Fighting for Their Art Against Censorship

The Virtual Museum of Censorship in Lebanon website intro - Print Screen

The Virtual Museum of Censorship in Lebanon website intro – Print Screen

The arts are powerful mediums for addressing a country's political and social ills, and for that very reason are often the target of censorship from governments whose tight grip on the people is threatened by freedom of expression. Be it in music, film, literature, street art, or other forms of expression, arts censorship by the state is emblematic of broader political tensions and human rights issues.

In this partnership between Global Voices and international arts advocacy organization Freemuse, GV authors have taken a close look at censorship in the arts internationally. Authors have covered news stories and look into the context, histories and mechanisms of censorship in countries such as Tibet, Pakistan and Russia to examine how barriers to freedom of expression are shaped, and how those barriers are designed to shape cultural narratives.

Arrested for singing a song critical of the government of the South Indian state Tamil Nadu, folk singer and activist Kovan has now been released on bail. His arrest is part of a larger crackdown on activism and freedom of expression.

The censor board could not be reached for comment, but local commentators surmise that even if the board had the capacity to review films in other languages, a film like ‘My Bicycle’ would not have made it past the board’s security laws.

Russia and Ukraine have been going back and forth banning musicians from each other’s countries, as part of an upswing of acrimonious patriotism in the wake of this summer’s military conflict. But recent events demonstrate that the soft power struggle is making waves that extend beyond the two countries – pro-Russian artists are facing international protests and bans for their support of Putin.

The Moscow Administration’s Property Department quietly terminated the lease contract with Teatr.Doc, the small 50-seat independent theater company that has occupied the premises for the past 12 years, on October 15, 2014. The country’s art community was quick to respond to the move, which they saw as politically motivated.

“Censoring authorities often just glance at the front cover of a book to decide whether or not it will be banned. The censorship process can be very arbitrary – a book gets banned for including a certain topic, and another book on the same topic doesn't get banned.”

“Three to four decades ago, women like Noor Jehan, Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum, Abida Parveen, Nayyera Noor, Tina Sani and Nazia Hassan dominated the stage in Pakistan’s music industry, but things have changed as pop, rock and East-meets-West fusion bands have taken over. In this new musical order, young and independent female artists like Haider must chart their own paths. This is particularly true in a country where there are few formal music schools, and music is a hunar (skill) traditionally passed from generation to generation within families, if not through private classically-trained ustaads (teachers).”

“Lebanon’s laws allow censors to cut anything that might inflame political or religious tensions, but the system lacks oversight, and there is wide scope for individual officers to interpret laws as they see fit. La3younak Sidna,” (“Sir Yes Sir”) was written by Lucien Bourjeily and will be produced by March, an NGO that campaigns for free speech in Lebanon. Billed by Bourjeily as the theatrical version of a documentary, it chronicles the team’s own struggles as they tried and failed to get a permit for their previous work, “Bto2ta3 aw ma Bto2ta3” (“Will it Pass Or Not?”). The expectation was that this play would be censored as well, but to their surprise, the permit was granted after a month’s wait.”

“As Russian singer Andrei Makarevich was performing at the House of Music in Moscow on September 25,  members of the unregistered nationalist party “Other Russia” disrupted the show, yelled “Traitor!” threw eggs and leaflets, and released pepper spray into the theater. Makarevich recently performed in the Donetsk region, which, in light of the increasingly aggressive nationalist tensions building as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, proved to be enough to brand Makarevich a Ukraine sympathizer in the eyes of pro-Russian activists. As the conflict unfolds, political borders turn into cultural borders, and artists on both sides suffer the consequences.”

“The first collaboration of its kind, the song Lam La Che is an example of how the internet allows Tibetans in exile and Tibetans inside Tibet to reach across borders to not only communicate, but also collaborate.  This post digs deeper into how Tibetan exile musician Techung and internal Tibetan blogger Woeser  created into Lam La Che.

“While China has indeed become the world's biggest market for cultural consumption, the government has no plans to relax its control over cultural output. In fact, the clampdown on independent art activities has never been harsher.Chinese authorities shut down the 11th Annual Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) and arrested the festival’s organizers on Saturday, August 23. The festival is organized annually by the Li Xianting Film Fund, which is located on the outskirts of Beijing city, in Songzhuang district’s Xiaobao village.”

“Rather than ‘bleeping out’ or cutting offensive language, censorship boards now have the authority to pull distribution certificates for any films judged to have profane content. Films with swear words will now need to be shown at special festivals and private screenings.”

“Musicians relied on gigs from colleagues, corporations and weddings to make ends meet. Many of Pakistan’s commercial success stories – musicians such as Rahat Fateh Ali, Atif Aslam and Ali Zafar – made it by getting integrated into India’s multi-billion dollar Bollywood industry. Once they made it in India, they could charge up to $20,000 a pop for private concerts or weddings in Pakistan. Without any ‘Bollywood appeal’, Pakistan’s talented rock musicians were, and still are, unable to reach an audience large enough to make a living from their music.”

“Freedom of artistic expression has been touted the primary indicator of progress made since the Arab Spring in the Middle East. When the subject was mentioned, the tired but still mocking eyes of Tunisian rapper Don Emino shined. Smirking he said, ‘What revolution? They killed the revolution. Weld took two years for his song. It's the same old thing as during Ben Ali’s dictatorship.'”

“Laal, which gained a lot of popularity through YouTube, knew that its reach would be affected when YouTube was banned in Pakistan. The ban was imposed in 2012 after ‘Innocence of Muslims,’ a 14-minute long video featuring virulent anti-Islamic content, caused an uproar in the Islamic world. Although other Islamic countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Bangladesh also initially imposed the ban, it currently remains in effect only in Pakistan.”

“Artists in Tibet have to tread an incredibly fine line in their creativity and artistic expression. The themes that inspire great artistry are often also the most politically loaded. This has been the case with several artists, including young singer Lolo, who was sentenced to six years in prison in February 2013 following the release of his album Raise the Tibetan Flag, Children of the Snowland, which carries politically charged lyrics that refer to the banned Tibetan flag, self-immolations and Tibetan independence.”

“The most explicit forbidden funk songs are hard to reach from outside the favela. But that doesn't mean they are not out available. Besides being on YouTube, some songs are tamed into “well-behaved versions” for mainstream audiences. An edited version of a classic forbidden funk song Rap das Armas (Weapons’ Rap) was a part of the award-winning film Tropa de Elipe’s soundtrack. The sound of guns was deleted for the film’s version.”

“Although there is no formal music agency in Tajikistan, the authorities have other mechanisms for silencing critical tunes. Singers deemed too controversial are not allowed on state television or radio. Nor do private FM radio stations play their music, for fear of repercussions. Such performers are also denied permits to hold concerts, while underground shows are extremely rare in the country. The authorities have also reportedly begun to monitor the performances of Tajik singers abroad in an effort to ensure ‘patriotic’ content.”

“The censors of the ministry are notorious for accusing several thousand songs of being ‘hazardous’ whenever they notice references to liquor, cigarettes or sex in the lyrics. Once a song is labeled as ‘inappropriate for youth under the age 19′ it can only be broadcast after 10:00 PM, and children are forbidden from buying it as well as from listening on the internet.”

“Today, three years into the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, civic activists are no longer only fighting the Assad regime but also extremist groups like the Islamic front of Iraq and Syria who are gaining ground in the power vacuum of “liberated” areas. Open displays of art and creativity, such as music, have become a target for these groups, who have even raided wedding parties and public celebrations to stop music and singing.”

For more information, please get in touch with Nina Mashurova, the lead editor on this project.