Malaysia: ARTICLE 19 condemns sentencing of Human Rights Defender Lena Hendry

ARTICLE 19 condemns today’s sentencing by the Kuala Lumpur Magistrates Court against human rights defender and former Pusat KOMAS coordinator Lena Hendy, for screening the award-winning human rights documentary “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka” in 2013. Hendry was sentenced to a fine of RM10,000 or one year in prison under the Film Censorship Act 1998. The judgement sets a dangerous precedent for the right to freedom of expression in Malaysia, where screening a film without permission can now be considered a crime.

The sentencing of Hendry will only serve to limit the capabilities of human rights defenders who may feel forced to self-censor their work for fear of reprisals under the law.  Laws including the Film Censorship Act which can be used to prohibit human rights defenders from carrying out their work and peacefully defending and protecting the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be immediately repealed or amended to bring them into line with international standards.Hendry is the first human rights defender to be charged and convicted under the Film Censorship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”, 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.

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 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.

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