Nearly 100 leading film-makers, writers, artists and lawyers from around the world have signed an open letter calling on the Malaysian government to drop charges against a human rights activist who is due to go on trial on Monday 14 December and could face up to three years in jail for screening a film on the war in Sri Lanka.
Lena Hendry, of the Malaysian human rights NGO Pusat KOMAS, has been charged under Malaysia’s draconian censorship laws for screening the award-winning documentary No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka – a film about human rights abuses at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war – to an invited audience in July 2013.
The screening was raided by 30 officials from the Malaysian Home Ministry, the Police and Immigration officials. Ms Hendry, who is also Manager of Kuala Lumpur’s Freedom Film Festival, is charged under Malaysia’s Film Censorship law of 2002 which states that it is illegal for anyone to possess, distribute or show a film which has not been approved by the country’s censorship board. The signatories of the letter, who include many well known actors, directors and artists, including the rapper M.I.A, Grammy Award winning Angelique Kidjo and leading film directors from the US, India, Malaysia and the UK, including the director of No Fire Zone, Callum Macrae, as well as writers ranging from Naomi Klein to Meena Kandasamy, accuse the Malaysian authorities of using the law as an act of political censorship.
The letter – addressed to Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak, as well as the country’s Home Minister and Attorney General – calls for the dropping of the charges and the repealing of the act, noting: “The use of this draconian law to attack and prevent freedom of speech is disturbing, unacceptable and is in danger of bringing Malaysia into international disrepute.”
The Emmy-nominated film which Lena is charged with showing, No Fire Zone, is now widely and internationally acknowledged to have played a key role in exposing the terrible war crimes committed at the end of the war in Sri Lanka. It also helped convince delegates to the UN Human Rights Council to launch a major inquiry into the events which saw tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians killed in the space of a few weeks – most by government shelling.
The raid on the screening followed pressure from the then Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa which is accused in the film of responsibility for war crimes. The director of the film, Callum Macrae, who was present at the 2013 screening in Kuala Lumpur when it was raided, said: “It is deeply ironic that the government of President Rajapaksa – which exerted such pressure on the Malaysian authorities to stop this screening – has now been replaced by popular vote of the Sri Lankan people, and many of its leading members are now facing investigation for war crimes and corruption. So history has vindicated the film, the government which it exposed has gone – yet Lena still potentially faces jail for showing it.”
Lena Hendry herself welcomed the international support she has received and added: “Screening a human rights documentary is not a crime. Being penalised for it is a serious infringement of my freedom of speech and expression. Films are a form of creative expression and a more effective way to increase awareness of issues around the world. There should no be restrictions whatsoever for that expression”.
Leading filmmakers who signed the open letter include Academy Award winner, Laura Poitras; BAFTA winner, Joshua Oppenheimer; BAFTA fellow, Roger Graef; Emmy Award winner, Joslyn Barnes; Indian filmmaker, Anand Patwardha; Canadian filmmaker, Avi Lewis; Singaporean filmmaker, Tan Tan Pin; and Malaysian filmmaker, Hassan Muthalib.
Film and TV executives supporting the letter include Channel 4 CEO, David Abraham; Channel 4 Head of News and Current Affairs, Dorothy Byrne; Sundance Institute Documentary Program Director, Tabitha Jackson; and BRITDOC CEO, Jess Search. Actor Greg Wise has also signed. (Colombo Gazette)