(Bangkok) – The Malaysian authorities should immediately drop charges against a rights activist accused of showing a film about Sri Lanka’s civil war without Censorship Board approval, Human Rights Watch said today.
Lena Hendry, of the human rights group Pusat KOMAS, was charged under the Film Censorship Act for organizing a screening of “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” on July 3, 2013, in Kuala Lumpur. Hendry, whose trial starts on October 21, faces up to three years in prison and a fine of RM30,000 (US$9,500).
“Malaysian authorities are flipping the switch off on basic freedoms by threatening to jail someone for showing a documentary,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “They should immediately drop the charges against Lena Hendry and find a way to undo the damage to Malaysia’s cultural reputation.”
On July 3, Pusat KOMAS held screening of “No Fire Zone” at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. Before the screening, an official from the Sri Lankan embassy in Kuala Lumpur met with the assembly hall management and tried to persuade them to stop the screening. The Sri Lanka embassy also communicated with the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Censorship Board to urge the film not be shown. At the showing, about 30 Malaysian Home Ministry officials, police, and Immigration Department personnel came. After negotiations between Pusat KOMAS and the officials, they agreed to allow the showing to take place, but also arrested Hendry. They also arrested the Pusat KOMAS president and a board member but released both without charge.
Malaysia’s Film Censorship Act imposes criminal penalties for any showing of a film without Censorship Board approval, in violation of the right to freedom of expression. Hendry was charged under section 6 of the act, which makes it an offense to produce, manufacture, have in one’s possession, circulate, distribute, or display such film or film-publicity material that has not been approved by the board.
The charges against Hendry appear politically motivated. Shortly before the screening at the assembly hall, “No Fire Zone” was shown for members of parliament without incident. And it was screened soon after by other nongovernmental organizations without any arrests. Pusat KOMAS regularly organizes screenings of films on sensitive subjects, with admission by pre-registration only.
“No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” is an award-winning documentary about alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan government during the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. The documentary shows government artillery attacks that killed children, women, and the elderly and extrajudicial executions of captured fighters and civilians by government forces.
Sri Lanka has been the subject of two resolutions at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council in which the government is criticized for failing to investigate alleged violations of the laws of war by both sides during the conflict. In August, following her visit to the country, Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, was sharply critical of the government’s failure prosecute those responsible for serious abuses. The Sri Lankan government has rejected the war crimes findings of Pillay, the film, and research by a UN panel of experts and human rights organizations.
On October 24, Malaysia’s human rights record will be under scrutiny during its Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council.
“Malaysia’s willingness to block the showing of ‘No Fire Zone’ and prosecute Hendry makes it a disturbing partner for Sri Lanka in whitewashing wartime atrocities,” Robertson said. “Malaysia should turn these missteps into an opportunity to join the many governments that are seeking a measure of justice for the Sri Lankan war’s many victims.
Malaysia will be among the governments attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka on November 15-17. Support for human rights is enshrined in the CommonwealthHarare Declaration of 1991. The Commonwealth is empowered to investigate serious or persistent violations of the Harare Declaration and to recommend measures for action.
“Malaysia’s carrying Sri Lanka’s torch just weeks before the Commonwealth meeting suggests political expediency trumping respect for free speech,” Robertson said.