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ARTICLE 19 Artist Alert - August 2010

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 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 more effectively promote and defend freedom to create.

Zimbabwe: No show for atrocity

Works by popular visual artist Owen Maseko have been banned by the government of Zimbabwe, according to VOA. The series of video clips, effigies and paintings depict the 'Fifth Brigade atrocities' of the 1980s which claimed the lives of more than 20,000 civilians. The massacre perpetrated by Mugabe's army has since been dismissed by the President as "a moment of madness". As soon as the show was launched at the National Art Gallery, police closed the exhibit and arrested both Maseko and the museum's Director, Vote Thebe. It is thought the latter will face charges under the Censorship and Entertainment Act for allowing Maseko to stage the exhibition without a licence.

Guatemala: Mayan musician tortured and killed

A Mayan musician has been found dead after being abducted on 25 August, reports FreeMuse. Leonardo Guarcax, a promoter and defender of indigenous Maya culture in Guatemala, was discovered the day after his kidnapping, bearing marks of torture on his body. For many years Guarcax had taught indigenous music and dance at the Sotzil Cultural Centre, advocating for the rights of Guatemala's Mayan population. His death was not the first tragedy to befall the Guarcax family with his cousins, Ernesto and Carlos, meeting similar fates in May 2009. Leonardo's death is a reminder of the violence continually perpetrated against those attempting to maintain pre-hispanic culture in Guatemala.

Russia: Rapper jailed for lyrical 'hooliganism'

According to online news source, ArtInvestment.ru, Russian rap idol Ivan Alekseev has been detained and subsequently jailed for 'hooliganism.' On 2 August, following his band's performance at a Volgograd concert, the town's magistrate court sentenced the rapper to 'administrative imprisonment' for a period of ten days. Allegedly, law enforcers at the concert were enraged when Noize MC, Alekseev's performing name, dedicated a song critical of the Russian police force to the festival authorities, climaxing with the chorus: "A Citizen, stop-stop, the pockets, bang-bang in the kidneys." Attempts to pacify the police resulted in Alekseev's immediate arrest at the end of his act.

Another Russian musician, recently interviewed by the International Herald Tribune, highlighted how music as a channel for popular dissent in his country is being marginalised. Yuri Schevchuk, lead singer in Russian rock act DDT, has been an outstanding critic of the Kremlin over three decades of song-writing and performance. The rocker claims that a broadcasting blackout on political musicians continues with a subsequent trend of self-censorship, silencing political artists.

Singapore: Book tour ends for the jolly hangman

British author, Alan Shadrake, 75, has had his planned book tour severely curtailed by accusations of criminal defamation. On landing in Singapore on 19 July, Shadrake was taken into police custody and detained for a series of interrogations. The veteran writer had flown to the city-state in order to promote his new book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock. Shortly after his arrest, authorities ordered several bookstore chains to stop sales of the new title. Shadrake's book is an expose of Singapore's harsh judicial system, where a range of offenses carry a mandatory death penalty. The attorney general's office has accused the author of trying to "impugn the impartiality, integrity and independence of the judiciary." The case continues.

Austria: Chinese pressure censors gun sculpture

Following intense pressure from a Chinese delegation, a controversial UN exhibition has been censored in Vienna, reports All Voices. The Art of Peacekeeping, a monolithic fusion of decommissioned guns, reclaimed ammunition and deactivated landmines forms the centrepiece of a new show at The Vienna International Centre. The sculpture, by Sandra Bromley and Wallis Kendal, has been exhibited across the world but its current context, surrounded by photographs of violence in Tibet, led to a Chinese outcry, with complaints made to the exhibition organisers and departments within the UN. The photographs have been removed at short notice leaving the stand-alone sculpture. "We were absolutely shocked," said Bromley. "This was done without any consultation or permission."

Malta: The death of the artist

The Maltese Independent recently highlighted the case of Aleksandar Stankovski, a painter whose work has stirred considerable controversy in Malta and its neighbouring island of Gozo. During the celebrations that surrounded the annual Malta Arts Festival, paintings submitted by Stankovski were banned from gallery displays across the two islands, due to their nude content being labelled 'obscene'. The ban was a sad indictment of the festival, hailed as a symbol of Malta's pluralism and creative diversity. A local rights group, The Front Against Censorship (FAC), criticised the organisers' decision, "Isn't it ironic that while Malta is supposed to be celebrating culture through The Malta Arts Festival, art is still being censored?" In a dramatic response to the state censorship the FAC staged a Funeral March of Art through the capital Valetta, with participants attired in all-black, mourning the demise of Maltese art in the 21st century. The painting ban is only the latest development in a worrying trend that has marred Malta's reputation, including the prohibition of an 'obscene' play and the trial of a student group for writing an 'indecent' story.

United Kingdom: Grassroots mown down

A Cambridgeshire festival has been crippled by continuing restrictions. The Grassroots Festival, scheduled to take place in September, was abandoned by its organisers following what they describe as aggressive interference from the local council and police. Statements on the festival's website blame "overbearing licensing conditions" for the event's cancellation. Mooney, one of the festival's volunteers claimed, "They didn't want it to happen so they played their games. They couldn't use legislation so instead they used dirty tactics." Constant demands for a revised programme and increased security took its toll on festival financing and repeated delays led to the event's disbandment. Commentators said the festival's demise reflected a common trend in local authorities using bureaucracy to stultify new events.

USA: New legal protections for video artists

A landmark legal ruling has paved the way for re-instating artists and consumers' legal rights to legitimate use of copyrighted materials in the USA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reported on its victory in winning three critical exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). EFF's Civil Liberties Director, Jennifer Granick, commented, "We are thrilled to have helped free jailbreakers, unlockers and vidders from this law's overbroad reach." The DMCA has been heavily criticised for infringing on free speech, fair use and competition through blanket restrictions on how individuals use digital material. The ruling is particularly welcome for video artists, whose legitimate re-mixing of content could previously have led to being sued.

Colombia: Local hero sings banned ballads

According to the International Herald Tribune, Uriel Henao is known in Colombia as the King of Corridos Prohibidos or 'prohibited ballads'. His brand of rock and roll describes the exploits of guerrilla commanders, paramilitary warlords, lowly coca growers and cocaine kingpins alongside Colombia's government forces. It is a historical encapsulation of the country's protracted drug wars, an ode to many who have fallen in a decade of bitter internal conflicts. Henao is the most prominent purveyor of a genre that encompasses more than 600 bands in Colombia. In spite of its popularity the music is often shunned by radio stations and concert arenas for its graphic depiction of the drug wars. The flamboyant Henao carries on regardless, stating, "Colombia needs people like me to tell it the truth about what takes place in this country," he said. "The truth sells."

New international coalition for arts and human rights

A new coalition is beginning to take shape to bring together people and organisations worldwide that are interested in the intersection of arts, culture, human rights and social justice. The vision of a stronger and closer relationship was just one of the decisions taken during a conference attended by ARTICLE 19 titled 'Intersecting networks & support for people using creativity to fight injustice' organised in July by freeDimensional, a group linking art spaces to social justice movements on a global level. ARTICLE 19 is now looking at how best we can support this exciting initiative. More to follow!

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