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Freedom of expression

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The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental pillar of a democracy. However, this freedom is not absolute, and its boundaries have to be carefully balanced in the best interests of society. Sri Lanka, as many other countries, has found this fine balance to be challenging, but it must persist in attempting to define freedoms for the best interests of the people.   

Should artistic expression receive the same degree of legal protection as other types of speech, such as political, religious, commercial, or educational speech? Should it enjoy less freedom, or more? As Michael Adams explained in his award winning essay on the subject in the modern day and throughout recent history, the question of the distribution of liberty among the forms of speech and expression has driven contention, debate, and friction among the factions desiring complete artistic freedom, and those desiring to limit it. In the realm of the world, the complete freedom of speech, be it political, religious, or artistic, is a cultural anomaly. Many societies find themselves mired in abstractions of censorship preventing free artistic expression at the expense of cultural development. 

This appears to have become manifest in Sri Lanka. Recently, the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), headed by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, was forced to amend the titles of several episodes of a radio drama after monks and other hardliner religious organisations labelled the titles of some of the radio drama’s episodes as anti-Buddhist and an insult to the religion. 

The performance certificate of the play ‘Mama Kelin Minihek’, directed by Asanka Sayakkara, was also revoked by the Public Performance Board and reinstated only after some of its ‘anti-Buddhist’ dialogues were changed.

The Sinhala novel ‘Budunge Rasthiyaduwa’, by K.K Srinath, was also attacked for its ‘anti-religious’ title. Although the author claimed that there was no religious content in their work, Minister of Higher Education and Cultural Affairs Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe ordered police to commence investigations and file charges under sections 290, 290A, 291A and 291B of the Penal Code against the novelist and his publisher. Bookstores also received threatening calls and demands not to sell the novel.

The radio programs also came under threat, but Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera refused to cancel the shows insisting that freedom of expression had to be respected. The persistent and growing extremist voices in the artistic sphere is all the more reason to respect satire and other forms of artistic expression to hold a mirror up to the public and give them divergent viewpoints. 

Art serves an integral purpose in society, to inform, promote self-reflection and ultimately foster positive change for the benefit of all citizens. That process should not be derailed or controlled based on the whims of a few people, particularly if a country is of the view that its artists should be disciplined by subjecting them to such criminal charges. 

All well-developed, sophisticated, and ideologically sound societies have little incentive to censor any type of art. In such places, a fair distribution of liberty can exist. Suppression of free speech and art may prove to be the weightiest challenge for many modern societies today. To decide in favour of suppression continues a tradition of stagnation; to decide against opens a new tradition of acceptance, understanding, and unencumbered liberty.

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