The growing censorship in Sri Lanka

An order by Jayantha Wickramaratne, the Inspector General of Police in Sri Lanka and the same chowderhead who once said women could record themselves getting raped through mobile phones, to the Director General of Telecommunication Regulatory Commission to suspend the licenses of twelve websites exhibiting nude photographs is the first step in Sri Lanka’s post-war mono-cultural hegemony. In fact, this new mono-culture is far worse than one predominantly Sinhala-Buddhist. It is in form and spirit a prudish, self-serving, inauthentic variant expressed through a combination of paternalism and patriotism that effectively beguiles the ordinary voter.

The media notes the CID started the investigation into the pornographic sites following a written complaint lodged by the IGP. While this care and concern for Sri Lanka’s morals is quite touching, I fail to see why government (especially this government) should dictate what adults can view on the web, and what parents can determine is best suited for their children. In 1999 Australia tried to do much the same thing and it resulted in a huge public outcry against the rise of a nanny state. Unlike however subservient Sri Lankan ISPs, Australian ISPs made the case that it was simply not technically or economically feasible to block “pornographic sites”. It is also clear that the bans on these websites are in fact illegal. As noted telecoms expert Prof. Rohan Samarajiva avers online,

“It will be helpful for all if the TRC states the section of the enabling Act under which it issues banning orders to private schools. I have raised this issue before and had no response. To ban something the authority doing the banning must have the power to do so. Under which section is the DGT issuing these bans? And does the DGT know that he does not actually have any powers, that they are all vested in the Commission? So under which section of the 1991 Act is the Commission issuing these orders?”

Not unlike its totalitarian conduct of war, the Rajapakse regime’s set of puritan values and its manic promotion trump all other voices, cultures, identities and modes of expression. Divaina, a Sinhala newspaper essentially a sewer for Government propaganda, even went as far as to claim that these twelve websites were an international conspiracy to tarnish the image of Sri Lanka. Honestly, shouldn’t the Police be far more concerned about the dozens of dormant investigations into acts of murderous violence against journalists since this President took office, extending even to post war Sri Lanka? Shouldn’t the media itself be far more interested in debating these bans by a government that ad nauseum, ad infinitum proves through policies and action that it is violently against the freedom of expression? Who are the Police to determine our moral standards when in survey after survey, they are identified as the most corrupt public institution in our country? Who is this President to tell us how to bring up our children? His own enjoy the privileges of a deified father at taxpayers expense. Our children do not. This asymmetry is rendered far more sharply in the case of children in IDP camps. Children here languish in dire conditions the President, for all his avowed love for children, would not put his own through. The real violence and danger to children today comes not from the web, but the policies and practices of Government.

So this hypocrisy? What is the test of morality the government uses? And if it in fact concerned with our moral, how does it explain the violence of Mervyn Silva, protected by and a close of the President? How does it explain the behaviour of Mervyn’s brutish son, who treats Colombo’s nightclubs as his fiefdom? How does it explain the murder of seventeen aid workers, execution style, in an area under government control three years ago? How does it explain the continuing incarceration of journalist Tissainayagam, under the most spurious reasons? How does it explain Keheliya Rambukwella threatening the Principal of Royal College and coercing him to revoke an order instituting disciplinary action against the Minister’s son for committing robbery and mischief in the school premises? How is it that the government is not equally concerned about media reports that our Foreign Minister spent over 4.5 million rupees on a birthday bash for his daughter in the US? How is it that a government that keeps children languishing in IDP camps go on to censor websites and cultural production, far less harmful than conditions of internment?

Are these harsh questions to ask of government? Yes and no harsher than the ignominy of living under a regime that is increasingly and insufferably Victorian. There is another danger. This increasing censorship can, and given the nature of this government will extend very easily to other content the regime finds inconvenient. Evgeny Morozov, the Foreign Policy magazine’s new Net Policy blog’s chief contributor wrote earlier this year that,

“…the Chinese are using the “pornography” excuse — a government-sanctioned effort to crack down on online vulgarity — to shut down several sites offering highly critical opinions on political and social issues in modern China (the most prominent of them was an edgy Chinese group blog, bullog.cn). Now, other countries are getting the hang of China’s tricks. News site Menassat reports on a recent “anti-porn” campaign in Bahrain being used to target a wide spectrum of groups, including those working on human rights issues. Even more disturbingly, the campaign has now spread to social media sites like Facebook.”

There is already mounting evidence to suggest that Sinhala extremism protected and promoted by the Rajapakse administration and the prudery of the NFF and JHU is extending its reach and influence online. It is ironic that all these blocks and bans on information and communications technologies (ICTs) and content on the web are taking place in the Year of English and IT. When I interviewed recently the Minister of Minister of Science and Technology, he did not even know of any initiative to promote the use of mobiles as devices to deliver government services, and importantly, to use them to refashion government to become more responsive to the needs of citizens. Susil Premajayantha, the Minister of Education, recently demonstrated his own ignorance when he made suicide into a monocausal phenomenon and attributed it to a mobile phone. He then went on to ban mobile phones from schools. It was reported in the media that the President had mentioned that teachers must also be banned from carrying mobiles to schools. There is now a ban on adult movies and a ban on showing alcohol and cigarette consumption in tele-visual broadcast media, including film. Websites continue to be blocked by government, and there are disturbing signs that certain progressive websites in Sinhala are increasingly falling prey to prudish campaigns to censor their content.

Ignorance mixed with sententiousness and expressed through the argot of self-styled patriots is a bad recipe for good governance. It is based on a model of cultural domination, not diversity and tolerance. The dominant culture allows others to form and exist at its behest, and the frame is never so wide or porous as to allow free expression. This new morality suggested by the Rajapakse regime, that countenances Sri Lankan icons like Joe Abeywickrema blurred on-screen for smoking in scenes from classic Sinhala cinema, is as retrogressive as it is dangerous. It is now extending online, without any check from the law, civil society or the traditional media. By bullying us into accepting without question what is only defined by the Rajapakse’s as authentic, Sri Lankan and moral, we lose out on precisely what we want to see established, an identity able to define and constantly redefine itself as Sri Lankan, influenced by our own rich culture and traditions as well as our location in the world and connections to it, physical, religious, cultural and virtual. Ultimately, this imposed morality is absurd, for its basis is to assume that good parenting requires the intrusive intervention of the President. For those who feel this is fine, and that censorship, bans and blocks are the future, it would be useful to also redefine the official name of our country.

A censorious country can never be a democratic republic.

Published in Montage, August 2009.

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