'Red Lines' book on political cartoons banned for including offensive religious content, not political content: Josephine Teo

Book banned.

Sulaiman Daud | January 15, 2022, 12:53 PM

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Minister for Communications & Information Josephine Teo stated that a recent government decision to ban a book about political cartoons was made on the grounds of giving offence to religious feelings, and not for political reasons.

Speaking in Parliament on Jan. 12, Teo said that the book "Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle Against Censorship" by academic Cherian George and illustrator Sonny Liew was found to be objectionable under the Undesirable Publications Act (UPA).

Offensive to religious groups

This assessment, made by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), is because the publication, which examines political cartoons, includes images that may be found offensive in a racial or religious context, such as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons which are offensive to Muslims.

Even if such images are used for social commentary or to aid discussion of the issue of censorship, the authorities have deemed it unsuitable for reproduction.

Teo said:

"The government has made very clear its views on the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and on offensive images which denigrate religions and religious figures.

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.

To preserve racial and religious harmony in Singapore, we take a firm stance on such content regardless of their purpose of publication."

Teo pointed out that IMDA previously banned books like "Understanding the Evil of Innovation" for offensive content towards Judaism and Christianity.

In the past five years, six publications had been banned for reasons not related to politics.

Teo said, "Removal of the offensive content will not automatically lead to these publications being allowed for distribution. Revised versions would have to be re-assessed holistically, and none of the publishers have sought to do so."

Authors' discussion

In the "Red Lines" website, which serves as a companion to the book, George wrote about the dilemma facing the duo about including offensive cartoons in a work examining their impact.

"Many of the cartoons in the book are works I would not want to see on the front page of a newspaper, as a poster in a metro station, or even Instagrammed in isolation.

Context is key, and I trust our readers will see the cartoons in their intended context: deep within a substantial, serious volume that shows art that some will find offensive, not in order to offend them but to aid important discussions about freedom of expression, the responsibilities that come with it, and the ease with which cultural disputes spin out of control."

In response to the issue being raised in Parliament, the website for "Red Lines" shared this update:

Screenshot from Red Lines website.

In her speech, Teo said:

"At this point, Alkem (the book's Singaporean distributor) and the authors have not confirmed their specific plans 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."

Statement from Ministry of Home Affairs

Also on the same day, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) released a media statement on the issue.

It is concerned about the offensive caricatures in the book and their potential to cause offence.

The statement added:

"Such images, even if intended as social commentary or for discussion on the issue of censorship, nonetheless have the potential to cause offence to various religious communities.

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.

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 said that offensive cartoons that wound religious feelings are not allowed to be published in Singapore, regardless of the religion in question. It said the caricatures in the book will be deemed offensive by different religious groups, regardless of the authors' intent.

You can read their full statement here.

Top image from CNA video.

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