Film southasia

"Festival of southasian documentries"

FSA panel discussion challenges censorship

Photo: Shikhar Bhattarai

Film Southasia 2013 delivered a swift rebuke to the Sri Lankan government’s attempted censorship by organizing a panel on how freedom of expression is restricted in Southasia. The discussion, which could be informally titled ‘Censorship without borders’, featured Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times; Shahidul Alam, eminent photographer, writer and activist from Bangladesh; Narayan Wagle, renowned Nepali journalist, editor and novelist; and Burmese filmmaker Thet Oo Maung.

The discussion took place in the time slot originally reserved for the documentary No Fire Zone by filmmaker Callum Macrae, which the Nepali government, on request from the Government of Sri Lanka, has banned from the festival along with two other Sri Lankan selections. No Fire Zone, which has been suppressed by the Sri Lankan and other governments at numerous venues across the world, shows the atrocities committed against civilians in the final days of the war against the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam). Kunda Dixit described the film as very powerful, saying that “in a war crimes tribunal, this would suffice” as evidence. He went on to say that the situation in Sri Lanka is deteriorating, with journalists being attacked, the emergence of Sinhalese ethnic triumphalism, and increasing authoritarian tendencies of the state and in society.

Panelists spoke about their experiences with censorship in their respective contexts. Shahidul Alam recounted incidents of censorship and related threats he has faced. “There will always be people who will try to censor, and people accept it,” he said. Alam cautioned against the practice of self-censorship, which is common in such repressive climates, and suggested that “Collectively we need to find creative ways of challenging these positions.” In this regard, Kunda Dixit gave an example of how government restrictions that allowed only music and not news on FM radio during emergency rule in Nepal were subverted by singing the news on air.

Narayan Wagle provided a perspective on the Nepali context, saying that “self-censorship is the rule of the game now.” Declaring that political propaganda and populism are hindering media operations in Nepal, he asked, “Are we really free to criticize anything?” and described the situation as an “atmosphere of compromise”.

In Burma, the space for media is expanding but there is still a lot of censorship, according to Thet Oo Maung. He said that especially in rural areas, people are still afraid of the police and army, and that media outlets are not willing to cover sensitive topics like ethnic and religious violence.

In the Q&A session that followed, noted cultural critic and journalist Sadanand Menon from Chennai pointed to street censorship, where right-wing mobs have enforced restrictions on speech. He also described how the Indian state relies on British colonial laws like the sedition ordinance to curb dissent and expression. Menon mentioned the thousands of sedition cases against people protesting the Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, and also the recent attacks by a Hindutva group on the Kashmir film festival in Hyderabad.

The speakers highlighted alternatives and responses to the specter of censorship, including the online Nepali portal Setopati.com, which features hard-hitting news content on political issues. Shahidul Alam gave an overview of the Rural Visual Journalism Network run by DRIK, which plans to have mobile reporting units operating throughout Bangladesh. Already, the initiative has produced over 600 news reports.

In closing, Kunda Dixit ‘thanked’ officials for trying to stop the screening because it resulted in “a lot more people knowing about the film”.

Posted by Rajeev Ravisankar