What is the aim of a petition challenging the human rights credentials of a literary festival? Especially one held in a police state such as Sri Lanka? To foster debate, outrage and decisions. One can’t be neutral in such matters.
This story is therefore very encouraging:
Does it make sense to defend freedom of speech by calling on writers not to speak at a literary festival?
The question is being asked in Sri Lanka this week, after media freedom group Reporters Without Borders called on authors to boycott the Galle Literary Festival because of the country’s human rights record.
The campaign has seen the Paris-based group, also known by its French name Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), being criticised in Sri Lanka from the sorts of people it usually defends from repressive regimes.
RSF warned writers attending the event that by doing so they would “give legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government’s suppression of free speech.”
South African novelist Damon Galgut pulled out explicitly because of the campaign, while Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and fellow writer Kiran Desai withdrew last week for reasons which remain unclear.
But in Galle, a picturesque colonial-era fort town where the festival began on Wednesday, others including the organisers questioned the logic of targeting an independently-run festival that promotes open debate.
“To call for a boycott of the festival is an act of silencing that I find totally unacceptable,” said Sunila Abeysekara, a prominent Sri Lankan human rights and media freedom activist, during a panel discussion on Thursday.
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it was obvious that free speech was limited in Sri Lanka, but this did not mean authors should stay away.
“My take is that the way to deal with bad speech is to talk about it,” commented the author of “Half of a Yellow Sun”, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize.
“Literature discussions are good platforms to clear the air about sensitive issues like suppression of free speech.”
The festival curator, Shyam Selvadurai, announcing Galgut’s decision to withdraw on Thursday, said: “It’s an unfortunate situation for us that Damon heeded this ridiculous campaign.
“But the festival will go on, with over 60 writers participating.”
Nonetheless some said that the boycott call had helped with publicity and raised awareness about rights restrictions in Sri Lanka.
“People are very frightened. There is a self-induced fear, not only among journalists and writers,” said Sri Lanka-based British travel writer Juliet Coombes.
“Sri Lankans like to talk about their loss of freedom in private, but not through literary works or in newspaper columns,” said Coombes.
She added that “sometimes negative campaigns like this work. I had people calling from abroad, asking about the festival, about media suppression.”
RSF, which provides legal and public support for persecuted journalists and authors worldwide, signed up US writer Noam Chomsky, India’s Arundhati Roy and Britain’s Ken Loach as well “hundreds” of supporters via the Internet.
It stood by its campaign, saying the literary festival distracted from the reality of a regime that persecuted journalists.
But RSF chief editor Gilles Lordet admitted that a boycott was “never a constructive solution”.
“It is a way of focusing attention on a country that has been forgotten after the end of the war,” he told AFP by telephone from Paris.
“Galle is one of the main tourist towns and you could imagine there that everything is fine in the country, but that’s not the reality.”
A total of 17 journalists and media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka in the past decade and many local reporters exercise self-censorship to avoid confrontations with the authorities, according to rights groups.
Sri Lanka, ruled by arch-nationalist Mahinda Rajapakse since 2005, is under a state of emergency which gives police wide powers to detain suspects and allows the government to crack down on people perceived as dissidents.