For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
THE BOYCOTT DEBATE
The Fifth Galle Literary Festival may not result in any developments in the field of literature to attract international attention of scholars and writers but it certainly has resulted in the generation of much political polemics to draw in world renowned writers and commentators such as Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali.
Reporters Sans Frontiers which has been closely monitoring the observance of fundamental rights in Sri Lanka kicked off the controversy by sending out a message together with Journalists for Democracy, to the world, signed by well known international writers and intellectuals calling upon those intending to participate in the festival to boycott it as a protest on behalf of ‘our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka who are not allowed to speak out’. The failure of the government to track down the killers of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Founder Editor of this paper, as well as the disappearance of journalist Pradeep Ekneligoda, one year ago — the day before the presidential elections — were specifically cited as instances of the suppression of the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.
Indeed such ghastly acts against these journalists together with other acts undertaken by unidentified criminals against many other journalists over the years give enough cause for concern to active journalists to look over their shoulder when venturing to criticize government leaders or the government.
But the move to boycott the Galle Literary Festival has had a paradoxical effect in that it has split the ranks of the defenders of freedom into two sides. Among the organisers and participants of the festival are those who had been on the frontlines in the defence of the freedom of expression and other fundamental human rights in the darkest of days and still remain such sentinels in the defence of such freedoms. They argue that holding the literary festival does in no way justify alleged acts of the government in the suppression of fundamental freedoms. In fact the festival itself could have provided a platform to highlight the pitiable plight of Sri Lankan writers and could act as a resonating board to spread the message internationally.
Certainly it could be said that the majority of Sri Lankan participants are well known intellectuals who could never be classified as sycophants and climbers of the political ladder to reach the top rungs of the ladder of sycophancy. However, with the split in the ranks of defenders of the freedom of speech, pro government stooges have taken up cudgels on behalf of those holding the literary festival to demonstrate that the Rajapaksa government does not suppress the freedom of expression.
It could also be argued that open criticism of the government at the festival both by visitors and Sri Lankans would provide a defence for the government to demonstrate that this charge of repression of the freedom of expression is false.
The counter argument would be that those hell bent on gagging free opinion wouldn’t mind three days of criticism of the Sri Lankan government — criticism that would soon be forgotten. Who would remember political criticisms of a government at a literary festival?
The gains would outweigh losses. The sum total of it all was that the literary fest was hijacked by politics.
Despite the sound and fury generated in the media and some so called intellectuals pulling out their long knives in their favourite papers, the freedom of expression, it should be realised, should not only be mainly limited to the privately owned media and on occasions such as literary fests but should be subjected to the constant and intense gaze of public opinion. No doubt the hue and cry raised against the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge and disappearance of Pradeep Ekneligoda in the media particularly in the English privately owned media has been great but what of the Sinhala media, 90 per cent of which is directly under state control and the remaining 10 per cent of the private media awaiting the fall of kiributh and lunumiris from the traditional tables? Has the plight of the freedom of expression of journalists been focused enough to cause concern among the masses who are the ultimate arbiters of the performances of governments?
At a press conference held recently, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was asked whom he considered to be the greatest challenge to him. The President’s answer with his finger pointed at the pressman was: You.
Indeed, some of the privately owned media have been the only genuine critics of the government. But this section of the media is influential only among a miniscule fraction of the electorate whom those in power confidently ignore.
In defending the freedom of speech the media by itself, cannot do much without the support of an effective opposition. The main opposition party, the UNP is still in a shambles in the tussle between the Young Turks and the Old Guard while the government watches on with glee. The JVP has undergone multiple fission as all revolutionary parties do and of course by the inspired efforts of the all powerful President. The Tamil parties are still at sea. In these circumstances the voice of the people are stifled in their throats.
The Galle Literary Festival may have helped to draw international attention to the state of the freedom of expression in the country but it also helped those expatriates determined to sling mud at their country to do so with relish. Let’s hope there will be no permanent fissures in the ranks of the defenders of fundamental freedoms.