Malaysia: End escalating harassment of Mentega Terbang Filmmakers

We, the 74 undersigned organisations and individuals, strongly condemn the harassment and intimidation of the artists and filmmakers behind the movie Mentega Terbang who have faced police questioning, death threats and property vandalisation.

On Wednesday, 15 March, police questioned the actors, producer and director of Mentega Terbang, a film that has drawn criticism from religious groups for its portrayal of a young woman exploring the concept of the afterlife in various religions, as she struggles to come to terms with the impending death of her terminally ill mother. They are being investigated under provisions of the Penal Code for causing disharmony and for statements that lead to public harm and distress, as well as for improper use of network facilities under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.

The filmmakers and actors have come under increasing harassment on social media, as well as offline. On 16 March, unknown people splashed director Khairi Anwar’s car with red paint, while screenwriter Arjun Thanaruju’s car was also splashed with paint and a corrosive substance. The perpetrators also left notes on both cars containing death threats, including against the families of Khairi and Thanaruju. Khairi also received death threats sent to him over SMS. Police reports of criminal intimidation and mischief have been lodged in relation to these incidents.

Mentega Terbang, which was released in 2021, has been taken down from a streaming platform in response to the backlash, and some government officials and individuals have also made critical comments, further stoking anger against the filmmakers.

The investigation of actors and filmmakers of Mentega Terbang comes as government ministers have praised the Oscar-winning success of Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh, stating that they hope it can serve as an inspiration for other artists. However, the censorship and intimidation of Mentega Terbang shows how artists in Malaysia do not have true freedom to create, explore and express their creative ideas, and face various forms of censorship.

These actions are also taking place against an alarming backdrop of attacks on freedom of expression and assembly in Malaysia. On Sunday 12 March, several hundred people marched peacefully in front of Sogo Complex and Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur for International Women’s Day. After the demonstration, the police announced they were opening an investigation over an alleged illegal assembly under Section 9 (5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 and Section 14 of the Minor Offences Act 1995.

The right to freedom of expression and assembly is a right, not a privilege, and one that the Malaysian government needs to respect, protect and facilitate, especially as a member of the UN Human Rights Council. The investigation of the actors and filmmakers of Mentega Terbang, as well as of organisers and speakers of Women’s March 2023, is a clear attempt to stifle freedom of expression and assembly in the country through harassment and intimidation. We note with concern the continuing pattern of police investigations and questioning of peaceful demonstrators in Malaysia.

We also remind the government that freedom of expression applies to all kinds of ideas, including those that may cause offence to or challenge religious beliefs. Producing a film which some may see as insulting religion is protected under the right to freedom of expression. The UN Human Rights Committee has held that the right to freedom of expression protects speech that might be deemed offensive or hurtful to followers of a particular religion, except in circumstances when the speech in question amounts to “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. In this instance, while its plot may be provocative, no part of the storyline of Mentega Terbang can be said to constitute incitement of hatred.

Restricting expression, in isolation, is an ineffective means to combat discrimination and protect freedom of speech. Broader interventions are required to ensure religious harmony, including spaces for dialogue and the opportunity to engage across differences of religion and belief.

Further, the Peaceful Assembly Act continues to impose restrictions that are inconsistent with international law and standards including the requirement to notify authorities five days prior to a gathering, the lack of protection for spontaneous protests, overly burdensome requirements on assembly organisers and hefty fines.

We call on the Malaysian authorities to:

  • End the harassment and intimidation of the actors and filmmakers of Mentega Terbang, who have been targeted solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression;
  • Take all appropriates measures to ensure the safety of all those involved in the making of Mentega Terbang and their families, according to their wishes;
  • Tackle the root causes of religious and racial tension in a human rights compliant manner including strengthening the capacity of communities to access and express a range of views and information and engage in debate; training and sensitising law enforcement authorities; and adopting public policy measures and a regulatory framework which promote pluralism and diversity of views, including in the media, and the arts;
  • Stop any investigation into organizers and participants of the Women’s March 2023, whose peaceful protest is protected under the rights to freedom of expression and assembly; and
  • Repeal or amend the wide range of laws that stifle and restrict freedom of expression and assembly in Malaysia, including the Penal Code, Sedition Act, Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), Film Censorship Act, Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA), and the Peaceful Assembly Act.

Endorsed by the following civil society organisations:

1. Aliran
2. All Women's Action Society (AWAM)
3. Amnesty International Malaysia
4. Beyond Borders Malaysia
5. Centre for Independent Journalism
6. Ceria
7. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
8. Freedom Film Network
9. Han Jer Deng Enterprise
10. IMAN Research
11. Justice for Sisters
12. Kekabumi
13. Kemban Kolektif
14. KRYSS Network
15. Layar Lucida
16. Legal Dignity
17. Life Under Umbrella
18. Mekar Kami
19. Messrs Faiz Syukri & Co
20. MO ONE
21. North South Initiative
22. Pemuda Sosialis
23. Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (GERAK)
24. Pusat KOMAS
25. Queer Malaysian Indians (QMI)
26. Siring Siring Production
27. Sisters in Islam (SIS)
28. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)
29. Tenaganita
30. The Instant Café Theatre Company
31. Undi Sabah
32. Women’s March Malaysia

Endorsed by the following individuals:
33. Aisy
34. Amaliyna
35. Amanda Eu
36. Ambiga Sreenevasan
37. Anne James
38. Aris Azlan
39. Axyr Hanz William
40. Beverly Joeman
41. Bryan Yong
42. Chin Wen Jing
43. CK Tan Cher Kian
44. Danniel Iskandar
45. Doralisa Lee
46. Dr Ann Lee
47. Emma Khoo
48. Farah Rani
49. Fatimah Az-Zahra
50. Henry Koh
51. Ho Lee Ching
52. Indrani Kopal
53. Ineza Roussille
54. Ivy Josiah
55. Jad Hidhir
56. Jes
57. Jo Kukathas
58. Maggie Ong
59. Mahi Ramakrishnan
60. Marina Mahathir
61. Mien
62. Muhammad Sha’ani Bin Abdullah
63. Nathaniel
64. Nicole Fong
65. Phylycia Lowe
66. River
67. Ryan Ong
68. Samuel Low
69. Shane Capri
70. Tiara Anchant
71. Tusilaa a/p Sivaji
72. Visalini Gopal
73. Yun
74. Zainah Anwar

Please support the petition to Stop the Witch Hunt on Mentega Terbang

 Civic space in Malaysia is rated as "Obstructed" by the CIVICUS Monitor 



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