Malaysia: ARTICLE 19 condemns conviction of human rights activist for screening banned film

ARTICLE 19 expressed concern about the conviction of human rights activist Lena Hendry for the screening of “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,” a documentary about the Sri Lankan armed conflict, and calls for her conviction to be quashed. On 21 February, the Kuala Lumpur Magistrate’s Court found Hendry guilty under provisions of the Film Censorship Act of 2002. It set a 22 March hearing date for sentencing, at which she could face up to three years imprisonment. The prosecution violates the right to freedom of expression, and is inconsistent with international rights protections.

Hendry, a former coordinator of the human rights organization Pusat KOMAS, was originally charged in September 2013 for the screening of the award-winning film, which documents human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan military during the 2009 armed conflict.  In March 2016, the Magistrates Court of Kuala Lumpur dismissed the case, but the dismissal was overturned in September 2016 by the Malaysian High Court. Lena Hendry is the first human rights defender to be charged and convicted under the Film Censorship Act, which criminalises the possession or exhibition of films not approved by the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia.

The vague and over-broad language of the Act leaves it open to selective and arbitrary enforcement. Section 6(1)(b) criminalises the circulation, distribution, display, production, sale or hire of any non-approved film and Section 6(1)(a) extends the prohibition to the mere possession of such material. These provisions are inconsistent with international standards governing freedom of speech and expression, and are contrary to Malaysia’s obligations under international law.[1] They may also be contrary to Article 10 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, which guarantees freedom of speech, assembly and association.

ARTICLE 19 calls upon the Government to drop all charges and quash the conviction against Lena Hendry, and end the practice of utilising vague provisions of law to harass human rights defenders and curtail freedom of speech and expression in Malaysia. In addition, ARTICLE 19 urges the Malaysian authorities to immediately repeal or amend all laws, including the Film Censorship Act, which restrict the right to freedom of expression and to ensure that they comply with international human rights law and standards.

[1] While Malaysia has neither signed nor ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), it is nonetheless obligated to respect human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, as protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, part of customary international law.