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Artists' free expression curtailed around the world

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 5 October 2012 - 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.

Artist Alert, September 2012


Freedom of expression, including the right to access to information, is a fundamental human right. It is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) as follows:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees the right in more or less in similar terms as the UDHR.

The right to freedom of expression is also protected in all three regional human rights treaties, at Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), at Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and at Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

Art in any form constitutes a key medium through which information and ideas are imparted and received. Freedom to create is an essential attribute of freedom of expression, in the same way that creation is essential to expression.

As international human rights courts have stressed, the right to freedom of expression is applicable not only to "information" or "ideas" that are favourably received but also to those that offend. For instance, the European Court for Human Rights has ruled that: "[F]reedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of [a democratic] society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man . . . it is applicable not only to "information" or "ideas" that are favourably received . . . but also to those which offend, shock or disturb the State or any other sector of the population. Such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no "democratic society".


The killing of a young TV actress in Kabul has sparked fears among other female performers. 22-year-old Benafsha, who appeared in a show on Emrooz TV, was attacked in the street by a group of men on 20 August 2012.

Benafsha and two friends were reported to be moving out of the neighbourhood after tensions had grown in the community about their work. Tamana who starred in the same show as Benafsha and her sister Areza, also an actress, were injured during the attack but survived.

It was reported that after a few hours in hospital for treatment, the sisters were taken to prison, where they face intrusive virginity tests and possible charges of prostitution or collusion in the attack. Prominent actress, Sahar Parniyan, told reporters that she had received death threats and has gone into hiding as a result of the incident.


One of Somalia's best known comedians was shot dead in Mogadishu on 31 July 2012. Abdi Jeylani Marshale was a popular broadcaster known for making fun of Islamists and for participating in youth advocacy programmes aimed at preventing young Somalis from joining violent groups.

He was targeted minutes after leaving Kulmiye radio station, where he worked as drama producer and performer. It is reported that two armed men shot the comedian several times in the head and chest. It is not clear who was behind the killing but last year he was threatened by the militant group al-Shabab.


On 6 September 2012 artworks selected for the SH Contemporary Art Fair were deemed unfit for display by city officials in Shanghai and pulled from the walls of the Shanghai Exhibition Center.

A digitally manipulated photo by the artist Chi Peng of China's legendary Monkey King facing Tiananmen Gate was among those removed. The picture, which displayed a giant gorilla and a wall of grey smoke coming from inside the Forbidden City, had passed vetting in Beijing for a show in May and was initially approved for the SH Contemporary Art Fair.

During the opening of the show, a work crew arrived armed with a ladder and a bed sheet to cover a giant print of a beehive shaped like China and small images of people scattered across it. A very small image of the piece featured in the catalogue for the fair, and distribution of that book was also banned.

Gallery owners and artists were told that city officials were being extra careful ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition set to take place in Beijing in October.


Russian broadcasters could be banned from showing clips of classic children's television shows after a new law came into force on 1 September 2012.

All-time favourites like Nu, Pogodi (Oh, Just You Wait) face a potential re-edit because one of the main characters, a wolf trying to catch a rabbit, is a chain smoker. The USA's animated series, the Simpsons may also have to be reworked to cut The Itchy and Scratchy show - a regular show-within-the-show which features a cat and a mouse repeatedly killing each other in violent sketches.

The new Federal Law "On protection of children from information harmful to their health and development" was passed by the Duma earlier this year under the argument of protecting children and young adults from "information detrimental to their health and development." Broadcasters in the country have expressed unease that the legislation is vague and hasn't provided clear-cut rules on what is and isn't acceptable.


A production of the Ira Levine play Deathtrap was cancelled following a row about nudity and a gay kiss. The estate of the late author, managed by his sons Adam, Jared and Nicolas, raised objections to the staging of the play which was due to begin a run at the Davidson-Valentini Theatre in the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center in September.

Objections were raised to a scene in which an actor disrobes and reveals his buttocks for approximately 30 seconds. The estate later said that the centre could not stage the play if they made any reference that two male characters may have any sort of intimate relationship.

The Center, which had staged an earlier run of the thriller in the spring, decided in late August that they would cancel the production rather than comply with the demands of the estate. The Center said it felt any changes to the planned performance would alter the dynamics of the play and in doing so would deny a gay relationship.

Other versions of the story have at least hinted at the attraction between Clifford and Sidney, including the 1982 film adaptation, in which Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine share a kiss.


A song banned from being played on radio and television for its criticism of a leading official in Kampala, has become an underground internet hit. Despite receiving very little airplay, the song by Ssentamu Kyagulanyi who uses the stage name Bobi Wine, is available on YouTube and is on its way to becoming an anthem.

The lyrics of Tugambire ku Jennifer (please talk to Jennifer) take issue with the executive director of the authority that runs the capital, Kampala, Jennifer Musisi. The lyrics of the song highlight problems facing the poorest people of Kampala and claim that Musisi's policies are making the situation in the city worse and intones "Tell Jennifer on our behalf to reduce her harshness because the town is ours."


A concert showcasing the work of the composer Wagner was cancelled in Tel Aviv following a wave of protests. Tel Aviv University, the venue for the symposium on the German composer, withdrew a booking made by the Israel Wagner Society for 18 June 2012. The University said that allowing the event which featured works by Hitler's favourite composer would offend Holocaust survivors.

