(Bangkok) – The Malaysian authorities should end their relentless prosecution of rights activist Lena Hendry for her role in showing a documentary film without censorship board approval, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 21, 2016, the High Court reversed Hendry’s acquittal and ordered a resumption of the case after the government appealed.
Hendry, a staff member of the human rights group Pusat KOMAS, was charged under Malaysia’s Film Censorship Act for organizing a private screening of the award-winning human rights documentary, “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,” on July 3, 2013, in Kuala Lumpur. A magistrate acquitted her of the charge in March, finding that the government had failed to make a basic case showing her guilt.
“Prosecuting Lena Hendry for the private showing of an award-winning film is all part of the Malaysia government’s intensified intimidation, harassment, and criminalization of human rights defenders,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should end Hendry’s three-year ordeal by dropping the charges and then promptly amending the Film Censorship Act so no other activists face prison just for showing a movie.”
The authorities are prosecuting Hendry under section 6 of Malaysia’s Film Censorship Act, which 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. If convicted, Hendry faces up to three years in prison and a fine of up to RM30,000 (US$7,000). Malaysia’s highest court rejected a constitutional challenge to the law in September 2015.
The prosecution of Hendry violates the right to freedom of expression under international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. Bringing criminal penalties for possessing or privately showing a film without government approval imposes a disproportionate burden on a fundamental right. It also runs contrary to the government’s November 2015 vote in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution that recognizes the important role played globally by human rights defenders.
The prosecution appears intended to restrict the activities of KOMAS by hindering its efforts to provide information and share perspectives on human rights issues. “No Fire Zone” tells the story of war crimes committed in the last months of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, including Sri Lankan army shelling that indiscriminately killed thousands of civilians and the extrajudicial executions of captured fighters and supporters of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
“The Film Censorship Act is a law from the pre-internet age that government officials can easily abuse and should immediately be scrapped,” Robertson said. “The real rationale behind its sweeping powers is to permit the government to arbitrarily suppress films it doesn’t want Malaysians to see, and to prosecute anyone who dares show them.”