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 has said.
On 21 February 2017, a Kuala Lumpur court found Hendry guilty of organising 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 22 March, 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 at Human Rights Watch. “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 21 September 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, Human Rights Watch said.
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.”