Picture Credit: Fahmi Reza
Lena Hendry was found guilty on February 21 2017 by the Magistrate’s Court in Kuala Lumpur for screening “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka”, a film on human rights violations during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Her sentencing will take place on March 22, 2017.
Human rights defender and former PUSAT KOMAS program coordinator Lena Hendry was detained in July 3 2013 and 2 months later on 19 September, she was charged under Section 6 of Malaysia’s repressive Film Censorship Act 2002 for screening the documentary film. After a long process of court litigation in the past 3 years, she was initially acquitted by the Magistrates’ Court on March 10 2016. But the Public Prosecutor appealed the case further which finally resulted in the conviction of Lena for screening a film without a censorship permit as required by strict Malaysian film censorship law.
We strongly believe that Lena has been arbitrarily and unjustly targeted and persecuted. We continue to be puzzled that while the police found no basis to detain Lena’s colleagues who were also present in the same event, she was singled out and charged with committing an offense. This contradictory double standard action reflects the inconsistency in the prosecution and the ridiculous nature of Lena’s arrest and subsequent conviction for screening a documentary film.
Lena’s defense has also clearly pointed out and substantiated by documents during the trial that the authorities’ actions were motivated by an unhappy Sri Lankan embassy that wanted to arbitrarily stop the screening of a film highlighting human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. We are deeply concerned that the Malaysian authorities seemed to be very accommodating to the wishes and dictates of a foreign government even to ridiculously determining what films should be screened or not on Malaysian soil.
What is more mind boggling is the fact that since Lena’s incident, the same film has been screened by different organizations and surprisingly they were not slapped with any legal actions or arrests by enforcement agencies and other relevant authorities especially the film section of Malaysia’s Home Ministry. For instance an NGO had also screened this same film at the same venue just a week after KOMAS’ film screening incident. Despite the presence of Home Ministry officials at the screening, the organizers and their event went unhindered by the authorities.
Notably this film was also screened at the 2015 International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) hosted in KL which went smoothly without any form of harassment by the authorities.
The Malaysian film censorship law requires all films to be vetted by government censors before being screened, but in reality this law has been used mainly to regulate piracy of film materials and products, and to regulate commercially distributed and screened films in cinemas.
In fact, KOMAS has been organizing film screenings as part its public education and awareness efforts for the past 20 years. In fact we have been successfully organizing the freedom film festival, a human rights film screening and competition event, since 2003.
So why have the Malaysian authorities relentlessly pursued Lena’s case and continued persecuting her by appealing in the High Court despite her earlier acquittal by the Magistrates Court which had found no ‘prima facie’ (insufficient evidence to support a case) in the case?
Under the Malaysia’s Film Censorship Act, Lena’s conviction carries a possible jail sentence of up to three years imprisonment and/or a fine not exceeding RM 30,000. This conviction has also unjustly slammed her with a criminal record which will affect the rest of her life from now on in terms of securing employment, bank loans or even her right to travel abroad. It is truly very disturbing and almost incomprehensible that a person has been punished for wanting to raise awareness on, and concerns for marginalized communities suffering from human rights violations and atrocities.
Furthermore, even if her failing to obtain a permit for the film screening is considered an offense under the law, this is essentially a procedural matter and not deserving of a jail sentence and heavy fine.
We would like to strongly remind the authorities and their relevant agencies that the Malaysian Constitution under Article 10 guarantees Malaysian citizens the right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has described the penalizing of expression of opinions about historical facts as a violation of the principles of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). This documentary film and its screening contains an expression of opinions about what occurred during the Sri Lankan Civil War and the right to openly discuss such past political events is a fundamental part of the values established by the ICCPR. Prosecuting Lena Hendry under this Act has placed the Malaysian government at odds with its own constitution and commitments to the ICCPR.
A research commissioned by the American Bar found that the Malaysian Film Censorship Act is much more restrictive than other forms of censorship within Asia.
“Despite the prevalence of film censorship within the region, few countries have as much power over the films within their country as Malaysia. Malaysia’s unique control over films that are not just publicly screened but also those that are privately owned makes Malaysian law uniquely restrictive,” the report said.
Thus, we strongly condemn this selective persecution and conviction of Lena Hendry and call upon the government to seriously commit to and align its laws to international standards of human rights. We also urge the relevant authorities to respect the basic right of citizens to decide what films they can or cannot watch and principles of freedom of expression and information.
Stop the unjust and insane persecution of human rights defenders.
Free Lena Hendry unconditionally.