The Case of
Mentega Terbang

Understanding the incitement
of hate and harm

#SaferSpacesForArts

The filmmakers of indie film Mentega Terbang have been subject to a witch hunt. Both the State and social media users have taken aim at the filmmakers. What started out as online harassment escalated into an offline attack. Two of the team members’ cars were vandalised with the threat of more violence to come. 

This case illustrates the lack of systems to protect artists and artistic expression in Malaysia. The State failed to mediate the online attacks and incitement towards the Mentega Terbang team. This failure by the State to understand that the movie falls under protected expression has increased threats and harassment against the filmmakers. 

But Mentega Terbang is not the first creative work to fall prey to this mob mentality and State indifference. Creative works that discuss and explore issues considered sensitive in Malaysia are often subjected to harassment by right wingers. So how does this cycle of harassment and threats begin? And how does it escalate from threats on social media to offline violence? 

We must recognise this cycle of harassment so we can:

Below is a timeline of the events that led up to the physical attack on the cars of two Mentega Terbang team members:

In January 2023, the movie Mentega Terbang debuts on Viu, a Hong Kong based streaming service, two years after the film’s initial release. Then on 25 February 2023, Zabidi Mohamed a conservative scriptwriter and former Al-Arqam follower writes a Facebook post that claims Mentega Terbang is blasphemous to Islam. He goes on to make more than 40 posts about Mentega Terbang including posts that incite violence.

Zabidi’s post starts to gain traction among conservative influencers

25 February 2023: Rafidah Hanim, formerly part of the women’s wing of Islamist group ISMA, currently President of WAFIQ, a right wing women’s association reshares Zabidi’s post and says that there should be a law that allows JAKIM and LPF to work with MCMC to control media deemed insulting to Islam on the Internet

28 February 2023: Caprice, a Malaysian rapper and self-proclaimed defender of Islam makes a first post with reference to Zabidi’s post. Caprice regularly platforms right wing ideas and points of view. The post appears to legitimise Zabidi as an authority on the movie. Caprice makes a total of three posts about Mentega Terbang between 28 February and 4 March 2023.

4 March 2023: Multiple Twitter accounts publish identical tweets about Mentega Terbang. The implication of the tweets is that no action was taken by the Perikatan Nasional government and it is now up to the Anwar led government to take action. This narrative is repeated by Minister of Communications and Digital Fahmi Fadzil on March 5.

 

In January 2023, the movie Mentega Terbang debuts on Viu, a Hong Kong based streaming service, two years after the film’s initial release. Then on 25 February 2023, Zabidi Mohamed a conservative scriptwriter and former Al-Arqam follower writes a Facebook post that claims Mentega Terbang is blasphemous to Islam. He goes on to make more than 40 posts about Mentega Terbang including posts that incite violence.

Zabidi’s post starts to gain traction among conservative influencers

25 February 2023: Rafidah Hanim, formerly part of the women’s wing of Islamist group ISMA, currently President of WAFIQ, a right wing women’s association reshares Zabidi’s post and says that there should be a law that allows JAKIM and LPF to work with MCMC to control media deemed insulting to Islam on the Internet.

28 February 2023: Caprice, a Malaysian rapper and self-proclaimed defender of Islam with 1.4 millions followers makes an Instagram post with reference to Zabidi’s post. Caprice regularly platforms right wing ideas and points of view. The post appears to legitimise Zabidi as an authority on the movie. Caprice makes a total of three Instagram posts about Mentega Terbang between 28 February and 4 March 2023.

4 March 2023: Multiple Twitter accounts publish identical tweets about Mentega Terbang. The implication of the tweets is that no action was taken by the Perikatan Nasional government and it is now up to the Anwar led government to take action. This narrative is repeated by Minister of Communications and Digital Fahmi Fadzil on 5 March.

As a result of the social media outrage, whether real or manufactured, a total of 8 police reports are lodged. One by the political party Putra and another by Persatuan Seniman Malaysia, an artists’ association.

28 February 2023: Putra, a political party, lodges a police report alleging that Mentega Terbang will lead Muslims astray and affect their faith.

3 March 2023: Seniman, an artists’ association announces on their Instagram stories that they will be lodging a police report and invite their followers to join them. They allege the movie insults Islam and is seditious in some scenes.

Multiple government agencies and the police begin investigations into Mentega Terbang. The government’s actions appear to follow the directives of the loudest and most extreme voices. Comments by government agencies such as the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) and the National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia (FINAS) criticise the film, which reinforces the message of those making threats.

