Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sri Lanka's President Calls Playwright To Commiserate After Banning Play

Glorious Honourable Excellency Chaminda Pusswedilla (Pic Colombo Gazette)


Sri Lanka that stands 163rd of 179 states in the Reporters without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index took a new step in suppressing freedom of expression when it banned an English-Sinhala play satirising the country’s president and government. But taking matters to farcical proportions was President Mahinda Rajapakse calling on playwright Feroze Kamardeen to commiserate with him and distance himself from the censorship.


“During a genial, 15-minute conversation, Mr Rajapaksa said he was piqued with the government’s Public Performances Board (PPB) for blocking the political play. He made all the appropriate noises and promised to sort it out. ‘Next time, you call me direct,’ he told Feroze Kamardeen, before hanging up,” reported The Economist.

However the Colombo Gazette said the Rajapakse had cleared the play for performance. “According to Kamardeen, the President had expressed regret over the decision taken by the censor board and insisted that he had no objections to the stage comedy. President Rajapaksa had later assured that he would intervene in the matter as he himself had enjoyed the character of Pusswedilla,” Colombo Gazette reported.

The play is part of a series of satirical plays Glorious Honourable Excellency Chaminda Pusswedilla Puss in short. “The plays take on corruption and inefficiency in government. They follow real and sensitive political events closely. They are also scathing when it comes to the opposition,” The Economist said.

Sri Lanka has banned films and public performances before on the pretext they damage national security. It has also refused to screen foreign films for the same reason. This blog featured the controversy raised by banning of a Sinhala-language film Flying Fish at a film festival at the French Embassy in Colombo in July. Please click here for details.

The film was later banned from public screening. Associated Press (AP) reported on Monday, July 15, that “Lakshman Hulugalla, the director general of the government’s Media Centre for National Security, (said) the film Flying Fish was banned in Sri Lanka because the film’s creators used images of the Sri Lankan military uniform without permission from the Ministry of Defense.” AP reported Hulugalle saying that legal action would be taken against “those involved in the making of the film.” 

According to The Economist, Kamardeen had sent the script of The Common Wellthings Summit for approval to the PPB for in November. It was to be a 30-minute private performance in high school theatre on November 30 satirising the Commonwealth Summit held in Sri Lanka in November that was a political and diplomatic disaster for Rajapakse. The PPB refused permission two days before the performance.

According to the Colombo Gazette, although the play was banned the cast had turned up at the theatre and sat silently in protest.  

“Pusswedilla will be back. We will not back down. In keeping with the finest traditions of democracy we will continue to make fun of our political masters on both sides of the political divide. We will continue to exercise our freedoms of speech and expression that is guaranteed to us in our constitution,” Colombo Gazette quoted Kamardeen saying.
  
“In a dismaying reflection on the state of the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka, people regularly ask Mr Kamardeen how he has gotten away with the Puss plays for so long. He isn’t robbing a bank, he replies. He is only writing a play. He is supposed to get away with it,” said The Economist.

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