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Sri Lankans take religious freedom extremely seriously, and any act they deem to be an insult to their religion or religious beliefs has the potential to lead to major issues. Sri Lanka has, in fact, witnessed a number of such incidents.
Even though it is true that religion is a sensitive matter affecting people in many ways, people have a natural tendency to question what does not resonate with their own beliefs, and in this context, freedom of speech has a huge role. In a context where there is no universally accepted definition for free speech, a statement about a religion or religious figure can be interpreted in countless ways.
New act to review, regulate texts on Buddhism
It was reported recently that plans are underway to introduce a new act titled the “Buddhist Publications/Texts Regulatory Act”, in a bid to review, regulate, and, if necessary, censor publications that contain contents related to the teachings of Buddhism, the character of the Buddha, and have any relevance to Buddhism.
Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious, and Cultural Affairs Secretary Prof. Kapila Gunawardana, on 23 March told The Morning that the proposed Act is to be introduced with the aim of countering publications that use Buddhism or the character of the Buddha in disrespectful ways in order to spark controversy and/or oversimplify or misinterpret the teachings of Buddhism. Violation of this Act would result in penalties.
According to him, as part of these plans, an expert committee is to be appointed to review any material that has any relevance to Buddhism before granting permission to publish it. He also said that obtaining permission from the expert committee would be necessary for any such publication.
When contacted by The Morning yesterday (24) with regard to the composition of the said expert committee, Prof. Gunawardana said that the said committee would be appointed by the President, and that the appointment of the committee would take place after the relevant approval is granted by the Cabinet of Ministers. In addition, he said that another committee has been appointed to obtain advice in connection with the matter.
The proposed Act, which, according to Prof. Gunawardana, has been under discussion for around 12 years, will be presented to the Cabinet in the coming few months.
Earlier, he also said that under the provisions of the proposed Act, publications such as the novel titled “Budunge Rasthiyaduwa”, authored by K.K. Srinath Chathuranga, which sparked controversy largely due to its title referring to the Buddha’s loitering, would not be permitted.
Raising concerns about the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution, Prof. Gunawardana further said that even though the authors defend their publications which refer to Buddhism and the teachings of Buddhism based on the said constitutional right, under the proposed Act, if passed, such publications would not be allowed.
The Constitution, under Article 14(1) on the fundamental rights of freedom of speech, assembly, association, occupation, and movement, says that every citizen is entitled to freedom of speech and expression, including publication.
When it comes to publications referring to the Buddha and the teachings of Buddhism, Chathuranga’s novel, titled “Budunge Rasthiyaduwa”, was one of the publications that caused controversy and garnered criticism in the recent past, mostly due to its title.
The novel came under fire after its launch and there were allegations that certain parties were attempting to stop the distribution of the book. Later, it was reported that MP and President’s Counsel Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe had directed the Police to take action against the author and also the publisher and distributor of the book, Upul Shantha Sannasgala. Dr. Rajapakshe had, in a letter to the then Inspector General of Police (IGP), recommended to take action under Sections 290, 290A, 291A, and 291B of the Penal Code.
The four Sections of the Penal Code pertain to injuring or defiling a place of worship with the intent to insult the religion of any class; acts in relation to places of worship and with intent to insult the religion of any class; uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings; and deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.
Censorship limits creativity
In order to discuss the perspective of an author who had penned a publication referring to the Buddha, The Morning spoke to the author of “Budunge Rasthiyaduwa”.
Chathuranga pointed out that literature and religion are closely associated in most cases, and that many religions are, in fact, based on religious texts. In this context, he noted that free literature and religions are inseparable.
He added: “There is a community closely associated with every religion. I view them as a literary community more than a religious community, because a lot of religions are based on certain religious texts. For example, Christianity has the Bible and Buddhism has the Tripitaka. In this context, what we identify as Buddhism, either as a religion or a philosophy, is based on a text/literature, and monks, in fact, constitute a literary community. It is based on a literary context. Anything based on textual analysis can be attributed to a literary context, whether it is related to religion or not.”
Furthermore, he added that any person expressing their opinion based on a text has a right to express opinions about another text as well. Adding that text-based contexts are everywhere, Chathuranga opined that he was of the opinion that this situation creates a creative human being and leads to more literary interpretations.
“By introducing a mechanism to censor artistic work, the world loses said creativity. At the same time, even though one may think that this is not creativity but yet another myth, a secular person may go on to say that it is another myth that is being formed on the basis of a religious text. But, regardless of being or not being considered a myth, anything that has aesthetic qualities can be accepted as artistic work,” he added.
