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Malaysia Censoring ‘No Fire Zone,’ An Attack On Art – Index On Censorship

Index on Censorship (IoC) has highlighted five cases of artistes attacked in 2013 for their performances as an infringement on their freedom of expression. However, while four of the five cases are of intolerant governments and militants groups trying to silence critical voices of performers in their own countries, one instance is different.
Lena Hendry is a programme officer for the non-profit KOMAS in Kuala Lampur Malaysia, but could be imprisoned and fined if found guilty by the Malaysian courts for the private screening of No Fire Zone, a documentary on the massacre of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka during the final few months of the civil war ending in May 2009.

The other four cases highlighted by IoC are: Weld El 15 (aka Yaacoub) the Tunisian rapper arrested and sentenced for two years for posting an online song ‘Police are Dogs’ and later released on a six-month suspended sentence;  Kazakh poet Aaron Atabek sentenced to 18 years in prison for protesting the demolition of a shanty town and later put in solitary confinement for smuggling out poetry of protest while in detention; death threats by Islamic militants on 12,000 singers and musicians in Mali that has put them out of work, closed theatres and forced some to flee overseas; 19 actors in the city of El Kef in Tunisia assaulted by Salafi militants and later arrested by the police on charges of indecency that carries a sentence of six months incarceration.
This blog featured in previous posts the cases of Lena Hendry and Weld El 15.
However, the Weld El 15 case posted was not on his arrest for his online song ‘Police are Dogs’ but for another conviction in September for a concert performance in Hammemet with fellow-rapper Klay BBJ (aka Ahamed Ben Ahamed).
Lena Hendry was arrested by Malaysian police. On July 3, a private screening before an invited audience of No Fire Zone was co-organised by Pusat KOMAS, the Malaysian human rights NGO and KL & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Civil Right Committee. Before the event the organisers received a fax from the Sri Lankan High Commission in Kuala Lampur asking it not be screened and accusing the organisers of supporting terrorism, said a Malaysian news website FMT.
The screening was disrupted midway by Malaysian officials of the home ministry and the police. Although they were persuaded to let the film continue, all members of the audience leaving the hall had their identity papers scrutinised. KOMAS, says in a press release, “This is a clear abuse of power as it was not necessary for them to harass the audience who had just come to watch the movie.”
Although Hendry was told to appear in court on August 6, the hearing was postponed to September 19.  On the 19th Hendry was charged under Film Censorship Act but it unclear whether others were too.  “[to] ridiculously proceed with this travesty of justice by the charging of Lena Hendry is evident of the KDN and the AG Chambers’ bully tactics and total disregard of universal human rights principles and worse of all, the Malaysian Constitution,” reported MSN.
Meanwhile in the Tunisian case, Weld El 15 was in hiding and did not appear in court in September when his fellow-performer Klay BBJ, first sentenced for 21 months in jail was given a reduced six-month sentence on appeal. The sentence was not overturned in appeal.
Following the sentence, BBC quoting AFP said that Klay told court, “‘[o]ur songs criticise the current situation in Tunisia and the government, no more and no less. I am among the rappers most critical of the government and that is why [the authorities] are after me.'”
IoC drawing attention to these five cases said, “Art is one of the most prominent forms of freedom of expression, allowing people to express their thoughts through song, dance, prose and theatre. It is not uncommon across the world for performers to be attacked as a form of censorship, ultimately silencing what they are trying to say.”

Tunisian Journalist Taoufik Ben Brik Loses Appeal

By: Adrian Jarrett. On Saturday, Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik lost his appeal against the controversial six month sentence handed to him in November for publicly assaulting a female motorist and causing deliberate damage to her car.

Ben Brik, a co-founder of the National Council for Civil Liberties in Tunisia and a fierce critic of longtime Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was arrested on October 29th 2009 following the publication of critical articles in the French press during the build up to the 25th October Tunisian general election, which President Ben Ali won with almost 90% of the vote.

Freedom of the Press and Human Rights groups say that the charges against Ben Brik were fabricated to silence his criticism of the government. Reporters Without Borders have labeled the charges as “trumped up” and Amnesty International have described Ben Brik as a “prisoner of conscience.”

Ben Brik suffers from Cushing’s Syndrome, a hormonal condition for which treatment requires regular access to medication. Shortly before the November trial, France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner expressed the concern Ben Brik’s family had for the journalist’s health and urged the Tunisian government to release Ben Brik so that he could receive medical treatment.

