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JDS explains stand on GLF Appeal

The Colombo based English language weekly "Lakbima News" sent a set of questions via email requesting a clarification of JDS position regarding the international appeal launched by JDS and RSF. The answers were published in full (while slightly altering the questions) as a sub section for an article that severely criticizes the JDS campaign. We publish the full interview along with the original questions we received. Interviewed by Ranga Jayasooriya:

I find your appeal to boycott GLF is absurd and counter productive. Can you tell me why is the Journalists for Democracy along with RSF is appealing for the boycott of GLF?

The international appeal launched by RSF/JDS does not ask anyone intending to attend the GLF, to boycott the event. If the renowned writers failed to express their concerns about the precarious conditions faced by the fellow writers and journalists, while attending a literary festival in a country where journalists/writers are killed and imprisoned simply for writing stuff that offends the regime, it simply legitimizes the status quo. Therefore, what the appeal calls for is “to consider Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record and targeting of journalists” and to “ask 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” by “sending 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.”

As a matter of fact, nearly 23 media workers (including journalists) have either been killed or disappeared since December 2005 (To see the full list of names click here). That excludes Prageeth Eknaligoda, who went missing on the 24th of January 2010. So far not a single perpetrator has been brought to book and no single case has been investigated in a satisfactory manner. Anyone, who is intending to attend a literary event in Sri Lanka in such a context, needs to make sure that his or her fame could not be used to strengthen the intensive state propaganda campaign to promote the country’s image as a ideal tourist destination where normalcy reigns and free space for cultural interaction exists. It is their moral obligation to make a stand to show that they are aware and are really concerned about the fate of their fellow writers and journalists who have fallen victim to repressive policies. If not, their glamor and passive appearance would provide the legitimacy that the state desperately needs to cover up the recent past, which is buried in a sea of corpses. That is the essence which lies at the centre of the campaign. Does it sound too sympathetic towards Tigers? Well, as far as the facts are concerned, we take the liberty to totally disagree with such narrow minded assumptions.

Are you aware it is not a state sponsored project, rather a community project to showcase heritage of English literature of Sri Lanka?

We are well aware that the event is not directly organized by any state institutions. If that had been the case, we wouldn’t have hesitated to call for a boycott in plain and clear terms. We do have great respect towards some of the people involved in the event, whose commitment to democracy and human rights is admirable.

Nevertheless, it does not prevent us from looking at the bigger picture and inviting others to do likewise. The Galle Literary Festival, either intentionally or not, overlaps with the massive propaganda drive of the Sri Lankan government aiming to promote Sri Lanka as a peaceful tourist destination where a considerable liberal space for free cultural life flourishes without any interference of the state. You describe it as a “ community project to showcase heritage of English literature of Sri Lanka”. Going through the programme itself shows that it is a misconception. If there is any community involved in setting this up, it is clearly the business community.

As for the heritage of “English literature of Sri Lanka,” we don’t see much showcased in the programme. However, the main thrust of the event is clearly promoting the virtues of a ‘free land’ where life is normal. Going through the list of sponsors and what they offer clearly calls upon the visitor to indulge in many luxuries which neither the ordinary writer/ reader or journalist can enjoy due to the poverty of the nation and the prevailing culture of insecurity.

Do you think your boycott of anything associated with Sri Lanka would help better the media situation in this country?

There were many who believed that the media situation in the country will be better following the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Forgetting the dead and not meting out justice does not auger well at any time for media freedom. It also questions the level of civilization. Lasantha was killed during the war and Prageeth went missing after the government declared the land to be under one rule. These two incidents are evidence that the situation has not improved. We as an organization will take every opportunity to raise the dire situation the country is faced with on its human rights and media freedom record. That Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai have already pulled out shows that there are people on this earth who have a conscience and are prepared to take action to improve the situation anywhere in the world. It is rather frustrating that some who have stood for freedom of expression in the past is now shooting the messenger rather than using the discussion to call for speedy accountability.

Have you guys turned to be a cat-paw of the Tiger sympathizers? Some can't help, but feel so...

It has become a fashion statement of the state to call any dissenter a ‘tiger paw’. When a senior journalist too uses that term on an organization, it speaks volumes of how far the suppression and censorship goes. RSF and JDS have been in the scene for some time highlighting the HR issues in Sri Lanka and you would recall that it is not the first time both these organizations were called Tiger lovers. It is not the feeling that matters when one is faced by the truth, but the real facts. The facts being, Sri Lanka is run by a regime that does not value human rights or freedom of expression among other wrongdoings and this will be not the last time that it’s record will be brought to question. Therefore we call upon all freedom loving people at large and Sri Lankans in particular to raise your voice to make Sri Lanka a place where justice and freedom prevails. If there is no effective mechanism to raise these issues within our country for obvious and terrifying reasons, we would not hesitate to highlight the issues in whatever forum possible.

Anything else as to why you want to boycott the GLF?

Not answered.


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.