Finally, these new enforcement powers can be used by rank-and-file IMDA officials.
What does the IMDA do?
When passing the IMDA Act to create the agency in 2016, Minister for Communications and Information Mr Yaacob Ibrahim stated that IMDA would take over MDA’s functions “to ensure that content guidelines reflect community standards”.
Minister Yaacob also highlighted that “the IMDA will not have any additional functions and powers beyond what IDA and MDA currently have.”
The Films Act Amendment Bill, unfortunately, proposes to give rank-and-file MDA officials powers even the police (in non-Films Act cases), would envy.
New powers and scope of the Amendment Bill
Under the proposed Amendment Bill, IMDA officials will have greatly enhanced powers of search and seizure under Section 23A of the Films Act, including breaking down doors and windows without a warrant.
The proposed amendments contain new and extremely broad language which allows IMDA to seize “any document or any other thing at the premises” as long as that document or thing “contains information that is relevant” to IMDA enforcement.
They would give IMDA officials broader seizure powers than police exercising powers under the Criminal Procedure Code. And these new powers can be used for any suspected offence under the Films Act.
Examples of what can be seized include (but is not limited to) film-making equipment “or a disk, tape or other storage device that can be used or associated with the equipment”.
How could the new powers be used in practice?
Here are two examples.
First, if you want to express your political views by making an amateur video montage about your favourite political party, you run the risk of having an IMDA official seize your video-making equipment. If your data is stored on a phone and/or backed up onto your computer, both can be seized too. The proposed amendments do not say when your devices will be returned, or how your personal data will be protected. Merely possessing a party-political film is illegal under the Films Act.
Second, if you possess a film banned by the Minister of Communications and Information under the Films Act, you run the risk of having your mobile devices or computers seized by an over-zealous IMDA enforcement official. For instance, the Minister banned the possession of Martyn See’s film “Zahari’s 17 Years” in 2007 because it was supposed to be “contrary to the public interest”, even though the film has been widely viewed on YouTube. If you have watched the film on YouTube, and saved it to your hard drive, the new IMDA enforcement powers can be used against you.
The IMDA is likely to reassure the public that enforcement powers will only be used sparingly. However, why should you settle for non-binding reassurances from public agencies which are no substitute for clearly drafted legislation? When dealing with legal rights, it is always best to err on the side of less regulation.
Who will have these powers?
Another reason you should be concerned is the fact that these broad powers may be used by relatively junior IMDA officials who are not specialists in law enforcement.
Currently, under the present Films Act, search and seizure under section 23 of the Act can only be authorised by a warrant issued by a police officer of at least the rank of Assistant Commissioner, to another police officer.
Under the proposed amendments, the IMDA will give rank and file classification and licensing officers the broad enforcement powers I have illustrated above. No warrant will be necessary. Under the new proposed Section 4(1) of the Films Act, any officer of the IMDA can be appointed a licensing or classification officer.
This is worrying because IMDA is not primarily an enforcement agency. As their titles suggest, IMDA classification and licensing officers probably spend more time classifying and issuing licenses for films than kicking down doors. IMDA officers are not trained as police, so it makes no sense for them to be given equally if not broader enforcement powers than the police.
To avoid further backlash, the enforcement provisions of the proposed Films Act Amendments need to be seriously re-thought.
Unless absolutely necessary, leave policing to the police.
Choo Zheng Xi is a lawyer and director of the firm Peter Low & Choo LLC. The views expressed are his own.
 35.—(1) A police officer may seize, or prohibit the disposal of or dealing in, any property —
(a) in respect of which an offence is suspected to have been committed;
(b) which is suspected to have been used or intended to be used to commit an offence; or
(c) which is suspected to constitute evidence of an offence.
 Films (Prohibited Film) Order 2010