Jodie Ginsberg: Art and authoritarianism
19 Oct 2017

Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg delivered Art and authoritarianism: a keynote speech to the Integrity 20 conference at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia on Thursday 19 October 2017.

Good afternoon and thank you to Griffith University for inviting me to speak on this important topic of art and authoritarianism. The video you have just seen was created more than 30 years ago for the organisation I run, Index on Censorship, a global non-profit that publishes work by and about censored writers and artists and campaigns on their behalf.

It is work that was begun during the Cold War, at a time when Soviet dissidents were unable to publish work challenging the communist regime, when books like George Orwell’s 1984 were banned, and works like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot outlawed. It was a time when the magazine that Index still produces 45 years later had to be smuggled into eastern Europe, where clandestine literature was swapped for goods unobtainable in the communist east — including bananas.

These days we don’t send people out armed with bananas in exchange for banned texts, but the fact that Index is still in business more than 25 years after the end of the Cold War is a sad reflection that censorship remains alive and well across the world.

If anything, we are seeing its rise: democratic spaces are shrinking and authoritarianism creeping back in places where we thought we had seen its end.  

This afternoon’s talk will give a brief overview — that I hope will give a provide a context for our subsequent discussion —  of the ways in which authoritarian regimes seek to stifle the arts, or use arts for their own ends, and the ways in which artists fight back.

But first I want to reflect on why the arts are important? Often in public discourse, the arts are considered an ‘add on’, a ‘frippery’, nice to have — but non essential to our basic existence. But I would contend that artistic expression is what defines us as human beings. That the ability to make music, to sing, to dance, to paint, to write, to talk — is fundamental to our humanity. And it is therefore fundamental that we protect it.

The fact that artistic expression plays such a powerful and important role in our existence is perhaps best seen in the seemingly disproportionate amount of time authoritarian regimes spend targeting it. If the spoken or written word, if performance, if the image were not important, if they did not have power, then dictators wouldn’t spend half so much time worrying about them.

Indeed, artists are often the canaries in the mine, a leading barometer of freedom in a country: poorly funded, rarely unionised, but with the ability to powerfully capture uncomfortable truths, artists are easy to target.

In a classic authoritarian regime, artists are most easily targeted by banning works or types of works and by arresting those groups and individuals who step out of line.

Ultimately, censorship doesn’t work. And that’s because of the very nature of artistic expression itself: that the more ways the censors try to find to shut down the ideas, the beliefs they don’t like, the more artists find creative ways to express those same ideas.

Moroccan musician Mouad Belaghouat, known as El Haqed, was arrested in 2011 and spent two years in prison for criticising the king. A former winner of the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for arts, El Haqed’s work highlights corruption and widespread poverty in the country.

Frequently, though, authoritarian regimes censor those artists who fall out of favour not through a direct link to their work but by indirect means. Arresting them, for example, on another pretext such as financial irregularities.

Think of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, arrested in 2011 while officials investigated allegations of “economic crimes”. Ai Wei Wei was then hit with a demand for nearly $2 million in alleged unpaid taxes and fines.

Three years later Ai Wei Wei’s work ‘Sunflower Seeds” was cut from an exhibition in honoring the 15th anniversary of the Chinese Contemporary Art Award of which he was a founding, three-time jurist. Museum also workers erased Ai’s name from the list of the award’s past winners and jury members. Erasure: censorship in action.

Explicit censorship like this continues to exist in many countries, with many still operating censorship boards to assess films, books and plays for cutting or banning. In Lebanon, for example, a censorship bureau still exists to which playwrights and others must submit works for approval before they can be shown. In 2013, writer Lucien Bourjeily decided to try to play the censors at their own game and submitted a play called ‘Will it Pass or Not’ that aimed to highlight the arbitrary nature of decisions taken by the bureau. Unsurprisingly, the play was banned. The censorship board’s General Mounir Akiki appeared on television to explain the ban, presenting evidence from four so-called “critics” who insisted the play had no artistic merit and therefore would not be passed. Index published an extract from the play a few months later.

At the time, Bourjeily wrote about the challenges of writing when “the censorship law in Lebanon is so vague and elusive”. Much successful censorship by authoritarian regimes relies not so much on what is explicitly banned but rather on an uncertainty as to what is permitted and what not. In such an environment, self-censorship thrives.

It is just such an environment that artists identify in contemporary Russia where laws — including those on obscenity and offence to religious feeling — are applied erratically, and where funding might be stopped — apparently arbitrarily — if an organisation fails to step in line with a current emphasis on family and religious values.

