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Looking for freedom of speech at home

It was a rare occasion, when the government talked about the importance of freedom of speech last week. Even if it was complaining about a country usually perceived to be just a little less sensitive to critical opinion. Sutirtho Patranobis reports

world Updated: Dec 08, 2010 02:02 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

It was a rare occasion, when the government talked about the importance of freedom of speech last week. Even if it was complaining about a country usually perceived to be just a little less sensitive to critical opinion.

The event leading to the complaint was stirring enough: President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speech at the prestigious Oxford Union was cancelled because of anticipated protests by the Tamil diaspora.

When he landed at Heathrow, hundreds waving LTTE flags and shouting anti-Rajapaksa slogans had gathered. At Oxford, the protests were expected to grow in volume and anger. Alas, citing security issues, Rajapaksa’s free speech was cancelled.

The cancellation left unanswered questions. For one, it was odd the organisers did not factor in protests when inviting Rajapaksa; the Tamil diaspora would have in no way missed the opportunity to protest.

The Lankan government was quick to seize the opportunity. “It is indeed a sad day for democracy that this assault on freedom of speech took place in the land that has the Mother of Parliaments… let freedom of speech thrive against terror,’’ the President’s office said. A minister called UK a failed state.

Foreign minister, GL Peiris said free speech could be curtailed here as the country had problems. Not that the curtailing of Freedom of Speech was a problem in itself.

The issue actually is that nearly 19 months after the ‘problem’, Sri Lanka is still governed under Emergency rules, journalists continue to be missing, criticising the government could mean sedition and so on.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have issued a statement urging the government to end its persecution of journalists and activists. And, the way the government uses its media arm including newspapers, television channels and websites for propaganda, it is certainly not Freedom of Speech; it is only the government’s freedom to do as it pleases.

Anyway, I have marked the date when the government spoke nobly of freedom of speech: December 2. Open to suggestions on how to remember it next year.