'Red Lines' banned for racial, religious content, not political content: Jo Teo

Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo and
Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo and "Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle Against Censorship". (IMAGES: Screengrab from Gov.sg YouTube channel and Red Lines website)

SINGAPORE — "Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle Against Censorship" was blocked for release in Singapore as the book contains "multiple objectionable images" which are racially and religiously offensive, and not for its political content.

Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo told Parliament on Wednesday (12 January) that the government takes a "firm stance" on objectionable content, regardless of its purpose of publication, in order to preserve racial and religious harmony in Singapore.

"We do not allow any religious group to be insulted or attacked, because hate speech and offensive content can easily be normalised and lead to deep social divides if left unchecked."

Teo was responding to MacPherson Member of Parliament Tin Pei Ling's query on whether the political nature of the book, authored by academic Cherian George and award-winning cartoonist Sonny Liew, had anything to do with the ban.

Teo stressed, "Political cartoons are not in themselves the problem, some are already in circulation. It is very clear that Red Lines was disallowed for its offensive religious content."

Classified as undesirable publication

Last November, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) said that "Red Lines" was deemed objectionable under the Undesirable Publications Act (UPA) as it contains "offensive images that denigrate religions, including reproductions of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Prophet Muhammad which led to protests and violence overseas".

IMDA added that the book also contains other denigratory references pertaining to Hinduism and Christianity. IMDA, in consultation with the Ministry for Culture, Community & Youth and the Ministry of Home Affairs, identified 29 images that are objectionable under the UPA and engaged the book's distributor Alkem on the matter.

"Red Lines" is a tribute to political cartoons and includes interviews with cartoonists around the world who have been variously harassed, sued, jailed and attacked for their work. In the book, Prof George and Liew address the inclusion of the Charlie Hedbo cartoons by stating, "We are showing just enough for you to get the gist", instead of showing them in their "full frontal glory".

Alluding to the 2015 terror attacks on the Paris offices of Charlie Hedbo that killed 12 people, they stressed, "We (do not) fear that the average Muslim can't understand the difference between discussing and endorsing an insult...it is about the actions of uncompromising, unrepresentative and unpredictable individuals."

The book also includes a chapter on the duo's own experiences with censorship in Singapore. In May 2015, the National Arts Council withdrew an $8,000 publishing grant from Liew’s publisher Epigram Books for the award-winning graphics novel “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” due to its "sensitive content" and that it “undermines the authority or legitimacy” of the government.

Six books banned in past five years

Teo told the House that since 2017, IMDA has assessed six other publications besides "Red Lines" to be objectionable for denigrating various religious communities. They have been assessed to likely cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups, and are thus not allowed for distribution in Singapore.

For example, in 2020, IMDA deemed the book "Understanding The Evil Of Innovation" objectionable, as the book contained strong denigratory references against Judaism and Christianity.

"Removal of the offensive content will not automatically lead to these publications being allowed for distribution. Revised versions would have to be reassessed holistically," said Teo. Alkem and the "Red Lines" authors have not confirmed their specific plans for the book on the treatment of its offensive content, she added.

"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."

IMDA maintains a database of undesirable publications, which importers and book distributors can refer to. It is an offence for any person to import, sell, distribute, make or reproduce such publications. The penalty is a fine not exceeding $5,000 or jail not exceeding 12 months or both.

Redacted version offered to IMDA in 2021, says Cherian George

In response to Teo's remarks, Prof George said in a blog post that he and Liew had already decided last year, before Alkem approached IMDA, that "we should make some redactions for copies heading to Singapore stores out of respect for local norms".

He added, "We were waiting for IMDA’s inputs before doing the edits, but the government banned the book instead. We intend to proceed with the changes that we had in mind before the ban."

Alkem had approached IMDA in August 2021 for consultations ahead of a planned book release in Singapore. Last November, the authors noted that IMDA was grateful for the cooperation, and appreciated the academic purpose of the book. “IMDA recognised that the book republishes examples of controversial cartoons to illuminate ongoing debates and not to offend,” Prof George said then.

The book covers some potentially inflammatory cartoons while its draft has been sent to a diverse panel of readers around the world for a sensitivity check, said the academic at Hong Kong Baptist University's School of Communication and Film.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli also weighed in on Wednesday, telling the House that Muis supports IMDA's classification of this book, adding, "I'm certain the Muslim community also supports this move.

"We don't want to risk anything that will begin unraveling the peace and harmony we enjoy from the due respect and consideration that everyone gives to each other."

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