Organisers had hoped the concert would end an unofficial seventy year boycott of the composer in the country. They said that around a hundred musicians had been hired and people had bought tickets with the intention of listening to the music which was to have been conducted by Asher Fisch.


A performance of a play about a man coming to terms with being gay was cancelled a day before it was due to be staged at the National Theatre of Uganda.

The River and the Mountain, written by the British playwright Beau Hopkins, was to be put on to coincide with the first Gay Pride Event in Uganda on 29 August 2012 but was pulled by the theatre industry's regulator, the Media Council.

A spokesman for the Council stated it was standard practice for a script to be cleared for production and they were still considering the content of the play.

Performances of the play have taken place at smaller venues despite the controversy caused by the subject matter which some feel echoes the current situation in Uganda.


One of China's most promising young artists has spoken about how his art work was confiscated when being shipped for his upcoming exhibition in New York.

Zhao Zhao, who is the former assistant to Ai Weiwei, gave an interview to the German newspaper Die Spiegel in which he described how his work was confiscated by customs in the northern port of Tianjin. The article published on 28 August 2012 explained how Zhao was also fined 300,000 yuan (US$45,000) for "tax evasion" and told his artwork would be destroyed.

Zhao's work was on its way to the USA to feature in a solo exhibition in New York at a gallery owned by Christophe Mao. One of the items seized was a sculpture of Zhao's that consists of the shattered pieces of a concrete statue, a figure of an enormous police officer. The number on the officer's uniform is the date on which Ai Weiwei was arrested in 2011. Zhao made the sculpture during Ai's imprisonment, and constructed it from the start as a ruin.

No reasons have been given by the Chinese authorities as to why the fine is being imposed. Zhao said in the interview that he did not have the money to pay the fine.


A performance of a play taking a humorous look at the bible was cancelled after an evangelical clergyman and talk show branded the show "blasphemous" and waged a campaign of protest.

Theatre group SummerStage had intended to stage their production of The Bible: Complete Word of God (Abridged) at Lapham Peak State Park during August and September.

The play, which was written by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, has been described as a light-hearted romp. The script includes a sketch in which Moses returns from the mountain saying, "Children of Israel, I've got good news and bad news. The good news is I talked Him down to 10. The bad news is adultery is still one of them."

On 9 August 2012 Vic Eliason, who runs the VCY (Voices of Christian Youth) America Radio Network, dedicated his hour-long radio program to condemning the play as "blasphemous" and "diabolical." Eliason urged his listeners to contact theatre company board members and officials at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which runs the park in which the play was to be staged. Eliason broadcast telephone numbers for the board and officials, who were inundated with calls.

The DNR bowed to pressure and cancelled the show despite the play having been performed hundreds of times across the country without incident.


A ban which has prevented radio stations from playing music made by Cuban exiles was lifted for the first time in fifty years.

The blacklist, which was never published, is thought to have included Havana-born pop-singer Gloria Estefan; Grammy-winning saxophonist Paquito d'Rivera, who defected from Cuba whilst on tour leaving behind his family; and jazz pianist Bebo Valdes. The Spanish singer Julio Iglesias is considered to have been blacklisted for a time, but later excused.

No official announcement was made by the government but Havana Radio said they were informed of the decision in a meeting at the beginning of August.

The decision to lift the official ban has not transformed the airwaves; it is not clear whether any station has yet played the de-censored artists. Restrictions on free speech still remain in Cuba and any perceived attack on the state could result in up to a year's imprisonment; this could be for the artist or anyone who promotes the music.


An artist in Tunisia faces up to five years in prison for creating a sculpture that depicts a veiled woman surrounded by a pile of rocks.

Nadia Jelassi says that the work, which is called Celui qui n'a pas . . . , is something that she wanted viewers to interpret as they liked but that the most obvious interpretation is of women being stoned.

On 17 August 2012, Nadia Jelassi was summoned to the First Degree Court of Tunis, where the investigative judge informed her that she faces charges of 'harming public order and public morals'.

Prosecutors have used Article 121.3 of the Tunisian penal code to bring charges. The statute makes it an offense to 'distribute, offer for sale, publicly display, or possess, with the intent to distribute, sell, display for the purpose of propaganda, tracts, bulletins, and fliers, whether of foreign origin or not, that are liable to cause harm to the public order or public morals'.

Fellow artist Ben Slama faces the same charge over a work showing a line of ants streaming out of a child's schoolbag to spell 'Allah'.

The works of both artists were exhibited in a show in the town of La Marsa last June. The night the exhibition ended, protesters set fire to police stations, courts and other buildings.


A ruling by Arizona's Supreme Court on 7 September 2012 found that tattooing was a constitutionally protected form of free speech. This is the first decision of its kind by any state high court in the country.

The ruling was made in relation to a dispute between two tattoo artists and the Phoenix valley city of Mesa, which had denied them a business permit for a shop in a local mall. Ryan and Laetitia Coleman originally applied for the permit in July 2008 but were turned down.

In 2009 the Colemans filed a lawsuit in which they claimed violations to their rights to free speech, due process and equal protection under both the federal and state constitutions. This suit was dismissed by the Maricopa County Superior Court.

The Supreme Court ruling does not mean the Colemans' tattoo parlour will now be allowed, only that the court was wrong to dismiss their suit. It noted that cities had the right to regulate business location and that the dispute between the parties would have to be determined at trial.

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