Artist Alert: December 2013 – January 2014

Artist Alert: December 2013 – January 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. 


Uganda: Anti-pornography bill has wide implications for the arts

Ugandan MPs passed an anti-pornography bill on 19 December regulating the publication and distribution of pornographic material. The bill, also known as the ‘Mini Skirt Bill’, contains such broad definitions of explicit content that it could, if approved by the President, affect music videos, TV shows and films.

Zambia: Popular song prohibited by radio stations for infringing on children’s rights

On 31 January, the Children’s News Agency (CNA) in Zambia called for media companies to ban the song Kanselele by Krummy. The song, which had been at the top of radio play lists for several weeks, is about a man who cannot reach his loved one and therefore lays his hands on any female near him – even a school-aged child. The CNA called for Krummy to re-write the lyrics and for radio stations to ban the song if he refused. It was reported that at least two radio stations banned the song on their airwaves.


Argentina: Naked president photomontage sparks criticism by MPs

Argentinian MP Mara Brawer and the National Council of Women spoke out against the cover of the weekly magazine Noticias on 27 December. On the cover was a photomontage of the Argentinian President, Cristina Kirchner, naked with the headline “The queen is naked”. This was a reference to Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Emperor’s new clothes.

Brawer said that showing the president naked was offensive “towards all women” and that the magazine’s editorial policy was “weakening the Argentinian democracy”. Other MPs, including Héctor Recalde, said the cover was tasteless and Juliana Di Tullio said she would file a complaint against the magazine.

The National Council of Women declared that Noticias had to “re-think their attitude towards the government’s policies to eradicate violence against women”.

Ecuador: Catholic Church wants art exhibition removed

The Catholic Observatory said on 10 December that an art exhibition by artist Damian Perez, deemed “blasphemous”, had to be removed. In the exhibition, 6. El Dogmático [6. The Dogmatic], which was supported by the Ministry of Culture, the artist said he wanted to “revisit” Catholic imagery through his work.

The Observatory deemed the exhibition “anti-Catholic” and said that the images were “deeply offensive”. They included a figure of the baby Jesus smoking marijuana.

Asia Pacific

Australia: Photographer’s work removed from exhibition

British-based photographer Catherine Lane had her work removed from Platform, an artist-run gallery in Melbourne, on 23 January. The gallery reportedly informed her that her work, which depicts women with their hair draped around them like a ‘hijab’ or veil, has the “potential” to cause cultural offence, even if that was not the intention.

The photographer’s work was removed a few days before the exhibition opened on 31 January. She had already flown to Australia from the UK for the opening.

China: Artists demand review of government art policy

Over 250 artists and arts groups have signed a petition asking the government to change its arts policy.

The petition launched on 12 December comes in the wake of controversy over the Hong Kong Ballet’s performance in October, which was allegedly self-censored at the last minute. While the Hong Kong Ballet denied that scenes were cut for political reasons, many believe that the central government in China is having undue influence on the arts in Hong Kong. The petition asks for the introduction of guidelines to prevent interference in the creative process.

China: Video game banned

The video game, Battlefield 4, has been banned in China for content that allegedly endangers national security. The Ministry of Culture stated on 28 December that the game is an “aggressive attack’” on Chinese culture.

Set in mainland China in the year 2020, the game features a Chinese commander who wants to overthrow the government. China only recently announced the end of a 13- year ban on all video games.

China: Artist banned from public shows

On 8 January, the International Raelian Movement (IRM) called for its members worldwide to protest outside Chinese embassies. The protest is about the artist, Long Yue, who was notified by police that she cannot perform in Chinese national theatres or television stations due to her membership of the movement.

The leader of the movement demanded that the Chinese government lift the ban on Yue so that she can promote her art freely, as her “only crime is believing in UFOs.”

China: Ban on Lady Gaga lifted but album heavily censored

Lady Gaga has been removed from China’s list of banned artists and her album Artpop went on sale from 21 January. However, the album cover has been edited to cover more of her body and the title of the song Sexxx Dreams has been changed to X Dreams.

Gaga was placed on the list of banned artists in 2011 when the culture minister claimed that she was “damaging the nation’s cultural security”.

India: Art with same-sex themes facing censorship

It was reported that gay artist Balbir Krishan’s exhibition in Hyderabad was closed down on 2 December after the organisers received threats from the ‘moral police’. According to the reports, right-wing activists attended the preview and told the artist that his work, which features paintings with nude and homosexual themes, goes against “Indian” culture. The artist stated that he could not go to the police because the threats came from very well-known and influential people and he was left with no choice but to cancel the exhibition.

Reports at the end of December stated that Indian artists fear that the re-interpretation of section 377 (a colonial-era law interpreted as banning gay sex) on 11 December will have far-reaching effects for LGBT artists. 

Thailand: Theatre group harassed and threatened with prosecution over satirical play

ARTICLE 19 received reports on 23 December that the theatre group Prakaifire is facing prosecution for lese majeste after their satirical play was covered on the royalist ASTV news station. Members of the group received death threats because of their play, which criticised the role of the monarchy in Thai politics. Under Thai law you can be held in pre-trial detention until the trial is over, something that can take years.

Europe & Central Asia

France: Bob Dylan charged with incitement to racial hatred

US artist Bob Dylan has been charged in France on 3 December for incitement to racial hatred for a statement he made in an interview in September 2012. The Council of Croats in France criticised him for equating all Croats to Croatian war criminals when he said “If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.” Several Croatian radio stations stopped playing his songs in protest over his comments.

