Monday, April 12, 2010

'Himal' and 'Economist' detained without any legal authority

By R. Wijewardene - Contraband; any item which owing to its nature is illegal to posses, import and distribute.

The word typically refers to hazardous items including narcotic drugs and firearms, but in Sri Lanka the government has now decided to include magazines in the list of dangerous items no longer welcome in the country.

Last week the entire consignment of the April 3rd issue of The Economist magazine was seized by the Customs along of with copies of the less well known Himal magazine.

Precisely why as respected a magazine as The Economist had been classed along with heroin, and pirated CDs as contraband to be seized by Customs initially baffled even seasoned observers of Sri Lanka’s arcane import procedures.

The Economist is not known to be highly dangerous or addictive. However it subsequently emerged that the magazine contained an article titled “Imperfect Peace” on Sri Lanka that might have been perceived as critical of the government.

The article dealt with the government’s insistence that all foreign aid now be channeled through an agency headed by Basil Rajapaksa.

The less well known Himal magazine also contained an article “1982 all over again,” that was less than favorable to the ruling party, drawing comparisons between the government’s present election campaign and the notoriously corrupt election of 1982 held during J.R. Jayewardene’s deeply authoritarian presidency. It seems that it was on account of these ‘anti government’ articles that the decision was taken to prevent these publications from circulating in the country.

“The shipment was detained by Customs who informed us that they had orders not to release the consignment,” said Vijitha Yapa, owner of the well known chain of bookshops and distributor of the two magazines.
“The Economist was eventually cleared however we were informed by the Media Centre for National Security that the Himal magazine could not be cleared for import. I have no idea on what basis the magazines were detained. As far as I know publications are not censored at present.”

Magazines, and newspapers have faced detention before. However on what basis the import of certain publications is restricted remains unclear. As the country does not have an official censorship regime for printed matter.

According to Yapa “The orders come from the Media Centre for National Security.”

Lawyer Upul Jayasuriya however insisted that the “Media Center for National Security has no authority to ban books and magazines as there is no censor board for publications. The detention has no legality whatsoever. This is just another symptom of the country’s descent into lawlessness,” he said.

Indeed in a country where hundreds are detained without charge, and where the Constitution is flouted on a daily basis the detention of a few magazines might seem like a trivial issue.

However the seizure of the publications is significant as it reveals that the country has reached the point of almost total authoritarianism. Legality is no longer relevant and matters of right and wrong have now been reduced to a much more base and primitive logic – that which is favorable to the government is good and anything critical of the government is bad.

This attempt to have even the import of magazines restricted reveals the government has now reached a point where it is looking to actively restrict the awareness of the population. Essentially, reviving the ancient practice of book burning.

Worst of all however is that simply restricting the import of the magazines is unlikely to prove effective. Both Himal and The Economist are available for free online and easily accessible to the English speaking public. In fact banning the magazines only afforded them more publicity, and drew the attention of far more of the public than would normally read The Economist or the virtually unheard of Himal.

“It was a real miscalculation,” said Yapa “more people read those articles than would have been the case if the magazines had been allowed to circulate freely.”

While the government’s failure to prevent people from accessing the article in this case is heartening it remains deeply troubling that such a flagrant attempt was made to prevent reputed publications from circulating within the country.

And there is now every chance the government will move to further restrict the dissemination of knowledge, opinion and information within the country. With a host of websites already blocked and publications seized at the border it appears the country is on the verge of entering a new dark age. Certainly a return to book burning appears to be a real possibility — after all why should anyone read anything beside the Mahinda Chinthanaya?

© The Sunday Leader

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