Using literary interpretation as a tool of incarceration
Can matters of art and ideologies be dealt with within a legal framework?
By Sumudu Chamara
The incident regarding the arrested poet Ahnaf Jazeem took a new turn when several psychiatrists at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children recently issued a report claiming that certain poems in the said book could be detrimental to children.
The said report claimed that certain parts of Jazeem’s poetry anthology, Navarasam (Nine Emotions), expressed negative messages, including the glorification of violence, violent sexual themes, messages relating to the perceived injustice to the Islamic community by the United Nations, the United States of America, Arabs, Myanmar (including implying the role of Buddhist monks), and hatred for those causing the perceived injustice against the Islamic community.
The report, however, said that the poems also carried positive messages such as providing a religious base and espousing moral values related to the Islamic religion, including thankfulness, God’s powers according to Islamic beliefs, a sense of community, respect for teachers and mothers, and the perils of narcotics, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and other vices.
It also said: “The preface states that the author’s poems include thoughts on ‘social reforms’, rather than being ‘art for art’s sake’, which could be interpreted that social reforms is also the purpose of compiling this book, rather than as a mere poetry collection for enjoyment.”
Jazeem’s incident attracted much attention and caused controversy as mixed opinions about his poetry anthology were expressed, and some viewed the poems, or their alleged meanings, to be triggering extremism. Some, based on their own interpretations, also said that censoring literary work is necessary to prevent the country from going back to an era of violence. Today’s Spotlight looks into the extremely subjective matter of interpreting artistic and literary work and the censorship it often entails.
Art and censorship
All those The Morning spoke with underscored that artistic and literary work should not be censored and that instead, a constructive discussion should be initiated around the concerned artistic and literary work, which would be the correct way to address what is better for the society.
Media and cultural critic and educationist Dr. Sunil Wijesiriwardena said that the basic idea is that artistic work can be interpreted in a multitude of ways by various critics, and that the biggest concern is the matter of who gets to decide whether such work is detrimental to society.
He noted that there are various forms of censorship in various countries, including Sri Lanka, and while some are obvious and official, some are not so obvious or official. He added: “Sometimes censorship is not done by institutions but by various other parties. If there is a censor board, which we can see, we can fight them. But some such forces that censor, including individuals, are not clearly visible. They censor artistic and literary work not because it is required by any institution, but because of their personal opinions and concerns.”
Expressing his opinion about the people’s right to express their opinions, he added: “Sri Lankans are citizens of a democratic country, and they are the ones who have the ultimate power as citizens of a democratic country. They choose their leaders. One of the most basic beliefs of democracy is that people are intelligent enough to make their own decisions pertaining to the country and society, and this includes choosing their leaders. They have been given that power on the basis of the belief that they are in a position to take the necessary decisions.
“Then those who are appointed create various entities comprising officials claiming or believing that people are not intelligent enough to, or cannot, discern the difference between wrong and right, and therefore they have to be in a higher position to guide the people. That is what leads to censorship, and right off the bat there seems to be a huge contradiction.”
Dr. Wijesiriwardena noted that censorship or acts amounting to censorship that take place officially or unofficially have two main aspects; namely, the people’s ability to make correct choices, and dealing with artistic work that is considered detrimental.
He explained: “First and foremost, there is a concern about whether the citizens of a democratic country are capable of taking decisions concerning their own matters. We believe that they can, and exercising the people’s franchise is based on that. The Government says that the people are not capable of identifying what is right and wrong, and do not understand what to learn from a book.
“Then they say that they will get the experts to evaluate and censor the book and let the people know what exactly should be read. They also threaten to imprison those who write the books in question. This is against the most basic principles of democracy, and that is the primary question we must ask. Therefore, firstly, we ask not to go for censorship, and to give the people the freedom they deserve. The other concern, which is a fair concern, is whether certain contents of artistic work can be detrimental to society.
“It is not impossible, and we must think about what the remedy is. People, critics, and experts coming from among the people of a democratic country have the ability to initiate a discussion on such matters and to reveal the findings. When a social discourse is commenced within the society, it is easy for the people to decide whether they want to read and recommend such publications.”
Adding that censorship has a power-related aspect, Dr. Wijesiriwardena said: “Censorship is also a power related issue, and most of the times, those who have the power in society take the initiative to censor artistic and literary work, especially when they feel that it is a threat to them. In countries with a good democratic rule, the authorities do not and do not have to censor publications, and once such publications are presented to the people, those detrimental to the society are rejected.
“This process does not involve forcing, but conscious decisions. When people become more educated and intelligent, they think for themselves. But we do not allow for that to take place in Sri Lanka. In fact, in developed countries, there is no censorship, but a grading system, especially when it comes to movies. For example, children are allowed to watch some movies with their parents, and the whole idea behind that is that children should be aware of social ills within a controlled framework.
“This process is just like the vaccination process. The idea is that we cannot completely rid society of viruses; what we can do is to improve the body’s immune system to resist them. When it comes to artistic and literary work, the same method can be employed. We should expose children to the wrongs in the society under guidance and supervision, and it boosts their ability to identify what is wrong and right.
