Amend Film Censorship Act To Protect Freedom of Expression

(Kuala Lumpur, February 23, 2017) – The Malaysian authorities should immediately reverse the conviction of human rights defender Ms. Lena Hendry for her role in privately screening an uncensored documentary in 2013 on the Sri Lankan civil war, Fortify Rights said today. 

Hendry, 32, faces up to three years in prison, a fine up to 30,000 Malaysian Ringgit (USD $6,722), or both on the charge that she violated the Film Censorship Act 2002.

“Criminalizing Lena Hendry for screening a documentary film on human rights violations is unjustified and serves no legitimate purpose,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “This conviction sets a dangerous precedent.”

On February 21, the Kuala Lumpur Magistrates’ Court convicted Hendry under Section 6(1)(b) of the Film Censorship Act 2002, which prohibits the “circulation, distribution, display, production, sale hire or possession” of any film material that the government-appointed Board of Censors has not approved.

The sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 22. Hendry has until March 1 to file an appeal

Fortify Rights is concerned that the Malaysian authorities may use the Film Censorship Act in the future to target other human rights defenders and that the charge against Lena Hendry is directly related to her legitimate human rights work.

At the time of her arrest, Hendry was working as a Program Coordinator with the Malaysian human rights organization Pusat KOMAS, which hosts an annual “Freedom Film Festival” and regularly holds private screening events of independent rights-related films. These events are typically held without first obtaining government permission. 

Hendry’s arrest took place following the July 3, 2013 invitation-only screening of “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,” an award-winning investigative documentary by British filmmaker Callum Macrae about the final weeks of the Sri Lankan civil war, at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur. Approximately 30 officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs, police, and the Immigration Department raided the event. 

“This case opens the door for the authorities to use this law to target other human rights defenders,” said Amy Smith. “The Film Censorship Act and its application in this case poses a threat to basic freedoms and should be amended without delay.”

On September 14, 2015, the Malaysian Federal Court, the country’s highest court, rejected a constitutional challenge that the charge against Hendry violated Articles 8 and 10 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution, which protect equality before the law and the right to freedom of speech, assembly and association, respectively.

This is the first case involving the Film Censorship Act to reach the Federal Court. 

On May 5, 2014, prior to the Federal Court’s decision, the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders submitted a communication to the Malaysian government regarding the charges against Ms. Hendry. In the communication, the Special Rapporteurs expressed “serious concern…that the charges brought against Ms. Hendry may be linked to her legitimate human rights activities, in the exercise of her rights to freedom of opinion and expression and of association.” The Special Rapporteurs also noted that “such judicial harassment may negatively affect the work of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] defending human rights.” 

After three years on trial, on March 10, 2016, the Magistrates’ Court of Kuala Lumpur acquitted Hendry, finding that the prosecution failed to prove its case. On September 21, 2016, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur permitted the prosecution to appeal and subsequently reversed the acquittal. 

The Malaysian Parliament should immediately amend the Film Censorship Act to bring it in line with Malaysian and international laws and to protect free expression, Fortify Rights said. 

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes the freedom to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” 

The U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders also provides specific protections for human rights defenders in the context of their work, including the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. In November 2015, the Government of Malaysia voted in favor of a U.N. General Assembly resolution on “[r]ecognizing the role of human rights defenders and the need for their protection,” affirming its commitment to refrain from intimidation or reprisals against human rights defenders and to allow for peaceful and free expression. 

“The Malaysian government should put into practice its commitment to protect human rights defenders, in this case and others,” said Amy Smith. “The authorities need to recognize that Malaysian human rights defenders like Lena Hendry do essential and important work, and should be supported, not prosecuted.”

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