Following the release this week of a major international statement calling on writers going to Sri Lanka’s Galle Literary Festival to understand the political ramifications of doing so, controversy has exploded.
Organisers of the Galle Literary Festival have ridiculed attempts to portray the festival as one that legitimises repression and asserted that there was nothing political about the festival.
“We certainly believe in freedom of speech. In fact, one of the goals of the festival is to promote freedom of speech,” said Festival Founder Geoffery Dobbs, in response to a question. The festival will be held in the south Sri Lankan city of Galle from January 26 to 30.
The festival curator and writer Shyam Selvadurai described the efforts to discredit the festival as “unfair” and said that the festival did not shirk its responsibility when it came to recent events; it had sessions on the civil war too. “We are not running a carnival for the rich. The festival is a celebration of pluralism, tolerance and multi-culturalism,” he said and wondered if the people who had signed had read what the festival stood for.
On January 19, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, a network of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, announced in the website of RSF the launch of an international appeal. The website said that the appeal had already been signed by Noam Chomsky, Arundathi Roy, Ken Loach, Antony Loewenstein and Tariq Ali, asking writers and intellectuals to endorse a campaign for more freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.
RSF and JDS said that they find it highly disturbing that literature is being celebrated in a land where cartoonists, journalists, writers and dissident voices are so often victimised by the current government. The signatories of this appeal ask them to consider this grave situation before deciding to go to the Galle Festival.
“We believe this is not the right time for prominent international writers like you to give legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government’s suppression of free speech by attending a conference that does not in any way push for greater freedom of expression inside that country… We ask you in the great tradition of solidarity that binds writers together everywhere, to stand with your brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka who are not allowed to speak out,” the appeal said.
In RSF’s Press Freedom Index, Sri Lanka ranks 158, while India ranks 122.
Personally speaking, it’s always important to challenge the cosy assumptions of any cultural event, many of which want to sideline uncomfortable questions related to politics. Sri Lanka is a brutal police state. What better time to ask what effect holding a writer’s festival will have on Colombo and its global image? As Naomi Klein writes, “boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic“.
Unsurprisingly, Sri Lankan nationalists are displeased with our statement, too.