By UCA News
(UCA News) — Two Malaysian filmmakers behind a banned indie movie touching on differences and similarities between various faiths, including Islam, were charged in court on Wednesday for hurting religious feelings.
Director Khairi Anwar Jailani, 31, and producer Tan Meng Kheng, 36, could face a one-year jail term if found guilty.
Both pleaded not guilty to the blasphemy charge in a packed magistrate’s court in the capital Kuala Lumpur and were freed on bail.
The film “Mentega Terbang” (a Malay wordplay meaning “Butterfly”) is about a 15-year-old girl who discusses the afterlife from the perspectives of different religions with her parents as she struggles to come to terms with her dying mother.
The film has been vehemently criticized by religious authorities for going against the Islamic creed in Malaysia where race and religion are highly sensitive matters.
The movie was released in 2021 but never screened in Malaysian theatres.
However, the Islamic affairs department said some scenes went against Islamic teachings. The film was banned by the Ministry of Home Affairs in September last year.
It was also taken down from Hong Kong streaming platform Viu last February. However, it remained available on Wednesday for viewing on YouTube.
In court documents seen by AFP, the duo is alleged to have “deliberately intended to hurt other people’s religious feelings by uttering words and placing objects in the person’s sight.”
No other details were provided.
“It is a dark day for filmmakers. We will challenge the charges vigorously in court,” said the filmmakers’ lawyer N. Surendran, adding that the case could stifle the growing local film industry.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch called the charges “ludicrous” and urged authorities to drop the case.
“Prosecution of Khairi and Meng Kheng under a vague and arbitrary statute for so-called ‘hurting religious feelings’ shows very clearly how Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his government are fundamentally failing to protect freedom of expression,” Robertson said in a statement.
The duo are not renowned filmmakers in the Southeast Asian country but are among a growing pool of up-and-coming young movie makers in the scene.
It is common for censors in the Muslim-majority country to ban films entirely or cut scenes related to subjects they deem sensitive.
Meanwhile, nine human rights organizations working to defend freedom of opinion and expression, condemn the criminal charges against the creators of the film.
“Malaysia must drop charges against the filmmakers,” said ARTICLE 19, Amnesty International Malaysia, Centre for Independent Journalism, Freedom Film Network, Justice for Sisters, Sisters In Islam, among others.
In a statement, the rights groups said Khairi was given a bail order of Malaysian Ringgit 6,000 (about US$ 1,270), and the court ordered him to report to the police station every month.
Tan Meng was ordered to pay Malaysian Ringgit RM 6,500 (about US$ 1,380) as bail.
“They both were ordered not to comment publicly about the charges pending disposal of their cases,” the rights groups said.
The next hearing is fixed for March 14.
The rights groups said from early 2023, the filmmakers “suffered a distressing witch hunt and faced threats from the State, as well as from non-state actors, and people on social media.”
Instead of the safety and rights of the filmmakers being protected, authorities have used the law to punish them, they added.
The rights groups said blasphemy provisions are arbitrary and open to abuse and empower government authorities to decide the parameters of religious discourse.
“Minority groups and individuals holding unpopular opinions are often disproportionately targeted,” they said.
Blasphemy provisions promote intolerance by restricting the rights to freedom of expression, thought, and religion. “Such prejudice can result in devastating consequences for society,” the rights groups warned.