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

Glorious Honourable Excellency Chaminda Pusswedilla (Pic Colombo Gazette)

Sri Lankathat 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 Lankahas 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 herefor 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.

No Distiction Between Big and Small as China Cracksdown on Internet Dissent

Charles Xue (Courtesy The Economist)

The Bo Xilai trial in China has not only exposed the Beijing government’s desperate attempts to obfuscate deep-seated fissures within the ruling elite, but that the internet has become as decisive a battleground in the contest between the regime and pro-democracy activists as physical space.

Although there was brief optimism that permitting selected journalists to cover court proceedings in the trial of the disgraced former party boss of the Chongqin city-province demonstrated a new openness of recently-elected President Xi’s drive to fight corruption, such views are amazingly naïve.
The Economistin a recent article quoted the Legal Evening News saying that the police “consider the online world as much a public space as the real one.” The crackdown has targeted two types of internet activists The Economist said – those it describes as “small fry” and the really important ones – “the Big Vs.”

“‘Big Vs,’ (are) popular microbloggers … who have been verified not to be writing under a pseudonym (and so have a V beside their name). Many Big Vs have millions of followers and some write provocatively about sensitive social and political issues. On August 23rdBeijing police detained one Big V, Charles Xue, and later accused him of holding group sex parties with prostitutes. Mr Xue, who is a naturalised American, is a wealthy businessman with 12m followers,” The Economist said.
The Economist said that Chinese authorities have been both courting and intimidating the Big Vs in an effort to control information. However, the detention of Xue is interpreted by as Beijing’s message that not even foreign passport holders and wealthy businessmen like him are safe. Another Big V with a big fan club (50 million followers on Sina Weibo) is Taiwanese Kai-Fu Lee who was also arrested, said The Economist.
But interestingly, examining the way the Big Vs operate is a window into many issues deemed important as the social media takes over as the formal media in politically repressive societies remain shackled by the government. The Economist says that the Big Vs have “business interests to protect.” The question of how to navigate the thin line between running a media organisation as commercial enterprise while at the same time providing news, which is a public service, offers a challenge even in liberal democracies. It can be only more daunting in one-party dominated plutocracy like present-day China.
Beijing‘s has also put into operation the other method of silencing dissent – by co-opting dissidents. The Eonomis says the Big V were part of a “forum to promote social responsibility among microbloggers. Lu Wei, chief of the State Internet Information Office, declared that microbloggers with large followings had a particular responsibility to tell the truth, protect state interests and social order, and uphold the law and ‘socialist’ ideals and morals.”
The Big V had apparently agreed to the strictures, which some among them had endorsed as reasonable. These strictures are known as the “seven bottom lines” the red line that should not be crossed.
Meanwhile, the “small fry” referred to with derision by The Economist who were arrested in police swoops between the August 20th and 23rd remain a cause for concern. Among them is Liu Hu, a journalist with the daily Xin Kuai Bao, who was arrested on August 23, for “spreading false rumours.” Apparently he had asked that an official of the Chongquin chamber of commerce be investigated for negligence.
The Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) said his house was searched, seized his laptop and computer and closed his Weibo account.
RSF says the charge of spreading false rumours is frequently used by Chinese authorities to arrest internet activists and netizens citing that Yang Xiuyu and Qin Zhihui (Qin Huohuo), were also arrested on this charge in Beijing on August 22.
“The charge of spreading false rumours brought against Liu Hu is very disturbing,” RSF said in a statement on August 26. “It shows that, although the Bo Xilai trial is supposed to send a message that the party is waging an all-out fight against internal corruption, in fact the authorities continue to persecute news providers who cover corruption cases.”
Meanwhile, actions of Chinese authorities go to show they had turned the Bo Xilai trial into a corruption case to prevent it exposing the fissures within the CCP. They refused to allow Bo’s final statement referring to those issues from appearing in court transcripts. “The discussion appeared to have been kept from public view because officials overseeing the trial and party leaders wanted to prevent any mention of infighting among party elites, said a person briefed on the court proceedings,” wrote Edward Wong in the New York Times on August 29.
Ai Weiwei, the famous Chinese dissident wrote on the larger implications of releasing censored versions of the trial in a commentary to Bloombergon August 27. “[b]y presenting a censored account, officials raised more questions than they answered. The public knew they weren’t seeing the whole picture, and could only speculate on what major pieces of the story remained hidden. Even their reactions were censored: Within a day, the Jinan court received more than 4,000 comments on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, but only 22 were allowed to be shown,” said Ai Weiwei.