Time to abolish censorship

Lena Hendry (centre) and her lawyers emerge from the courtroom on 19 September (Photo: Pusat Komas)

The 19 September filing of charges against activist Lena Hendry for the screening of a documentary which was not approved by the Film Censorship Board has once again brought into focus the immense control of the state over freedom of expression.

Lena Hendry, along with Arul Prakkash and Anna Har, of the non-governmental organization Pusat Komas were ‘invited’ for questioning immediately after the 3 July 2013 screening of the film No Fire Zone, the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, a documentary about the final stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009.

It took authorities two-and-a-half months to file charges for violating the Film Censorship Act of 2002, but only against Lena Hendry.

The main issue here is that the government has opted to impose the old-fashioned law for the screening of a human rights-themed documentary, with a topic that is certainly of public interest: impunity of the state. Furthermore, the government has specifically targeted a person whose work is dedicated to promoting human rights.

Sri Lanka’s culpability for possible war crimes during final offensive against the Tamil separatist insurgency in 2009 has been the subject of much concern in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

It does not take a genius to guess that the Sri Lankan government is trying to prevent screenings of the film, and uses diplomatic pressure to prevent No Fire Zone in other countries. And in this case, they did.

With the filing of charges against Hendry, Malaysia will thus be seen as buckling under diplomatic pressure to file charges against its own citizen for showing a human rights film about another country.

Of course, the Home Ministry can always argue that it has to impose what the law says. And true enough, Pusat Komas has received warning letters from the Film Censorship board about their human rights film showings since 2009.

But their actions merely point to the absurdity of the Film Censorship Law: it is biased. Films produced or sponsored by the state are exempt from censorship.

The law is prejudiced in favour of the State, and, by extension, the political party that controls it. As such it violates the fundamental principle of free expression, since movies intended for viewing by Malaysians must be subject to the Board’s screening and go signal.

The law is thus prone to allowing government propaganda – even if malicious or erroneous – by default, but also to abuse since it can be used to ban films perceived to be ‘anti-government’.

In the hands of any unpopular government desperately trying to shore up its eroding credibility, the Film Censorship Act is a potent weapon against free expression, and access to independent information.

Moreover, there are already serious issues to be raised against states acting as moral police to impose ‘moral standards’ based on the views of dominant or official religions.

In the context of the unprecedented information now available through the internet, laws like the Film Censorship Act of 2002 appear archaic and self-serving.

Consistent with the fundamental human right to freedom of opinion and expression, much of the world has moved from film censorship to merely film classification. Sadly, across Southeast Asia censorship laws still persist to stifle independent voices and information, and not only for film.

The charges against Lena Hendry must be dropped. It is time for Malaysia to repeal the Film Censorship Act.

Case Background

The Malaysia government on 19 September charged activist Lena Hendry under the Censorship Act for screening a documentary that was not approved by the Censorship Board.

Hendry, program coordinator of the human rights NGO Pusat Komas, was charged under section 6 of Film Censorship Act 2002 for the screening of No Fire Zone, The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, a video documentary about the final weeks of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009.

The filing of charges against Hendry comes two-and-a-half months after an initial ‘questioning’ by the Home Ministry immediately after the film’s screening on 3 July.

If found guilty, Hendry can be fined between 5,000 and 30,000 Malaysian Ringgit (approx. 1,500 to 9,000 USD) and could face a jail term of up to three years.

On 3 July, Government authorities conducted a raid on the film screening venue at Kuala Lumpur Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall after the screening of the film. Some 30 officers swooped down on the venue and arrested Hendry along with Arul Prakkash and Anna Har, who were also officers of the Komas, an NGO promoting human rights communications in Malaysia.

All three were released on bail following three hours of questioning. They were ordered to appear in court on 6 August, which was cancelled the day before.  It was not clear why the two others were not included in the charges filed on 19 September.

There were attempts to stop the screening including from the Sri Lankan embassy, which had faxed the venue earlier asking not to screen the documentary. The embassy was said to have been invited to the event but did not attend.

Prior to the event, Hendry had received a call from the Home Ministry asking the organizers to stop the screening of the film since it had not gone through censorship.

Authorities also checked the identity cards of all the guests at the film screening.

In a related incident, the Sri Lankan government was also believed to have pressured the government of Nepal to ban the screening of No Fire Zone at a film festival in Kathmandu last week. Two other documentaries on Sri Lanka were also banned from public screening at the film fest, which features South Asia’s best non-fiction documentaries.

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