Malaysia: Government must abolish censorship laws that restrict freedom of expression

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the High Court’s decision to withdraw the appeal against human rights defender, Lena Hendry after the Public Prosecutor and defence lawyers agreed to withdraw their respective appeals following her conviction and sentencing under the Film Censorship Act 1998.

On 22. March 2017, the Kuala Lumpur Magistrates Court sentenced human rights defender and former Pusat KOMAS coordinator Lena Hendy to a fine of RM 10,000 or one year of imprisonment for screening the award-winning human rights documentary “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” made in 2013 to document human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan military during the 2009 armed conflict. Hendry’s sentencing earlier this year marked a dangerous precedent for the right to freedom of expression in Malaysia as screening the film without permission landed her a criminal conviction. Although the court has withdrawn the case, Hendry’s sentence to pay a fine of RM 10,000 remains in place and she has been found guilty of screening the documentary.

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. Hendry was originally charged in September 2013 for the screening of “No Fire Zone”. 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.

Malaysia must reform or abolish its Film Censorship Act along with other laws that restrict freedom of expression. The vague and over-broad language of the Act leaves it open to selective and arbitrary enforcement. The Act criminalises the circulation, distribution, display, production, sale or hire of any non-approved film and extends this prohibition to the 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. They are also 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 stop utilising vague provisions of law to harass human rights defenders and curtail freedom of speech and expression in Malaysia. We hope the Malaysian judiciary system will free human rights defenders, cartoonists, artists and opposition politicians and lawmakers from their charges for simply practicing their rights to expression.

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.

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