The Galle Literary Festival will open this week amidst a swirl of international controversy. Reporters without Borders (RSF) along with writers such as Arundati Roy and Noam Chomsky have signed an appeal for a boycott of the festival:

The Galle Literary Festival takes place every January in the fort city of Galle in South West Sri Lanka ( 2011 will be its fifth year. Past attendees have included writers from across the globe including Germaine Greer, Ian Rankin and Gillian Slovo. This year, authors attending include the well-known Kurdish rights activist and Nobel Laureate Orman Pamuk, Mann-Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai and Candace Bushnell.

Certain activists and campaigners have argued against the boycott call:

This is not because they say that the boycott is unfounded and that Sri Lanka has no human rights issues. On the contrary, these campaigners fully acknowledge the horrendous state of freedom of expression in Sri Lanka and the widespread censorship and harassment faced by artists, writers, and cartoonists along with other critics of the current regime. However, it is argued that the festival brings international attention on Sri Lanka and its government and is a forum to discuss the current state of country. It is also argued that the festival is not state-funded and has worked hard to promote the arts in Sri Lanka and internationally. What is at issue is the right approach to improve media freedom. As the Groundviews article argues, ‘If it is the case that the freedom of expression within GLF is absent from mainstream media, then the remedy is surely to not boycott the one instance where it is actually present?’

But for those that have signed the boycott call, there are real questions to be asked about whether such a glittering literary festival should be taking place in Sri Lanka given the appalling human rights situation. The boycott appeal states that writers going to Galle give ‘legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government’s suppression of free speech by attending a conference that does not in any way push for greater freedom of expression inside that country.’ It has been argued that the festival rarely acknowledges or discusses Sri Lanka’s huge freedom of expression issues or human rights problems. For example during 2010’s Festival, Guantanamo Bay was a debate topic with no mention of Sri Lanka’s own parallel situation with terrorist suspects killed or detained without trial.

What is noteworthy about the current media storm is that it is happening at all. The festival has taken place without much agitation through the conflict in 2009 and the post-conflict internment of civilians in 2010. These instances would seem far more obvious flashpoints. Whether writers take up the boycott remains to be seen. Whether a boycott is the right approach in this situation will continue to be debated. But the debate has been a long time coming.