1 March 2023: JAKIM says that the movie goes against the Islamic creed.

5 March 2023: Fahmi Fadzil says that he will leave it to FINAS and the MCMC to investigate Mentega Terbang. FINAS’s investigation will be from a licensing and publishing aspect. 

6 March 2023: The CEO of FINAS Md Nasir says that FINAS will carry out an investigation and advises filmmakers to be more careful about the creative content they put out.

10 March 2023: The police call in Khairi Anwar, the director of Mentega Terbang and Arjun Thanaraju, an actor and writer of the film for questioning at Bukit Aman.

14 March 2023: Meng Kheng, the producer and several actors from the movie, including 18 year old Syumaila who played the main character, are called to record their statements at Bukit Aman.

Meanwhile, no action is taken against those who have made death threats against the Mentega Terbang team. The government remains silent about the threats against the Mentega Terbang team.

After two and a half weeks of intense social media harassment, the online attacks escalate into an offline attack

16 March 2023: Khairi Anwar and Arjun Thanaraju’s cars are vandalised with paint and a corrosive substance. Signs that threatened them and the safety of their families were left by their cars. Both have made police reports accompanied by their lawyers. Khairi receives a text message that threatens to run him over until he dies.

16 March 2023: Minister Fahmi says that he condemns the threats and implores Malaysians to act within the law. However, there is no mention of consequences or further action against those who have made threats. The framing of acceptable action within the law is also problematic. While it is within the law to lodge police reports against content we deem offensive, this is an undemocratic response.

The authorities’ silence and one-sided investigation into the filmmakers will pave the way for a repeat of the same cycle of harassment and violence in the future.

How do we know that Zabidi’s post is incitement towards harm?

An analysis using the
Rabat Plan of Action 

Here is an analysis of Zabidi Mohamed’s Facebook post using the Rabat Plan of Action. The Rabat Plan of Action is the UN framework on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. The Rabat Plan outlines a six part threshold test to determine if incitement to hatred has occurred.

Malaysia is a multicultural country with a population that is diverse from an ethnic and religious perspective. However, the country has become increasingly polarised over race and religion in recent years. Political elites often use issues of race and religion to attract voters. This increasingly polarising rhetoric has permeated Malaysian society, causing intolerance, increasing apathy, endangering inter- ethnic harmony, and eroding social cohesion.

The social media harassment of the Mentega Terbang filmmakers was kicked off by a 25 February Facebook post by Zabidi Mohamed, a conservative scriptwriter with 16,000 Facebook followers. Between 25 February and 18 March 2023, Zabidi posted 48 times about Mentega Terbang. Most of his posts have spawned numerous discussions but have also incited hatred towards the filmmakers and their families. He has also appeared in some media interviews, defending his opinion and calling for the authorities to take action against filmmakers and those who produce blasphemous content.

The intent of his posts seems to be to expose the movie, the filmmakers and their wrongdoings to a larger audience. It does not seem that he has any intention of seeking dialogue or comment for clarification or defence from the filmmakers. A cause of concern to note is the utilisation of slogans like “for the sake of Islam, will fight Mentega Terbang”. His consistent and constant messaging on this issue has caused damage, and created a safety risk to all involved in the movie.

Zabidi’s first Facebook post on 25 February has 15 main points about why the film is blasphemous. Although his main post doesn’t fall into speech that needs to be restricted, his post has created a hostile environment and allowed for more abuse and attacks against Mentega Terbang. This post generated 5.5K reactions, 2.3K comments and around 4.9K people have shared the original post on their profiles. 

In addition to his own posts about Mentega Terbang, Zabidi also shut down others pushing back against the backlash. Malaysian actress Liyana Jasmay posted a TikTok video urging Malaysians not to get triggered so easily by small things. Zabidi reposted the video with the caption: “People have trampled on the Quran in front of our eyes. It’s not a ‘small thing’”. The post gained 330K views, 3.9K reactions and 4.7K comments.

Most of the comments under the post echo Zabidi’s point of view that the movie is insulting Islam and threatens Malays in Malaysia. Some comments were also death threats against the filmmakers .

Zabidi’s Facebook posts were widely shared by many people. Most of the videos that he posted on Facebook have more interactions and reactions from users. Other than that, the sharing of his posts on other platforms like Instagram and TikTok also generated more hateful comments towards the filmmakers, actors and crew.

