Artist Alert: April 2014

Artist Alert: April 2014 - Civic Space

A mural on a wall depicting an artist painting and various caricatures including a split image of ex-President Mubarak and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and El Morshed. To their left is a fanged policeman wielding a huge club. Below them are a line of riot police with Mubarak faces and the acronym ACAB (All Cops are Bastards) below.

Art, in any form, constitutes a key medium through which information and ideas are imparted and received. Artist Alert, launched by ARTICLE 19 in 2008 highlights cases of artists around the world whose right to freedom of expression has been curtailed and abused and seeks to promote and defend more effectively the freedom to create.


Nigeria: Release of Half of a Yellow Sun delayed

25 April: Nigeria’s film board has delayed the release of Half of a Yellow Sun, a film about the Biafran civil war. A spokesperson for the film board confirmed that there have been “regulatory issues”, but stated that the film has not been officially banned.

The film is thought to be sympathetic to the Biafran separatist cause and some believe it may stoke up ethnic tensions as the subject is still sensitive.

Biyi Bandele, the director, is disappointed that he has received no official confirmation of whether or not the film has been banned. He denies that the film is biased and does not believe it could incite violence. He has said that the film “raised issues which Nigeria badly needed to discuss” and could help alleviate the divide in society.

Nigeria: Kano musician arrested for anti-Jonathan song

29 April: Kano singer Dauda Kahutu Rarara was arrested after releasing a song critical of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

Rarara‘s song criticised the president for campaigning and laughing and dancing at press events in the aftermath of the Abuja bombings in which 88 people were killed.

Rwanda: Liturgical musician arrested on terrorism charges

15 April: Popular liturgical singer and radio broadcaster Kizito Mihigo was arrested. He was accused of being part of a terrorist plot to blow up buildings and assassinate members of the government along with the FLDR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda).

The FLDR is a group associated with those who carried out the Rwandan genocide and has been implicated in several terrorist attacks.

A genocide survivor and reconciliation advocate, Kizito was previously known for his close ties with the current Kagame regime, although his political songs have since created some distance.

Kizito confessed to the crimes on live television on 25 April. However, some people have suggested that the charges are politically motivated and point to previous cases of forced confessions in Rwanda.


Brazil: Political graffiti destroyed despite pro-graffiti law

10 April: Noted Brazilian graffiti artist Roma is at the centre of a censorship row after his works were painted over and destroyed.

Despite new regulations that underline the legality of graffiti art in Brazil, his art has been mysteriously disappearing from the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

Roma’s art is largely political and often deals with issues such as police brutality, which is a sensitive issue in the run up to the World Cup. The destruction of his work has led to accusations of whitewashing from his supporters.

Mexico: More concerts by prominent ‘Narcocorridos’ singer banned

13 April: State authorities have cancelled a number of concerts by Mexican performer El Komander. He is known for having popularised the ‘Narcocorridos’ sub-genre which eulogises Mexican drug lords.

Born Alfredo Rios, El Komander mixes traditional Mexican folk songs with lyrics that some say glorify drug cartels and their leaders.

Despite not having broken any laws and not inciting violence, El Komander’s 11 April concert in the state of Morelos was banned. His 1 May concert in the neighbouring state of Puebla was also cancelled by the local authorities.

El Komander has defended himself by saying that he does not promote any person or group. He claims that his songs simply reflect Mexican preoccupations with drug violence and the content of everyday people’s conversations.

Asia Pacific

China: Artist/activist’s name and work removed from show

26 April: The artist and activist Ai Weiwei had his name and work removed from a show. According to the artist and Uli Sigg, a Swiss art collector who helped to organise the show, this was due to pressure from local government officials.

The exhibition, 15 Years of Chinese Contemporary Art Award, chronicles the history of the prestigious Chinese Contemporary Art Award, from which Ai Weiwei won a lifetime achievement award in 2008.

