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Religious extremists, politicians meddle with artistic freedom in Sri Lanka, IFJ charges

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The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has expressed concern over the controversy of literary work coming under attack from extremist Buddhist organisations and monks, and politicians.

The IFJ issuing a media statement said a novel, a radio drama and a stage play all come under attack in Sri Lanka for allegedly containing anti-Buddhist or offensive language and joining its affiliate, the Free Media Movement (FMM) Sri Lanka expressed concerns over the potential political censorship and control of freedom of expression of the three works.

The Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) headed by Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, 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 on 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.

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 contents 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.

“If a country is of the view that its artists should be disciplined by subjecting them to such criminal charges, it is indeed something most regrettable,” FMM convener C. Dodawatta said.

“The State’s intervention in regards the recent criticism levelled against many cultural plays and dramas has been done without any knowledge of their contents and without an evaluation. The FMM believes that the censorship is taking place due to pressures exerted by extremist religious groups. The artists should not be influenced by religious beliefs and extremist religious leaders, and there should be no political meddling in the artists’ freedom of expression,” the FMM added.

The IFJ said such overt censorship and control of freedom of expression only serves to destabilise the democratic pillars of Sri Lanka’s democracy and provide fertile ground for abuse.

The IFJ urged the Sri Lankan Government to review these cases and to respect citizens’ rights to artistic freedom.

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