Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quarantining Free Speech

There is much to think about in Charles Haviland’s report for BBC News from the Galle Literary Festival.  Let us begin with the reason for filing the report:

A book festival in Sri Lanka has been marred by a South African writer's withdrawal because of concerns over the country's human rights record.

Damon Galgut heeded a boycott call against the Galle Literary Festival that was issued last week by a Paris-based campaign group.

Reporters without Borders - a group campaigning for journalists' rights - made the call.

It has been supported by lobby groups and well-known international writers.

More interesting, however, was the reaction from inside Sri Lanka:

The festival curator and Sri Lankan novelist, Shyam Selvadurai, said he agreed there were disturbing human rights issues in the country.

But he said that shutting down a literature festival was no answer.

"I'm very sorry Mr Galgut dropped out because he has written about post-apartheid South Africa," he said.

"And there would have been a lot for our people to have learnt from listening to him. And now by his dropping out, there is a void, a silence."

Those attending seemed to agree with Mr Selvadurai's conclusions.

"This event does a lot of good," one man said. "It probably has the freest speech available in itself. There have been very open debates about controversial issues at past events. It's exactly the wrong thing to shut down."

This left me wondering who that “one man” is and whether he had requested that his identity be withheld.  The implication appears to be that the Festival itself is a “safe area,” within which free speech may be practiced without fear of prosecution or any other form of attack.  In other words it is a venue for free speech for a privileged elite over a limited period of time, making it the moral equivalent of a Potemkin village.  Reporters without Borders believes in free speech for all individuals all of the time.  I, for one, appreciate the spirit of their boycott if there is evidence that this fundamental principle is being violated.

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