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Weaponising psychiatry to stifle expression 

2 years ago

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  • An author and a film director raise concerns about poet Ahnaf Jazeem’s detention 

By Pamodi Waravita   Arrested poet Ahnaf Jazeem was first produced before the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court on 12 June, after approximately 13 months in detention, under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, No. 48 of 1979 (PTA) as amended. A psychiatrists’ report released on his poetry anthology Navarasam (Nine Emotions) has been criticised by various persons in the creative fields, alleging that it constitutes a threat to the freedom of creative expression.  Author, film director and the Colombo University’s Law Faculty’s Public and International Law Department’s Senior Lecturer Dr. Visakesa Chandrasekaram, and Gratiaen Prize-winning author of Upon a Sleepless Isle and sports journalist Andrew Fidel Fernando, raised concerns to The Morning about the use of a psychiatrists’ report to censor a writer in the country.  Fernando told The Morning that the idea that a psychiatrists’ report could be used to censor a writer in a country that purportedly values free speech is absurd.  “The psychiatrists’ report on Navarasam is an exceedingly flimsy piece of evidence upon which to keep Jazeem incarcerated. The report makes claims it doesn’t substantiate with examples from the text. Within the modern Sri Lankan context, in which minority voices are frequently shut down for shaky reasons, Jazeem’s arrest and detention should be of concern to anyone who values free expression,” said Fernando.  In a press conference held recently, the Public Security Minister Dr. Sarath Weerasekera was questioned about the arrest and prolonged detention of Jazeem, for his poetry anthology Navarasam, which the authorities have alleged incites violence and hatred. Weerasekera claimed that no unnecessary detention occurs in Sri Lanka.  “I think this person is a poet who has written poetry anthologies and children’s books. From what I understand, even child psychiatrists have said that these poems could distort the minds of children. These people try to brainwash children and make them extremists from a young age. We want to take action against everyone who would want to make a repeat of the Easter Sunday terror attacks,” said Weerasekera.  The psychiatrists’ report notes four instances of alleged “negative messages” in the said anthology. The first of these refers to a phrase used by Jazeem – “smashing Himalayas (a reference to the Himalayas mountain range and its large size and scale)” – which the report has stated could incite violence in the reader. The particular stanza in the said poem, originally written in Tamil, and recently translated by Shash Trevett, reads thus: “If you were to be like a river  you can achieve whatever you wish for. Even if the Himalayas were to block your way you will be able to dismantle them with ease.”  Thus, the psychiatrists’ report itself has emphasised that a limitation of the report is that the Sinhala and English translations of the anthology have “multiple discrepancies” resulting in “different meanings.” Furthermore, the report also states that poetry is abstract and could be interpreted in different contexts.  The arrest of Jazeem has garnered criticism across multiple fields as being a case where the State suppresses speech and creative expression to achieve its own political goals.  Dr. Chandrasekaram, who said that although a court of law expects a piece of expert evidence such as a psychiatrists report to inform the court of something that the court cannot assess, the report on Jazeem’s work comes close to the border of assessment of the legal aspects of the case which should otherwise be handled by a court of law.  “Experts cannot make any recommendations or make any comments about a legal issue. They cannot comment on whether a piece of writing is going to incite violence and breach the law. What they can say is that the writing includes certain materials that contribute to certain changes in the thinking patterns from the point of view of psychiatry. However, there are certain limits to this and the report also acknowledges that. Ultimately, the court should decide how much of an expert report should be applied in making its decision,” said Dr. Chandrasekaram.  He also stressed caution in gaining assistance from a medical and legal institution to understand whether a particular piece of fiction incites violence under the Penal Code.  “Firstly, a creative writer is producing something based on their own process of imagination. Secondly, a medical expert is making an assessment about this creative aspect and the influence of the human mind. Hatred is defined in the law in very vague terms which is why we have to be extremely careful when applying the law. I also think that it is very problematic when you bring in medical experts – a third party – into the process, as it is not fair for a piece of creative work to be scrutinised on two different levels, disregarding both the creative aspect of the work and the freedom of expression of the creator.”  As a creator of work centred around political themes such as Paangshu (Soil), Dr. Chandrasekaram said that all artists have a political agenda, which is an exercise of their freedom of expression.  “Mine is that all my work should have some sort of contribution towards the democracy of the country. We occasionally limit or restrict that expression, although I do not like to use the word ‘censor’ here. If you look at my fiction, there are certain sections which could lead authorities to think that they will violate certain provisions of the law. I am not being charged, however, for a number of possible reasons. It could be that what I have written is in English. It could also be that I am not a specific target,” he explained.  On the other hand, Dr. Chandrasekaram pointed out that Jazeem being made a target shows that there is a political motivation for his arrest.  “It is obvious to me that he was arrested because he is from a marginalised ethnic group. Considering the Easter Sunday terror attacks and the pressure on the authorities to find the real perpetrators, Jazeem serves as an easy prey for the authorities to say that they are doing their jobs.”  According to him, there are two main problems with the law: how it is arbitrarily applied for political purposes and how the procedural application of the law is unfair for the detainee.  “Under the PTA, an extended period of detention is allowed. This procedural aspect of extending the detention without any trial or proper prosecution is in itself a denial of justice. Jazeem is already a victim of a miscarriage of justice due to this – even before his first court hearing occurred,” noted Dr. Chandrasekaram.  During Jazeem’s detention which has spanned over a year now, his lawyers have raised concerns over his health and safety on a number of occasions. Allegations have ranged from Jazeem being chained to a table for weeks to not even being provided with his morning cup of tea. Jazeem’s poem on lunch (translated works found at stands in contrast to his lived reality now. His lines, “A lunch of delicious rice  with fresh fish from the Ocean  And okra rich with tamarind”, invokes a sense of freedom in the reader.  Literature and law have coexisted for centuries of modern human history. This is not the first time that the law has attempted to corner literature into its own constraints. Dr. Chandrasekaram pointed to the contract between the writer and the reader in the face of a work of fiction, saying that “the writer who writes it and the reader who reads it know that it is fiction and that it is not real.” How then would and should the law read Jazeem’s work?

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