Besides direct attacks on the film’s team, the comments on social media postings also target those who speak up against the harassment and hateful attacks against the group. Zabidi also fanned the controversy by giving many media interviews, especially with local Malay medium media. The consequences of his postings are evidenced by the offline attacks and investigations against the Mentega Terbang team.

Zabidi’s social media posts escalated into investigations by multiple government agencies, death threats and property damage for the Mentega Terbang team. On 10 and 14 March the police called different members of the Mentega Terbang team to the Bukit Aman police headquarters for questioning. On 16 March, the cars of Khairi Anwar, the director and Arjun Thanaraju, an actor were vandalised with paint, and in the case of Thanaraju, a corrosive substance. The attackers also left signs threatening the safety of Khairi and Thanaraju and their families. While Khairi received a text message from an unknown number saying that this time it was his car that was attacked but next time they would run him down.

What can the state do?

Social media and police reports are the only avenues Malaysians have to channel their outrage towards creative content they find offensive. An official complaints mechanism that oversees complaints about creative content in a professional and transparent manner could help avoid future harassment incidents. The government must do more to ensure the protection of artists and filmmakers.

The State must create channels to expedite reviews of threats to artists and human rights defenders with Malaysian civil society. This increased engagement with Malaysian civil society will allow the State to better understand the nuances of targeted attacks against artists and others in Malaysia.

In Malaysia, there are several laws that restrict free speech. Under Section 233(1)(a) of the Communications and Media Act (CMA): “any comment, request, suggestions or other communication which is obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person” is prohibited. While Section 505(b) of Penal Code concerns “statements conducing to public mischief”. Section 298A(1) ) prohibits “…causing, etc., disharmony, disunity, or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill will, or prejudicing, etc., the maintenance of harmony or unity, on grounds of religion”.  

Section 298A(1) and 505(b) of the Penal Code and the CMA violate international human rights law. They fail to protect a legitimate aim and are arbitrary and vague, leaving them open to discriminatory application. Furthermore, the Penal Code and the CMA carry severe criminal penalties and impose custodial penalties on broad categories of speech and violate the right to freedom of speech. The provisions of these laws discussed above have allowed for the Malaysian government to censor debate, creating a climate of fear that stifles the enjoyment of freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief and the ability to engage in healthy public discourse and dialogues about religion. Read more about Malaysia’s blasphemy laws here.

What can YOU do?

Remember the Pattern of Incitement! Don’t contribute to hate and harm towards someone else even if you find their speech offensive. Freedom of expression does not include threats of violence.

Staying silent normalises violent behaviour. Join us in rejecting harassment and our call for safer spaces for the arts. Sign the petition.

Say that you want him/her to speak up against harassment. According to Article 19, public officials and elected representatives play a key role in ending hate speech. Let’s make our MPs work for us!

Fa Abdul, whose play Sex in Georgetown City was shut down by threats from extremists, wrote the op-ed “Mollycoddling extremists”. While a book cover with a painting that riffed on the national emblem was banned for allegedly violating a Malaysian law prohibiting the “improper” use of the national emblem.

Facebook has failed to take down comments that make explicit death threats towards the Mentega Terbang team, even though these comments violate the platform’s community guidelines. Demand that Facebook consistently interpret its own community guidelines and take down violent threats and content.

Here’s a toolkit from Article 19 explaining hate speech and ways to combat it. You can also read more about hate speech here.

Resources for artists

RISK ANALYSIS

The Defender’s Protocol
- A holistic security toolkit to assess physical and digital security.

TOOLKITS

Online Gender-Based Violence Resource Toolkit
- A toolkit for survivors of online gender-based violence and those who want to build safer online spaces.

Digital First Aid Kit
- Instructions for workflows and procedures for digital security help desks.

Tech Care: A step by step guide to providing digital support for civil society
- A free resource to help rapid responders, digital security trainers, and tech-savvy activists to better protect themselves and the communities they support against the most common types of digital emergencies.

URGENT RESPONSE FUNDS

Digital Defenders Incident Emergency Fund
- Covers replacing hardware/software, buying more secure software/hardware, physical security measures, and measures to address psychological and psychosocial impacts.

Legal Defence Fund
- Artists under threat in Malaysia can email [email protected] for help with legal defence.

FELLOWSHIPS

IIE Artist Protection Fund
- A fellowship awarded every six months to artists facing threats.

#SaferSpacesForArts

Additional analysis from: Article19