(Bangkok) – Malaysian authorities should immediately drop charges under the Film Censorship Act against rights activist Lena Hendry, Human Rights Watch and 11 Malaysian and international human rights organizations said today in letters to Malaysia’s prime minister and attorney general. Hendry’s case is slated to go to trial on December 14, 2015.
“The Malaysian authorities should drop these charges and put an end to the politically motivated prosecution of Lena Hendry,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Instead of films ending up on the cutting room floor or being banned altogether, it’s the draconian provisions of the Film Censorship Act that should be getting the snip from Malaysian lawmakers.”
Hendry, a staff member of the human rights group Pusat KOMAS, was charged under section 6 of the Film Censorship 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$7,050).
The law 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.
Hendry filed a challenge to the constitutionality of the Film Censorship Act on grounds that it violated article 10 of the Constitution of Malaysia, which states that “every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression.” On September 14, the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest court, denied the challenge and the case was returned for trial.
Malaysian authorities have rarely invoked the Film Censorship Act. Pusat KOMAS and other groups regularly screen films on politics, human rights, culture, and other issues without censorship board approval, with admission by pre-registration only. The pursuit of this case against Hendry appears connected to the Malaysian government’s desire to appease Sri Lankan embassy officials, who had publicly demanded that the film not be shown. Representatives of the embassy visited the venue, the Kuala Lumpur Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, on the day of the film’s showing to demand that the venue’s managers stop 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 prosecution of Hendry appears to be politically motivated, and 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.
“At a time when respect for human rights is in free-fall in Malaysia, the authorities have a chance to do the right thing and drop the charges against Lena Hendry,” Robertson said. “Malaysia’s foreign policy should not be an excuse to deprive Malaysians of their right to free expression.”