Chathuranga also said that there is a division in the world of secular and non-secular, and that these two parties insult each other, noting also that the same takes place between people of diverse religions. He noted that everyone believes that their religion is better than the others, and that it has led to a perpetual conflict between the followers of religions. All over the world, among people of different religions, there is a huge struggle over the so-called truth they believe in.
When inquired as to how to draw the line between insulting and discussing a religion, Chathuranga added that even though the feeling of being insulted is an instant reaction, it is a result of a lengthy process. The main foundation of that process is a literary context, he added.
He explained: “When we interpret what an insult is, it is closely associated with what people believe and understand to be true. It has to be looked at from a philosophical perspective. One may think that Buddhism is the truth and another may think that what is said in the Bible is the truth. When it comes to the concept of a philosophical being, a thinking man (his opinion) does not get a place in the process of appointing committees to censor texts about religions. This can only be resolved by a thinking man, and I feel that censor boards are the most detrimental way to kill a thinking man.”
Speaking further about what truth means to followers of different religions, Chathuranga added that regardless of how firmly one believes that he/she is telling/believing the truth as far as that person’s religion is concerned, whenever someone else says that it is not the case, it is automatically seen as an insult. “When someone believes that what he/she believes in is the only truth and when someone else’s truth is capable of dismantling that truth, it can automatically become a lie.”
Chathuranga further said that it is not only religions that are at war over what they believe is the truth, adding that there are similar wars in art and philosophy.
The existing Profane Publications Act No. 41 of 1958 recognises the writing, production, printing, publication, sale, distribution, or exhibition of a profane publication to be an offence which is punishable.
According to the Act’s interpretation as to what constitutes a profane publication, any newspaper, book, picture, film, or other visible representation containing any insult to the founder of any religion, any deity, saint, or person, whether alive or dead, venerated by the followers of any religion, or, any religion or religious belief, or any ridicule of any figure, picture, emblem, device, or other thing associated with, or sacred to the followers of, any religion, would be recognised as a profane publication.
The Act, however, allows for any fair comments on, or any fair criticism of, any religion or religious belief. In the context of the Act, what fair means remains undefined too, as observed by certain legal researchers, who proposed that the Profane Publications Act needs to be abolished.
Furthermore, elsewhere, writing on a central tenet of democracy, i.e. free speech, in the wake of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, the late American jurist Prof. Ronald Dworkin has argued for a right to ridicule while opposing a right not to be insulted or offended. He has also railed against the “endorsement of the widely held opinion that freedom of speech has limits, that it must be balanced against the virtues of ‘multiculturalism’, and that governments are right to propose that it be made a crime to publish anything ‘abusive or insulting’ to a religious group”.
According to Dworkin, “religion must observe the principles of democracy, not the other way around, and no religion can be permitted to legislate for everyone about what can or cannot be expressed. No one’s religious convictions can be thought to trump the freedom that makes democracy possible.”
Freedom of speech and religion
According to the Index on Censorship, a movement that campaigns for and defends free expression, even though religion and free speech exist in harmony on paper, the two often conflict in practice in the world, either though self-censorship or through censoring legislation.
The Index on Censorship said that both religion and free expression have been offered protection by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) drafted in 1949, which outlines the ways in which both free expression and religious freedom should be protected in Articles 18 and 19.
Article 18 protects an individual’s right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and the freedom to change religion or beliefs. Article 19 states: “Everyone has the right to the freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
With regard to protecting religious sensitivities at the price of free expression, the Index on Censorship – taking India’s Penal Code’s provisions with regard to protecting “religious feelings” which makes acts or words that could disturb religious sensitivities punishable by law – said that while such laws exist to address and prevent sectarian violence, their vagueness means that they can also be used by groups to shut down free expression, and that this opens up a question, which is when do states have the right to censor for public order reasons even if the actual piece of writing, art, or public display is not a direct incitement to violence.
When looking at the overall situation with regard to the right to express opinions, it is evident that there are grey areas as to what constitutes an insult (to a religion) and what constitutes an acceptable reference to a religion or religious leader. The difficulties in discerning the two can not only stifle freedom of speech but also the freedom of religion.
Freedom of expression is a right guaranteed by the Constitution and every citizen is entitled to enjoy that right as they deem appropriate and necessary. It must most importantly be noted that at the end of the day, it is also thanks to this freedom, which allows everyone to have their say irrespective of what it means in mainstream society, that societies and countries move forward.