I was recently asked to sign the following statement about the upcoming Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka. I am honoured to appear in such company to highlight the ongoing abuses taking place in a supposedly terror-free country:
Reporters Without Borders and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), a network of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, announce the launch of an international appeal already 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.
In a few days, the family and colleagues of political cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda will be commemorating the first anniversary of his disappearance. He was kidnapped in the heavily-guarded capital, Colombo, on 24 January 2010, a few hours before the most recent presidential elections. The authorities have never given his wife any information about where he might be and the investigation is in limbo.
At the same time, writers from Asia and all over the world are planning to gather in the southern city of Galle for a literary festival co-sponsored by the country’s leading tourism promotion agencies (http://www.galleliteraryfestival.co…). Reporters Without Borders and JDS find it highly disturbing that literature is being celebrated in this manner in a land where cartoonists, journalists, writers and dissident voices are so often victimized by the current government. The signatories of this appeal ask them to consider this grave situation before deciding to go to the Galle Festival.
Full version of the Galle Appeal
We urge you who have been invited to attend the fifth Galle Literary Festival (26-30 January 2011) to consider Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record and targeting of journalists. Reporters without Borders said this about Sri Lanka in a recent report: “Murders, physical attacks, kidnappings, threats and censorship continue in Sri Lanka despite the end of the civil war. The most senior government officials, including the defence secretary (the President’s brother), are directly implicated in serious press freedom violations affecting both Tamil and Sinhalese journalists.”
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.
The second anniversary of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance will be on 24 January 2011, just two days before the Galle Literary Festival begins. He went missing in the capital city after writing a column praising the opposition candidate in the presidential election. The police have failed to conduct a credible investigation into his disappearance. Today, because Prageeth chose to do what you do – express an opinion – his two young sons are without a father.
Another renowned journalist, Lasantha Wickremetunga, was gunned down in the capital on 8 January 2009. Although his murder took place in a high-security area where security forces personnel were manning roadblocks, his killers were allowed to escape. In a chilling editorial published posthumously, Mr. Wickremetunga said: “When I am finally killed, it will be the government who killed me.”
Fourteen journalists have been killed since 2006, three have disappeared, and more than 30 have fled the country. Journalists, writers and performers remaining in the country are constantly threatened, physically attacked or cowed by legislation under which they can be jailed them for up to 20 years simply for what they write.
The stifling of free expression has also had a negative impact on other freedoms in Sri Lanka. For instance, it was because journalists were not permitted to cover the war between the government and rebel LTTE that so many atrocities took place, including alleged war crimes. While mounting evidence of Sri Lanka’s war crimes is being shown around the world, journalists inside the country cannot talk about them or even visit the northern areas because they are afraid that they will disappear or be killed.
It is this environment that you will be legitimizing by your presence.
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. We ask that by your actions you send a clear message that, unless and until the disappearance of Prageeth is investigated and there is a real improvement in the climate for free expression in Sri Lanka, you cannot celebrate writing and the arts in Galle.