However, Jean-François Julliard, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, confirmed that after his conviction, Ben Brik had been transferred to a prison in Siliana, 130km from his family in Tunis. Julliard added that this distance has prevented Ben Brik’s family from visiting him regularly. Ben Brik’s lawyers have also expressed their frustration. One member of his counsel told the Committee to Protect Journalists that they had been prevented from seeing their client during the build up to his appeal on numerous occasions, despite having permits from judicial authorities.

Tunisian authorities deny fabricating the case against Ben Brik and have stated that his conviction “has nothing to do with freedom of the press” and insist his transfer to Siliana was a “routine measure taken by prison officials who organize the transfer of inmates based on the capacity of different prisons.”

Ben Brik was convicted in absentia during his trial but it is believed that the overwhelming global protest and the concern shown during European Parliament public debate on the Human Rights situation in Tunisia last week may have convinced the Tunisian authorities to allow him to speak at his appeal. According to Reuters, Tunisia is sensitive to European criticism due to future plans to improve upon its current EU Association Agreement and apply to the EU for Advanced Status, which would qualify Tunisia for preferential trade terms with the European Economic Area and potentially enhance its international standing.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Ben Brik used this opportunity to highlight the political nature of the charges against him by stating, “When people want to live, destiny must surely respond. Darkness will disappear, chains will certainly break.” These words, by Tunisian poet Abou Al Kacem Echebbi, were used to spur the resistance during the country’s guerilla War of Independence against the French in 1952-54 and currently serve as the final two versus of the Tunisian national anthem.

Photo Credit: BBC

Tunisian Opposition Leader Beaten by Cops

Hamma Hammami, the former editor of the banned newspaper Alternatives and spokesman for the illegal Communist Party of Tunisian Workers (PCOT), was badly beaten by police yesterday after criticizing the country’s government in an interview for Al Jazeera, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Hammami was returning to Tunis from Paris, where he had given the interview – in which he criticized Tunisia’s electoral system, human rights abuses, censorship of the press – on September 25th.

Hammami’s wife, Radhia Nasraoui, a lawyer and human rights activist, told Reporters Without Borders that she had taken a taxi to meet her husband at the Tunis airport, because her car’s tires had been slashed. “I saw Hamma arrive, his mouth covered with blood, his glasses broken, bruises on his face, surrounded by about 20 policemen who were continuing to hit him,” she said, “A policeman came up to me, snatched my mobile phone and threw it away with great force.” Nasraoui added that after returning home they learned that the Tunisian authorities had told France 24 – a 24-hour French news syndicate – that Hammami had arrived back in Tunis without any problem.

“We no longer have the right to express our views in Tunisia,” she said.

According to the BBC, “Human rights activists in Tunisia and abroad accuse the government of widespread abuses, including the torture and harassment of dissidents,” and of “using the courts to silence political opponents.”

In 1999, Mr. Hammami was handed a nine-year prison sentence for belonging to an illegal organization (PCOT), in what he called an unfair trail. He went into hiding with two colleagues for four years, eventually coming forward in February 2002. Before his court appearance he told reporters that he and his colleagues were not extremists or outlaws, but had “refused to submit to dictatorship… and repressive laws.” He said that even if imprisoned “we will continue the struggle from the darkest corners of our cells.” His nine-year sentence was confirmed, but he was released in September 2002.

A Facebook Post in Tunisia Leads to Arrest

Social networking has come to the rescue in recent months when journalists and citizens alike have attempted to get around censors to report the news. China and Iran did their best to censor sites like Twitter and Facebook in hopes of keeping citizens from organizing and protesting, and now, Tunisia has joined the list of countries giving added importance to social networking sites.

Earlier this year, a human rights activist in Tunisia posted a message to her Facebook page about the rumored kidnappings of children for their organs. The posted statement, which merely repeated a rumor that was already circulating, lead to the woman’s arrest on July 4th and an 8 month jail sentence for “disturbing public order”.

Khedija Arfaoui is a 69-year old academic and human rights activist who only found out about the charges against her when she came across the announcement in a newspaper on May 31st. According to the newspaper her trial would begin just a few days later on June 6th. She wasn’t formally notified until the day before the trial was set to begin.

Reporters Without Borders says that Tunisia so far has no laws regarding internet and her conviction has no legal standing. The crime of disturbing the public order for which she was accused is punishable by 6 months to 5 years in prison. It also refers only to public places whereas Facebook is regarded as a private space.