Conviction of human rights defender shows censorship prevails

Photo from the Twitter account of Callum Macrae


On 21 February 2017, the Malaysian Magistrate Court convicted an activist for privately screening a 2013 documentary on the Sri Lankan civil war.

Activist Lena Hendry was found guilty for organizing the film screening of “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” without the permission of the Censorship Board. The award-winning documentary is about the final months of the 2009 Sri Lankan civil war that killed up to 70,000 Tamil civilians.

The court will announce on March 22 the sentence on Hendry’s case, for which she faces up to three years in prison and/or fine up to 30,000 MYR (approximately 6,750 USD). Hendry can appeal the decision until March 1.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) called on the Magistrate Court to acquit Hendry and uphold the freedom of expression. SEAPA, along with other groups, reiterated its 2015 statement for Malaysian authorities to ensure that all human rights defenders are able to carry out their activities without any hindrance or fear of censorship.

“The film has been widely acclaimed, and is an important record of the quest for justice in Sri Lanka,” SEAPA executive director Edgardo Legaspi explained. He said that the exhibition of the film is part of the advocacy for human rights, which is also protected by international laws.

“Section 6 of the Film Censorship Act in particular is ridiculously obsolete in the context of today’s communications technology which allows anyone with an internet connection to access an unlimited number of films that did not pass through the censorship body,” added Legaspi.

“The Act’s broad scope makes it a useful tool for vested interests, including those with a political agenda or personal vendetta,” said Legaspi.

SEAPA backed the film producer’s Twitter campaign to support Hendry by mentioning the Twitter accounts of the Malaysian Attorney General @AGCPutrajaya, the Minister of Home Affairs @Zahid_Hamidi, and the Prime Minister @NajibRazak with the hashtag #DefendLena.

Hendry is a program coordinator of the Malaysian human rights organization Pusat Komas, which sponsored the screening of the documentary in Kuala Lumpur. Failing to convince the venue owner to stop the film showing, officials of the Sri Lankan Embassy went to the Malaysian police. They raided the venue during the actual screening.

Malaysian authorities charged Hendry for violating section 6 (1) (b) of the Film Censorship Act 2002, which states: “No person shall — circulate, exhibit, distribute, display, manufacture, produce, sell or hire, any film or film-publicity material which has not been approved by the Board.”

In September 2016, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur reversed the March 2016 decision of the Magistrate Court to acquit Hendry and allowed the prosecution to appeal.

While banning and censorship of films are a common occurrence under the country’s strict censorship laws, it is not known how often the provision of the said law is applied. The film was successfully exhibited by other non-government organizations and in the parliament without incident. Hendry’s case marked the first time in Malaysian history that a human rights activist has been charged for screening a film.

About the film: “Sri Lanka: Slaughter in the no fire zone

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