China: Chinese authorities censor popular TV shows

26 April: According to senior staff at major Chinese streaming websites, the Chinese authorities ordered the sites to stop showing four US TV shows.

The banned titles are:

  • popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory
  • procedural drama NCIS
  • political drama The Good Wife
  • legal drama The Practice.

The move comes as Chinese censors turn their attention increasingly to streaming TV, which is generally less heavily censored than offline TV.

India: Award-winning director censored

24 April: Buddahadeb Dasgupta has been forced to delete a scene and alter a line in his upcoming film Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa. The scene in questions shows a client visiting a prostitute.

After a six-month battle with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), Mr Dasgupta is furious that he has to make these changes. He states “I used to believe that filmmakers in Mumbai have excessive freedoms but for the first time in my career … I had to surrender to the diktats of the Board”.

Mr Dasgupta feels that the objection to the scene is ludicrous given that other films contain far more explicit material. He is concerned that if he, as an internationally renowned filmmaker, has been subjected to so much harassment, then young filmmakers must surely suffer far worse. He is therefore threatening to take up the issue with the CBFC.

Malaysia: Banning of action film

2 April: The election campaign took an unusual twist when a Democratic Party leader questioned the alleged banning of the film, The Raid 2: Berandal. The film was supposed to have its premiere in Malaysia on 27 March.

Presidential candidate Pramono Edhie Wibowo urged the Malaysian government to explain why the Indonesian action film could not be screened in the country. “It’s very frustrating for the Malaysian government to ban the film without giving any reason,” he said at the Democratic Party Convention.

Pramono said that the film is a work of art and should be appreciated as it “signals the rise of the creative industry” in Asia. The film won praise from film critics worldwide when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2014. It has since been screened in the USA and Indonesia.

Pramono urged the Indonesian Foreign Ministry to pursue the matter with the Malaysian government via diplomatic channels.

Malaysia: Noah banned

7 April: Malaysia has joined other Muslim nations in banning the biblical film Noah, saying that actor Russell Crowe’s visual depiction of the prophet is against the laws of Islam.

In a statement, the chairman of Malaysia’s Film Censorship Board, Abdul Halim Abdul Hamid, said that the film could not be shown in the country because Islam prohibits the visual depiction of any prophet. Noah is an important figure in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Malaysia: Metal band’s concert cancelled

25 April: Metal band Kreator had their concert cancelled just hours before it was due to start. According to local authorities, the venue’s entertainment licence had expired and it could not host any events until licences had been approved.

The band was told by the local promoter that the concert was cancelled for “reasons beyond our control”.

The organisers claim that they were forced to cancel the show because of interference from a religious enforcement department, despite having prepared all the necessary documents. They say that they received a verbal warning at around 4pm after a complaint about the “Black metal show”.

South Korea: Girl group song censored due to Japanese lyric

4 April: South Korean female K-pop (Korean pop) group Crayon Pop had their newest single Uh-ee labelled “unfit for broadcast”. Korean national broadcaster KBS censored the song because it contained a Japanese lyric.

The song uses the Japanese word ‘ppikka’ [‘shiny’], which KBS deemed to be a leftover of Japanese imperialism. Htee broadcaster forced the group to re-record, replacing the Japanese word with the Korean word for ‘shiny’, “bbunjjuk”.

Europe & Central Asia

Russia: ARTICLE 19 undertakes legal intervention on behalf of Pussy Riot

25 April: ARTICLE 19 intervened as a third party in the case of ‘Mariya Vladirmirova Alekhina and others’ v. ‘Russia’ at the European Court of Human Rights. The applicant, who is a member of the feminist punk band ‘Pussy Riot’ is taking legal action against the Russian government for ill treatment during transportation to and from court hearings. The case also challenges the legality of their detention, the fairness of their trial and interference with their right to freedom of expression.

