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The naivety of boycotting an event to ‘send a clear message’ about the plight of journalists

Jan 30, 2011 3:56:18 PM- transcurrents.com

by Kalaba Senaratne

Having boycotted the Galle Literary Festival (GLF), what happens if those writers, who stayed away, say Orhan Pamuk and his partner Kiran Desai, decide to visit Sri Lanka for a brief holiday? It is a hypothetical scenario, no doubt. But can’t one argue that even such a visit would, going by the apparent ‘logic’ of Reporters sans Frontiers (RSF) and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), still give some ‘legitimacy’ to the existing ‘climate for free expression’ or the lack of media freedom in Sri Lanka?

If one is so concerned as to boycott an event such as the GLF, shouldn’t s/he be also concerned about visiting the country in which such an event is held? Or to put it differently, if boycotting the GLF sends a ‘clear message’ that writers are concerned about the state of media freedom, what’s the message that will be sent if they decide to visit the country for purely tourist purposes?

When one thinks beyond the event, beyond the GLF, one senses the naivety of boycotting an event in order to, as the ‘Galle Appeal’ stated, ‘send a clear message’ about the plight of journalists; an event which had, in the first place, nothing to do with the celebration of media freedom in Sri Lanka. Perusing the programme of the GLF, one understands (which is obvious to many who have attended the GLF) that it is an event which opens up space to discuss literature which is not even confined to Sri Lanka; for instance, African writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was principally invited to talk about her work in the context of Africa (at the Literary Dinner) and the lasting effects of Nigeria’s civil war of the 1960s in her collection of short stories.

Wouldn’t a clear, even clearer, message be sent by attending the event and voicing concerns about media freedom or lack of it? To quote Adichie, who reportedly stated during a GLF-session: "literature discussions are good platforms to clear the air about sensitive issues like suppression of free speech … the way to deal with bad speech is to talk about it." (AFP: 28 Jan, 2011) Isn’t this the approach that writers should adopt, that writers should have adopted, given the true nature of the GLF?

Also, it is somewhat amusing to note that many still seem to be thinking that they are living in an age when attending an event such as the GLF is to be a visit that would ‘legitimize’ the state of media freedom in a country. RSF was particularly disturbed by this aspect of ‘legitimacy’, when it stated: "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 the country". Having painted the picture of a bleak environment in which media freedom is suppressed, the RSF then pointed out: "It is this environment that you will be legitimizing by your presence."

The RSF forgot that if any ‘legitimizing’ was indeed necessary, it need not have come only through the visit of international writers. The very presence of Sunila Abeysekera (or even former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was photographed visiting the GLF) would have been enough to ‘legitimize’ the environment that RSF/JDS are worried about. But then, who in his right mind would argue that Sunila (and Chandrika) ‘legitimized’ the state of media freedom in Sri Lanka!

Yet, should we blame groups such as RSF and JDS? Or rather, should it not be the writers who boycotted the event, somewhat irresponsibly, having earlier expressed willingness to attend, who ought to be questioned? Should it not be the writers who withdrew who should provide an explanation, a clarification, a ‘clear message’ (to quote RSF)? What is their message, really? Unfortunately, this is an issue that the organizers of GLF have been unwilling to raise.

Such clarifications ought to be sought given the fact that many of these writers have been bold and courageous in expressing their views about media freedom. Let’s take Orhan Pamuk, a wonderful novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and one who knows what it is like to be charged by a government for expressing views.

As the New York Times reported in 2008, Pamuk had been quite candid about his views concerning the lack of freedom of expression in his own Turkey, during the Frankfurt Book Fair which honored Turkey. In the audience was the President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, but Pamuk stated: ‘’A century of banning and burning books, of throwing writers into prison or killing them or branding them as traitors and sending them into exile, and continuously denigrating them in the press — none of this has enriched Turkish literature … It has only made it poorer’’, stated Pamuk. So here is a writer who does not shy away from his responsibility, as a writer, of airing his concerns of freedom of expression or the lack of it.

Now that’s a clear message. But where is Pamuk’s ‘clear message’ concerning Sri Lanka? What has Pamuk’s act of boycotting, and remaining silent, done as regards Sri Lanka’s state of media freedom?

Would Pamuk, for instance, be unwilling to visit the West if he feels that Western democracy is a sham? It does seem that Pamuk is concerned. In his essay titled ‘On Trial’ in Other Colours, he notes: "… these days the lies about the war in Iraq and the reports of secret CIA prisons have so damaged the West’s credibility in Turkey and in other nations that it is more and more difficult for people like me to make the case for true Western democracy in my part of the world." But surely, if Western democracy is so bad, could Pamuk visit a literary festival held anywhere in the West, and ‘legitimize’ (as RSF would put it) the undemocratic practices of the West? Or, as regards India, what does Pamuk’s presence in India signify? Does it signify that India’s record concerning the protection of media freedom is perfect? Absolutely not, given recent reports of RSF regarding the alleged violations of media freedom in India.

It is well known that politicians or governments in general, would certainly give some political spin to the visits made by international authors. And of course, the government of Sri Lanka would do the same, and would have done so, had Orhan Pamuk and others visited Sri Lanka. Well, they can do it anyway, since other writers did attend the GLF. But the more serious question is: should these writers, who possess ‘independent minds’ worry so much about what politicians and governments might do or say? Is boycotting the GLF, after all, such a serious act or an act that sends a ‘clear message’? Orhan Pamuk and some other writers were absent, silent. That’s not a ‘clear message’; it’s a dubious one.