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On the last day of this year’s Dhaka Literary Festival, Uzbek journalist and writer Hamid Ismailov, Nepali publisher, editor and writer Kanak Mani Dixit, Thai screenwriter, novelist and artist Prabda Yoon and Professor of sociology and development Shapan Adnan, came together in a panel session titled ‘Words under siege’. Moderated by Romana Cacchioli, Director of International Programs at PEN International, the engaging session revolved around the subject of ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘self-censorship’ and the many forms of ‘powers’ that exist in the modern world, which suppress writers and activists who dare to think out of the box.
The session opened with an introduction of the panellists and an open question from Cacchioli on what it was that got them into trouble in their respective countries.
Ismailov, who was forced to flee his country in 1992 for his writings that antagonised the authoritarian government, and has been living in the UK ever since, said, “When you are writing about the reality as you see it, you are deconstructing this reality because you are becoming subversive, because you are showing this reality as you see it, not as the government sees it. The government sees it with lots of propaganda, which you are dismissing by recreating this reality. And in that sense, any good, honest writing is submersive by its nature.”
Yoon commented on the state of mind of his own country and people when he said, “A majority of Thais live under a very strict, conservative outlook of themselves and to most, stability comes with three things – country, which basically means military, religion, which is Buddhism, and monarchy, which is the king – these three things sum up what it means to be Thai. And if you are a liberal who questions these things, not necessarily attacking or defaming any of these ideals, but if you criticize them, then you can get yourself in trouble.”
In talking about the current situation in South Asia, Kanak stated that, “There is a particular power of ultra-populism from different sources – from religious fanatics, to ultra-nationalists – that are cowing down media and making media curl into a self-cencorship mode, and those who continue to speak out are the ones who need understanding and who need protection.”
“While literary writings are at the centerpiece of censorship and pressures, even writings which are part of the social and political discourse of the country are also constrained. And these are also limitations on the freedom of speech,” stated Adnan when talking about the constraints he had to face in his line of work.
The session ended with an enthusiastic round of questions from the audience.