ARTICLE 19 submitted a brief arguing that the law in Russia does not sufficiently safeguard the right to freedom of expression, highlighting in particular the broad language in Russia’s anti-extremism legislation and the ban on incitement to national, racial or religious enmity, which is used to stifle dissent. The brief also highlighted increasing government control over online content and a raft of legislation introduced since 2012 which limits freedom of expression. The brief therefore recommended that the Court evaluate the case in the context of “systemic and pervasive repression of political speech in Russia” and “widespread attacks on civil society activists”.

Two members of Pussy Riot were jailed in August 2012 after performing a protest song in a cathedral. They were released in an amnesty in December 2013.

Spain: Guggenheim Bilbao orders removal of mural caricaturing the museum

10 April: The Guggenheim Bilbao ordered a mural created by artists Mike Bouchet and Paul McCarthy to be taken down.

The mural uses hand-drawn sketches to reinterpret the museum as a battleship. Bouchet said “It is hard for me to say what their motivation is, other than that image of the museum as a battleship, there must be some sensitivity to that particular image because it happens to look like it so much.”

Bouchet explained that the Guggenheim Bilbao said that they own all rights to any representation of the museum, going on to say: “We have the right to make those kinds of critiques, so them removing this image and being really aggressive in taking this picture down is problematic, in that it really gets into the question of what’s an artist’s right?”

“What’s the role of art? It’s to critique, to be able to speak,” said Bouchet. “You can say ‘yeah this is copyright infringement,’ but it’s clearly a work of art. It’s clearly a caricature.”

Turkey: Writer released after more than four years in pre-trial detention

14 April: Muharrem Erbey was arrested in December 2009 as part of a wide-reaching anti-terror probe in Turkey into pro-Kurdish intellectuals, political activists and civil society organisations.

Muharrem Erbey said, ‘Speaking as a lawyer, I don’t understand the legal grounds for either my arrest or my release. The decision to release me was made under very unusual circumstances ahead of my scheduled hearing on 14 April 2014. As these are political trials, decisions seem to be taken according to the political climate at the time.’

UK: Image of Prince Charles censored on underground to avoid causing offence

An advert for the new play King Charles III featuring the image of a gagged Prince Charles was censored by Transport for London (TfL) in order to avoid offending members of the public.

Posters advertising the play had Prince Charles’s face pixelated. TfL blamed an “overenthusiastic” advertising company for the blunder. Clarence House also issued a statement specifying that they did not asked for Prince Charles’s image to be censored. 

Middle East & North Africa

Egypt: Art is square event banned and organisers arrested

5 April: Egyptian security forces in Alexandria prevented organisers from holding the Art is Square event at Bayram el-Tunsi Theatre, claiming that they had not obtained the necessary permits.

However, the event has been held regularly in both Cairo and Alexandria for three years, causing some to suggest that the ban was politically-motivated.

The security forces also arrested a number of the event organisers, although they were later released.

Egypt: Lebanese star’s film screenings suspended

24 April: It was reported that screenings of Lebanese star Haifa Wehbe’s new film Halawet Rooh (Beauty of the Soul) were suspended across Egypt. Interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb censored the film in the face of mounting protests from conservative groups.

The film, which features an affair between Wehbe’s character and a teenage boy, was labelled as “immoral” by the authorities.

However, in an interesting turn of events, Ahmed Awad, head of the State Censorship Board, resigned. He cited excessive government interference in the censorship board, which is supposed to function independently.

UAE: Journalist sacked over book on treatment of foreign workers

1 April: Ugandan journalist Yasin Kakande was dismissed by the Emirati newspaper The National for publishing a novel about the conditions of foreign workers in the UAE.

Kakande was reprimanded for not obtaining permission from the newspaper’s editors before publishing the book.

The treatment of foreign workers is a sensitive topic in the UAE. Human rights workers have chronicled numerous abuses there including:

  • poor working conditions
  • arbitrary confiscation of passports
  • human trafficking
  • wage discrimination.