Featured image courtesy ITNtv.lk

‘The book that is suppressed gets more attention as a ghost than it would have had alive; the writer who is gagged today is famous tomorrow for having been gagged’ – J.M. Coetzee

Kopi Kade is arguably one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic television series, certainly its longest-running, having started out in the late 1980s and now numbering at over 1600 episodes. I remember watching Kopi Kade, seated at the foot of my father’s easy-chair, not understanding (as a nine, ten, eleven-year-old) the incisive commentary the show was making. Soon enough as a teen, I was glued to other forms of popular culture and left this one behind. At least, until a few days ago when a journalist’s tweet caught my eye:

The tweet was followed by comments rapidly connecting this fictional gramasevaka to the real-life gramasevaka-turned-president, Maithripala Sirisena. Some articles published a day later explicitly connected the gist of the episode with (a) Sirisena famously starting out as a gramasevaka in Polonnaruwa earlier in his political career and (b) his remarks about wielding a sword to fight corruption. These connections are made, of course, in the context of the recent constitutional crisis and the chaos and ‘madness’ that ensued from Sirisena’s (mis)use of executive power on October 26th 2018.

There are no official details on why the episode what shut down nor who took the decision and as these things generally go, we will probably never know. What we do know, however, is that these incidents are not uncommon in Sri Lanka. We have an unfortunately rich history of arbitrary political censorship of cultural production. It has affected theatre, film, music, political cartoons, and now teledramas.

In the world of theatre, the popular English-language play series Pusswedilla was subject to arbitrary censorship due to its easily-made connection to contemporary politics. Pusswedilla was a satire centred on the eponymous bumbling, corrupt politician, produced during the regime of Mahinda Rajapakse. The Public Performances Board, commonly known as the Censor Board, stepped in to demand changes to the play before it was allowed to be performed. The changes requested seem quite arbitrary. Initially they requested the location name to be changed from Sri Lanka to something else; creator Feroze Kamardeen came up with ‘Arsik Land’ which is an almost-anagram of Sri Lanka. Later, the PPB requested the show be performed on some days but not others, without clear reason as to why. The PPB’s final intervention was to ban Pusswedilla outright because it was critical of the imminent meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government.

Music has also suffered similar arbitrary silencing. In ‘Censorship: A World Encyclopedia’, Derek Jones notes how the classic film song ‘Rajina Mamai Ape Rajye‘ (I’m the queen of our kingdom), sung by Latha Walpola, was banned from public broadcast while women candidates Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Chandrika Kumaratunge led opposition parties. Once Kumaratunga won the elections in 1994, it was broadcast immediately after she was sworn in.

Notably, neither of these examples occurred legally through a state mechanism that was actually empowered to censor for political reasons. The only such mechanism that existed was during times of Emergency, when censorial powers were granted to a separate, temporary competent authority. The emergency censor of the early 2000s was also exposed for its arbitrary decisions and partisanship through the clever use of political cartoons by the former editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge.

On May 9th 2000, Wickrematunge sent in a cartoon drawn by S. C. Opatha that reproduced a cartoon published by a government newspaper that showed Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party (UNP), as a waiter serving LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran at the ‘UNP Hotel’. He also sent in some fictitious articles blaming the war situation on the former UNP government’s policies. The articles and cartoon all passed the censor but on 10th May, Wickrematunge sent the same items but replacing Wickremesinghe with President Kumaratunga and the ‘UNP’ with ‘PA’ (i.e. People’s Alliance, President Kumaratunga’s party) in both the cartoons and the article. They were rejected immediately, revealing the censor’s obvious partisanship for the PA. On May 14th, The Sunday Leader published a full page exposé entitled ‘Censor exposed’ under the authorship of Ariya Borusinghe, a pseudonym that plays on the name of the censor, Ariya Rubasinghe.

There are numerous other examples of this kind of censorship in other art forms. However, at this juncture, it is important to note two facets of censorship that decision-makers ought to be wary of when choosing to silence cultural production.

Firstly, as the opening quote by Coetzee articulates, censored items get more attention by the sheer fact of being censored. One need only look to recent examples like the novel Budunge Rasthiyaduwa or the film Silence in the Courts (Usaviya Nihadai) to understand the attractive power of censorship. The court injunction on Silence in the Courts only served to drive more crowds to it in theatres: it was the first locally-made documentary to have screenings in major theatres and successfully attract crowds. The social media outrage and consequent arrest of those involved in the novel, Budunge Rasthiyaduwa, ensured that the book was on everyone’s lips, online and in offline literary forums. In the buzz, it soon became available as a pdf document online and widely shared. In fact, the author is accused of manipulating the anticipated outrage and social censorship to market his book. Artists appear to be well aware of this attractive quality of censorship. Authorities, on the other hand, fall prey to the temptation of forced silencing, which works against their interests in the end.

The second facet of censorship dynamics is that of ‘imagined outrage’.

The censor acts, or believes he acts, in the interest of a community. In practice he often acts out the outrage of that community, or imagines its outrage and acts it out; sometimes he imagines both the community and its outrage – J.M. Coetzee

In the case of Pusswedilla, Mahinda Rajapakse intervened and allowed the show to be staged after the PPB had banned it. The PPB had effectively ‘imagined’ the outrage of the then-President, which proved not to be the case. In Opatha’s cartoon, Ariya Rubasinghe and his team were the ones making a decision about what to censor: they too had to ‘imagine’ the outrage of the incumbent People’s Alliance party. This imagining is partly the inherent nature of the censor: they must act on behalf of a community, person, or set of principles. The problem arises when this backfires and draws excess attention to the very thing that was meant to be silenced. The intermediary remains responsible for the decision while the people on behalf of whom action was taken would have the liberty of taking a tolerant stance towards the censored item. The censor is caught between the public and the protected person(s).

What, then, of the Kopi Kade incident? It is unlikely that the President himself would have vetted the episode; rather, other individuals privy to the production process would have halted it in anticipation of yet another ‘imagined’ outrage. Rather than allowing the public to laugh at the usual jokes of Kopi Kade and simply move on, we are left instead with the (possibly wrong) impression of a leadership that cannot take a joke. Moreover, those who took the decision to halt the episode are now faced with the unwarranted attention for this singular episode guaranteed by the attention caused by censorship. Indeed, which other episode of Kopi Kade do you remember by its title alone?