“What would be the consequence if we hide our children from these social issues? Children would not be strong enough to fight the ills around them. They should be exposed to the basics of social ills, and only then will they develop the ability to address them without being affected by them. An enlightened discourse cannot be initiated through censorship.”
Speaking of the said incident, writer and critic Vajra Chandrasekera said that these types of incidents are a form of repression that has a chilling effect on artists and art in Sri Lanka. He added that such acts are extremely detrimental to Sri Lankan artists’ freedom of expression, and that using the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act, or the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act to arrest without proper charges and detain people for longer periods of time without trial is a form of de facto censorship.
Speaking of the said report, Chandrasekera added: “The report lacks professional integrity, is technically meaningless, and politically biased. Producing a report by a completely irrelevant authority shows the abuse of power that has taken place in this arrest. The report shows both the arrogance of the medical professionals who think that they are qualified to pass judgement on any subject no matter how far out of their area of expertise, and complicity with the State’s racist programme.
“This is really something that needs to be condemned. The report itself states that the translations they worked with were incomplete and inconsistent with each other, which is obviously the case, because these translations were produced within weeks of the arrest. We know that a proper translation that accurately portrays the original idea takes time and it is not something that can be rushed. Also, any psychiatrists’ opinion based on that translation, or any translation, is worth less than nothing – because this is not a medical issue.”
Freedom of expression and social discourse
Meanwhile, writer and filmmaker Chinthana Dharmadasa, expressing similar sentiments, said that regardless of the nature of what artistic and literary work express, people have a right to express their opinions, and that is what helps a society discuss the good or bad elements they contain.
He added: “Even if a person writes things that can be interpreted by some to be extremist, we have to accept the fact that that is the author’s freedom of speech. When it comes to ethnicity, religion, and culture, which are common concepts, a person has a right to criticise or question those concepts, as well as to admire them. Those who see criticism as an insult have the right and opportunity to counter those with opposing arguments.”
Adding that ideologies expressed within the boundaries of a cultural framework, or an offence committed within the same boundaries, should be countered through a similar ideology or a discourse based on a similar ideology, he added: “These forms of matters are meant to be resolved within a cultural framework, not within a legal framework. More than being conscious about the legal framework, we should be concerned about the people’s right to cultural expression. We should pave the way for people to release their expressions, not use selected legal provisions to put people behind bars.
“Also, imprisoning a person for such reasons leads to that person having traumatic experiences, and also embracing things they had not before. We have concerns as to whether it is possible to justify putting a person who had merely produced literary work or made a statement among those who have committed grave crimes, and whether the punishments they have received are too severe for the offences they are said to have committed.
“People writing about their ideologies is still better than them taking up arms. People should be allowed to express what they want to express, and release the stresses they are going through, and it will in turn reduce crimes and other social ills. As a society, we have to be mature enough to allow another person’s opinions, even though we may not agree with what they have to say. We may have criticism or disagreement, and we also have a right to express our concerns. Trying to suppress different opinions shows where we are as a society.”
Dr. Wijesiriwardena noted that supporting the promotion of critical thinking in the society is a part of democracy, and that censorship is very dangerous, as there is no control over who takes the decisions ultimately, and on what grounds. He noted that even very useful things can be declared detrimental, and a large number of such incidents have taken place in authoritarian systems.
He explained: “This is a huge issue in Sri Lanka, and what we are discussing is merely one aspect, one way in which censorship can take place. There are a large number of ways, visible and invisible, through which censorship can take place. All forms of censorship are wrong. Introducing such mechanisms stifles critical and intellectual development that needs to take place in the society. What we are losing is our creative imagination.”
When queried about Sri Lanka’s situation as far as censorship is concerned, Dr. Wijesiriwardena said that Sri Lanka’s situation is comparatively bad, and that not only institutions, but even Governments censor artistic and literary work in different ways.
He explained: “If there is a State censor board, usually it has specific policies, and we can contest those policies. But when it comes to our situation, the basis on which censorship takes place changes according to different governments, politicians, and heads of institutions, which makes it difficult to tackle this issue. The issue is in society – we are not used to tolerating anything, and when something that does not resonate with our ideologies comes up, we fight it.
“Also, Sri Lanka tends to be concerned about the social strata to which the people who produce artistic and literary work belong when it comes to accepting their work. Some social strata do not have a voice. This situation is also one of the reasons why Sri Lanka’s performing arts do not have a proper place in society. We have belittled these arts traditionally, and we teach our children that these arts should not be a priority, but a second choice. That is where what leads to censorship in society starts.”
It is a well known fact that what art and literature expresses is subjective, what one sees in a particular piece of art or writing differs from what another sees in the same piece of art or writing. The question is that, in a context where artistic and literary work can be right or wrong, or good or bad, depending on the person who interprets it, what right do we have to say that our personal opinion and experience is the only opinion that can be right?
As some who spoke with The Morning said, matters pertaining to the essence of art and ideologies cannot be dealt with within a legal framework; it can only be done through a similar approach which involves having an open dialogue.