(Bangkok) – The Malaysian authorities should end their prosecution of a local activist for her role in showing a documentary film without censorship board approval, Human Rights Watch said today. Malaysia’s Federal Court will hear Lena Hendry’s challenge to the constitutionality of the Film Censorship Act on September 14, 2015.

Hendry, a staff member of the human rights group Pusat KOMAS, was charged under the act for organizing a private screening of the award-winning documentary, “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,” on July 3, 2013, in Kuala Lumpur. If convicted, she faces up to three years in prison and a fine of up to RM30,000 (US$7,000).

Pusat KOMAS staff member Lena Hendry.

© Lena Hendry

“Prosecuting someone for the private showing of an award-winning film shows how determined Malaysian authorities are to stomp on the right to free expression,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should call off its intensifying assault on free expression and promptly amend the Film Censorship Act.”

Section 6 of Malaysia’s Film Censorship Act, under which Hendry is being prosecuted, prohibits the “circulation, distribution, display, production, sale, hire” or “possession” of any film, whether imported or domestically produced, without first obtaining approval from the government-appointed Board of Censors. The law defines “film” very broadly – and could potentially be applied to home videos or videos taken on a smartphone. Should the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest, rule against Hendry, her case will proceed to trial.

Rather than acting like a ‘big brother’ to censor films Malaysians have a right to see, the government should change the law that allows this misuse of power. Malaysians should never have to fear arrest for organizing a film festival or going to watch a movie.

Phil Robertson

deputy Asia director

To date, the Film Censorship Act has been seldom invoked and Pusat KOMAS regularly screens films on politics, human rights, culture, and other issues without censorship board approval, with admission by pre-registration only. The charges against Hendry appear to have been primarily motivated by the Malaysian government’s desire to appease Sri Lankan embassy officials, who had publicly demanded that the film not be shown and visited the venue, the Kuala Lumpur Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, on the day of the film’s showing to urge the venue’s managers to cancel the event. “No Fire Zone” concerns war crimes committed in the last months of Sri Lanka’s civil war, including Sri Lankan army artillery attacks that indiscriminately killed thousands of civilians and the extrajudicial executions of captured fighters and supporters of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The authorities’ politically motivated prosecution of Hendry is contrary to internationally recognized standards for the protection of freedom of expression. The imposition of criminal penalties for choosing to possess or show a film that the government has not previously approved is not necessary to protect national security, public order, public morals, or the rights and reputations of others, and imposes a disproportionate burden on a fundamental right.

“Rather than acting like a ‘big brother’ to censor films Malaysians have a right to see, the government should change the law that allows this misuse of power,” Robertson said. “Malaysians should never have to fear arrest for organizing a film festival or going to watch a movie.”