“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist. Without the freedom to challenge, even to satirise all orthodoxies, including religious orthodoxies, it ceases to exist. Language and the imagination cannot be imprisoned, or art will die, and with it, a little of what makes us human.”
Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands
It’s the first time I’ve written on theatre on this blog, and with good reason. Censored, a forum theatre production by Beyond Borders in association with the British Council, will take to the stage on the 20th of this month.
Watch it. Participate in it.
Censorship has been with us ever since the production of knowledge, and it certainly won’t go away. The internet and web were supposed to emancipate us from shackles of parochialism and ignorance, and to an extent have. However, governments, non-state actors and today, even Internet Service Providers, constantly find new ways and new reasons to curtail and block information flows.
From burning ‘satanic Harry Potter‘ books, to the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum, from the Licensing of the Press Act of 1662 in England to more recent moves in Sri Lanka to censor information on the internet and mobiles, polity and society everywhere has grappled with the free production of information and the maintenance of public order, national security, morals et al.
In Sri Lanka, the Rajapakse regime censors every way they can, everything they can, as often as they can – beginning at Sri Lanka’s borders and extending to TV, websites and war reporting. But censorship in Sri Lanka isn’t a new phenomenon. As Asanga Welikala, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives (and close friend of this author) notes in A State of Permanent Crisis: Constitutional Government, Fundamental Rights and States of Emergency in Sri Lanka:
In May and June 1958, in Ceylon, occurred what were up till then the most serious communal riots in Sri Lanka’s troubled history of ethnic relations. In retrospect, the events of 1958 were mere portents of the horrors that were to come. A contemporaneous journalistic account of what happened was written by Tarzie Vittachi, editor of Asia’s oldest newspaper, the Ceylon Observer, satirical columnist, and intrepid political commentator. In the context of the blanket censorship imposed under Sri Lanka’s first post-independence experience of emergency rule, the manuscript was published in London under the title Emergency ’58 by Andre Deutsch, in what has now become a classic of Sri Lankan political literature. The book was banned in Ceylon, and Tarzie Vittachi subsequently left the country, under the cloud of death threats.
The issue of censorship recently came to a head with the Private Television Broadcasting Station Regulations introduced by the Rajapakse regime. Overbroad, ill defined and outrageously conflating technical standards and concepts such as IP TV with video over the internet, with no definition of broadcast and with for reason other than to clamp down on dissent and criticism of the Rajapakse regime, journalist Namini Wijedasa was spot on when she said that the regulations placed media at the mercy of idiot ministers.
The regulations have a particularly sinister bent, in that they can be used by the regime as well as by ISPs (fearful of losing their broadcast license) to censor video over the internet, which affects all bloggers in Sri Lanka whether they produce video content themselves or wish to consume content on sites such as YouTube.
The freedom of expression is by no means an absolute right. One finds in European and American jurisprudence, particularly with regard to the interpretation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights by the European Court of Human Rights and the First Amendment of the American Constitution by the US Supreme Court respectively, a healthy debate on the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression. My own interest in the issue comes from the perspective of communicative rights, that all peoples have a right to access and participate in the creation of a wide and diverse range of information and views.
Sri Lanka is far removed from a country able to discuss, openly and meaningfully, what freedom of expression really means and why it is important to safeguard and strengthen even when dealing with terrorists and terrorism. As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted
“Curtailment of free speech is rationalized on grounds that a more compelling American tradition forbids criticism of the government when the nation is at war…Nothing can be more destructive of our fundamental democratic traditions than the vicious effort to silence dissenters.”
If I have a gripe, it is that the performance is only slated for a single night. Given the monumental challenges facing the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka, I encourage the producers to consider staging Censored again, and importantly, staging it out of Colombo and the Western Province.