If governments have the power to ban, the rest of us have the inalienable right to boycott. So, Reporters Sans Frontier (RSF) was well within its right to call for the boycott of the upcoming Galle Literary Festival (GLF) as taking part in it could mean endorsing a government with a dubious human rights record and more than contempt for journalists.
But journalists and rights activists here thought that RSF was wrong in making that call. Because, they said, boycotting the event, where local and international authors read out their books and chat-up on issues ranging from war to peace, could mean shriveling the limited liberal space available here.
It’s an interesting debate, one which has divided the same people who have together fought for free speech in a country too casual – and often too cold-blooded – in treating the moderate and liberal.
The RSF statement called the GLF a "conference that does not in any way push for greater freedom of expression inside that country."
But assuming that not a single author turns up for the event – and even if the government's tourism board and the national carrier suffer some financial loss – how much will that help the cause? Will that humiliate the government? Unlikely.
In fact, the government might even have a quiet chuckle at the bickering among its critics; it has already wriggled into the crack created between the two sides by issuing a statement dismissing the ban.
The RSF was supported in its call by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS).
It’s a group of Lankan journalists working in exile and they are genuinely worried about the situation here.
But as noted human rights activist, Sunila Abeysekera, wrote to a signatory to the boycott appeal: "I wish that colleagues of the JDS and RSF … had spoken to me, and others involved with the GLF 2011, before making their statement. It would have given us all an opportunity to be more strategic about how we could use the opportunities afforded by the GLF to draw attention to our common concerns regarding human rights and media freedom."
But one thing's for sure, it's only among the liberal that such a debate can take place; among the rest, disagreement only means dissent.