KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – A Malaysian court on Wednesday charged two local filmmakers for intentionally “wounding the religious feelings of others” through their film, their lawyer said, in a move condemned by rights groups as a threat to freedom of expression in the country.
The director and producer of local film, “Mentega Terbang”, were charged under the penal code and face a one-year jail sentence and fines if convicted. The duo, Khairi Anwar and Tan Meng Kheng, pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Their lawyer, N Surendran, said the charges send a “chilling message” to the local film industry and filmmakers throughout Malaysia.
“The government must take responsibility and the attorney-general ought to withdraw the charges,” Surendran said.
“Mentega Terbang” was first released on a video streaming platform in 2021 but was banned in Malaysia by authorities last September after it was criticised for containing scenes that were said to go against Islamic religious teachings.
The film follows a young Muslim Malay girl who grieves the death of her mother by researching the teachings of other religions on life after death.
The rise to power of Malaysia Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s progressive and reformist coalition in November 2022 had renewed hope of greater freedom of speech in the country. However, Anwar’s administration has faced accusations of back-pedalling on its promises to protect free speech, following a clampdown on content pertaining to racial and religious sensitivities.
The government has denied allegations of stifling dissent, saying it wanted to curb harmful content that touched on race and religion, both of which are sensitive issues in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Rights groups Article 19, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the charges against the filmmakers as “outrageous and unacceptable”, calling for the charges to be immediately and unconditionally dropped.
They also urged the Malaysian government to end the criminalisation of religious offence and the use of “other vague provisions in the law” to curtail freedom of expression.
“This sort of crude political pandering at the expense of human rights is precisely the sort of thing that Anwar accused previous governments of doing when he was in the opposition but now he’s hypocritically changed his tune after assuming power, and using the same censorship and persecution,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
(Reporting by Danial Azhar and Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)