Dylan, who was in the country to accept the country’s highest award, the Legion of Honour, could face fines if found guilty.

Netherlands: Dancehall artist Sizzla removed from festival line-up over anti-gay lyrics

It was reported that the Jamaican dancehall artist Sizzla was removed from the Melkweg festival line-up in the Netherlands on 7 January due to his anti-gay stance. The singer was also banned from performing at or entering the venue of the Jamaican dancehall festival Sting.

The event organisers banned him because of lyrics which stated that men and women should not have sex with members of the same sex. The artist has defended himself, stating that his views are based on the Bible and that he has the right to express himself on stage.

Northern Ireland: Comedy show cancellation reversed

A comedy play entitled The Bible: The complete Word of God (abridged) was due to be shown at a council-run theatre in January 2014. It was cancelled due to concerns about religious sensitivities after Unionist councillors criticised the play for being anti-Christian. The Newtownabbey Borough Council subsequently reversed the decision.

Culture and Arts Minister Carál Ni Chuilín described the cancellation of the play as disappointing, saying she supports freedom of expression and was “saddened” that audiences would not get to see the play.

Russia: Pussy Riot release under amnesty law

The two members of Pussy Riot who were still in prison, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were freed on 23 December as a result of the amnesty law which was implemented to mark the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. Altogether around 25,000 prisoners will be released.

The band members had been convicted after performing a punk song in a cathedral in Moscow in February 2012, a performance which criticised the Orthodox Church’s support for Putin.

The two women condemned the amnesty as a publicity stunt and Alyokhina said that had she had the option, she would have preferred to stay in prison and serve out her sentence.

Sweden: Controversial song banned from playlists

The controversial song, Black Doves and Wilted Lilies by Jason “Timbuktu” Diakité has been banned from public broadcasters’ playlists from 16 December for being too politically partisan and containing lyrics which allegedly threaten an anti-immigration politician. The line includes a play on words: “Dunk Jimmie yellow and blue”. ‘Yellow and blue’ is the Swedish equivalent of ‘black and blue’ in English which could imply beating him up, but also refers to the colours of the Swedish flag. The artist has stated that he never resorts to violence and uses his art to express his anger.

According to reports, the Speaker of Sweden’s Parliament is refusing to attend a ceremony in which Timbuktu is going to receive an anti-racism award for his work with the anti-xenophobia organisation, 5i12.

Sweden: Local authorities call for removal of “inappropriate” mural

Local authorities decided on 23 January to remove a ‘smiling vagina’ mural displayed in a Swedish school, raising concerns about the appropriateness of the setting. However, they have since agreed to make time to debate the issue before taking action after the decision ignited a debate regarding censorship and freedom of expression. The school’s headteacher has stated that he wants to keep the artwork.

Turkey: TV show fined for sexual innuendo

The Turkish version of Desperate Housewives (Umutsuz Ev Kadınları) was fined on 11 December by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) for sexual innuendo when one of the characters touched her husband saying “we will have dessert after dinner”.

The TV station hosting the series was fined 115,000 Turkish Liras for the scene, which, according to RTÜK, was “harmful to children”.

Turkey: Performers investigated after walking on stage with shoeboxes

Volkaliz, a group of guest performers, were investigated after they joined the Antalya State Symphonic Orchestra on stage for their New Year’s concert carrying shoeboxes. Shoeboxes have become a symbol of anti-government protests since police found huge stashes of money in shoeboxes during their recent corruption probe. The group has responded by questioning whether carrying shoeboxes is now a crime and expressing concern about government statements on the abolition of art institutions.

Middle East & North Africa

Saudi Arabia: Best-selling sci-fi book banned in Kuwait & Qatar

The two Saudi authors, Yasser Bahjatt and Ibraheem Abbas, discovered that their best-selling book Hawjan had been banned in Kuwait and Qatar on 6 December. This followed an investigation into the book by the ‘Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ in Saudi Arabia, following rumours that the book promoted sorcery and devil worship.

The book gained a lot of attention because of its huge popularity in Saudi Arabia and many worried about its negative affect on youth, and particularly on young girls. Although the book was finally approved for sale in Saudi Arabia, it was banned in Kuwait and Qatar. Bahjatt said that there is almost no science fiction in the region and attributed this to a “systematic shutdown of imagination” by a conservative religious society rather than to a lack of demand.

Tunisia: Rapper Weld El 15 acquitted for second time

Tunisian rapper Weld El 15 was acquitted and freed after a second retrial on 19 December

The artist was initially sentenced to 21 months in prison after his performance in August 2013 of his song Boulicia Kleb (The police are dogs), which criticised corruption in the police force. According to reports, the police stopped the music and arrested the rapper, along with his co-performer Klay, and beat them on the way to the police station. After a legal saga in which Weld El 15 was retried and acquitted twice, he was finally released in December.

UAE: US citizen sentenced to prison over comedy YouTube video

Shezanne Cassim, an amateur stand-up comedian from the USA, was sentenced on 23 December to one year in prison for a spoof video he made and posted on YouTube. Cassim was charged with threatening UAE security and endangering public order for his video satirising wealthy Emirati youth.

Cassim is the first foreigner to be charged under the UAE’s cybercrimes law, which was enacted in November 2012.