Update 3/22/17:On March 22, 2017, the magistrate’s court in Kuala Lumpur fined Lena Hendry RM10,000 (US$2,260), after convicting her in February under Malaysia’s Film Censorship Act for screening a documentary film about Sri Lanka. The conviction and sentence violate the right to freedom of expression under international law and should immediately be quashed, Human Rights Watch said.
“Hendry’s baseless conviction and now sentencing show that the Malaysian government’s muzzling of activists is out of control,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should throw out this case and then throw out the Film Censorship Act, before the next arbitrary target is found.”
(Bangkok) – A Malaysian court’s conviction of rights activist Lena Hendry for her role in showing a documentary film violates her right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 21, 2017, a Kuala Lumpur court found Hendry guilty of organizing a private screening of the award-winning human rights documentary, “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,” without censorship board approval nearly four years ago. She will be sentenced on March 22, and faces fines and up to three years in prison.
“It’s an outrageous assault on basic free expression that Lena Hendry could go to prison for helping to show a documentary film,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “This prosecution is part of the Malaysian government’s disturbing pattern of harassment and intimidation of those seeking to raise public awareness of human rights issues.”
Hendry, a former staff member of the human rights group Pusat KOMAS, was convicted 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. Malaysia’s highest court rejected a constitutional challenge to the law in September 2015. A magistrate acquitted her of the charge in March 2016, finding that the government had failed to make a basic case showing her guilt. On September 21, 2016, the High Court reversed Hendry’s acquittal and ordered a resumption of the case after the government appealed.
Bringing criminal penalties for possessing or privately showing a film without government approval violates freedom of expression by imposing a disproportionate burden on a fundamental right.
The Film Censorship Act is rarely 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 prosecution in this case appears to have been 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 on the day of the film’s showing to urge the venue’s managers to cancel the event. “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 violates rights by giving the government the power to arbitrarily suppress films it doesn’t want Malaysians to see, and to prosecute those who dare to show them,” Robertson said. “Malaysia should scrap this draconian law’s criminal penalties, revise it to comply with international rights standards, and allow Malaysian citizens to view films of their choosing.”
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