The Oscars celebrate films that can be both beautiful and controversial. But such storytelling is still a privilege in many parts of the world. And in Malaysia, one important British film has just experienced a serious blow.
Shutting down scrutiny
NGO worker Lena Hendry helped to organise a private screening in Kuala Lumpur in 2013. The film she helped to screen at the annual Freedom Film Festival was award-winning Channel 4 documentary No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka. This exposed serious human rights abuses committed by Sri Lankan forces against the minority Tamil population during the country’s civil war.
Hendry was programme co-ordinator at Malaysian NGO Pusat KOMAS at the time. And authorities arrested her for organising the screening. They charged her under the Film Censorship Act 2002, for failing to seek permission. But the organisers hadn’t sought permission because the screening was private.
Around 30 officials raided the event. But according to Pusat KOMAS, these officials had failed to turn up to a meeting prior to the actual screening to discuss the matter.
A UN Special Rapporteur expressed:
serious concern… that the charges brought against Ms. Hendry may be linked to her legitimate human rights activities, in the exercise of her rights to freedom of opinion and expression and of association.
Hendry spent three years on trial until Kuala Lumpur’s Magistrates Court acquitted her. But in September 2016, the High Court reversed this acquittal. She was finally convicted on 21 February 2017, and now faces up to three years in prison, a 30,000 Ringgit (USD $6,722) fine, or both.
Censorship and pressure
Rights groups have hit out against the conviction. Amy Smith of human rights NGO Fortify Rights said it “serves no legitimate purpose”. Others pointed out that “the film had been shown everywhere in the world”.
But Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch (HRW) believes that:
This prosecution is part of the Malaysian government’s disturbing pattern of harassment and intimidation of those seeking to raise public awareness of human rights issues.
HRW also said the prosecution was to appease Sri Lankan embassy officials, who had publicly demanded that the film not be shown.
The documentary’s British filmmaker Callum Macrae himself is now appealing for the overturning of Hendry’s conviction. Especially considering that Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has admitted the film’s authenticity.
— Callum Macrae (@Callum_Macrae) February 23, 2017
A matter of human rights
The conviction is a contradiction of the human rights that the Malaysian government claims to protect. The government voted, for example, in favour of a 2015 UN resolution “[r]ecognizing the role of human rights defenders and the need for their protection”. Its crackdown in Hendry’s case, however, could work to deter crucial rights advocacy in the country.
If Malaysia is truly committed to the protection of human rights, it must immediately overturn Hendry’s conviction, amend the Film Censorship Act, and allow Malaysians to watch what they choose. Amid Oscars celebrations in the West, meanwhile, we should all remember just how precious freedom of speech is – and how important the international fight against censorship is.
– Read the full timeline of Hendry’s case here.
– Use your voice to help #DefendLena.
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?