In this unpredictable environment, artists must think twice before braving the system. If you don’t know where the lines are, how do you know when you have crossed them? In this case, artists might choose to do nothing at all rather than breach an unstated limit.

The 2013 Russian law criminalising acts offending religious believers reflects a broader creep globally in which artists are punished by governments – or by non-state actors including the likes of ISIS – for offence. Bangladesh has seen a series of fatal attacks against writers, publishers and bloggers, many of whom have been targeted for their atheist views.

A failure by the government to get justice for these killings – or even publicly condemn them – is encouraging a state of impunity that encourages further attacks.

In fact, the Bangladesh government has actually placed the onus on writers to avoid writing anything “objectionable” about religion. Writers have been charged under a wide-ranging law used to prosecute anyone who publishes anything on or offline that hurts “religious sentiment” or prejudices the “image of the state.” Last year, during the country’s largest book fair writer Shamsuzzoha Manik was arrested for publishing a book called Islam Bitorko (Debate on Islam).

It is not just insulting religious sentiment that is increasingly problematic in the Muslim world. In countries like Poland, which is also experiencing its own form of creeping authoritarianism in common with many of its neighbours, the Catholic church is resuming an old role as censor in chief. State prosecutors there this year investigated the producers of a play that examines the relationship between the Polish Catholic church and the state, and castigates authorities for failing to respond to allegations of child abuse. In the play’s most notorious scene, an actor simulates oral sex on a plastic statue of the late Polish pope John Paul II, as a sign reads: “Defender of paedophiles”.

What starts as censorship of the arts quickly bleeds into other areas, like education.

In Bangladesh for example, the law I described earlier has been invoked against those who have questioned facts about the 1971 war.

Rewriting history is something authoritarian regimes are rather good at.

Earlier this year index published a story by award-winning author Jonathan Tel about an actor in a time travel TV show who gets stuck in 19th century Beijing after the government axes the genre. It’s a fictional take on true life: in 2011 the Chinese-government did ban all time-travel themed television.

The genre had become extremely popular and therefore hard to control, generating multiple narratives about the past. That posed a challenge for a Chinese Communist Party who only want a singular narrative, the one they control, that China was a country of corrupt feudal overlords and emperors until saved by the party in 1949.

When the ban came into place the administration said it was because the genre ‘disrespects history’.

This impulse to control the narrative is what drives propaganda. Traditionally, authoritarian regimes have found propaganda easiest to achieve simply by shutting down media outlets to limit the flows of information to a limited number of channels controlled by the government: a single newspaper, a government-controlled broadcaster and so on. With art, this is more challenging, and so the art produced by governments for propaganda often finds its expression in a cult of personality linked to a dictator — think of the Stalin statues that mushroomed during his time in office. In North Korea, the government commissions large scale art works depicting the people at work.

Art as defender — and threat to — the national image is inextricably linked, especially in modern regimes, with threats to national security. We see this clearly in countries like Turkey, a democracy that has rapidly slid back into authoritarianism over the past 18 months without passing ‘Go’. Authors, performers, artists have all found themselves at the sharp end of President Erdogan’s ire, and accused of terrorism simply for offering a critique of his government. Erdogan, in common with many dictators, appears to hate more than anything being laughed at and so cartoonists and satirists have found themselves targeted. Cartoonist Musa Kart was imprisoned for nearly 10 months and faces nearly 30 years in jail for his satirical cartoons of the President and his government. In Malaysia, cartoonist Zunar faces up to 43 years in jail for his cartoons lampooning the prime minister and his wife.

I talked at the start about a resurgence of authoritarianism. In conclusion, I want to talk about a feature of censorship that I think is remarkable and which, perhaps, dictators might like to reflect on. That, ultimately, censorship doesn’t work. And that’s because of the very nature of artistic expression itself: that the more ways the censors try to find to shut down the ideas, the beliefs they don’t like, the more artists find creative ways to express those same ideas. Burkina Faso artist Smockey, an outspoken critic of the government whose studios have been firebombed twice because of his work, continues to make music and describes it as the duty of the artists to resist. Yemeni graffiti artist Murad Subay paints public murals that highlight the atrocities being inflicted on his people – and encourages others, ordinary citizens, to join him. Others are more covert: the musicians who meet underground, or the filmmakers who use allegory and metaphor to flout literalist censors.

And perhaps that should give us cause for optimism — at the very least, optimism about the human spirit and its ability to challenge the greatest tyrants through the pen or the paintbrush. To quote Harry Lime in the wonderful film The Third Man: “Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

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Index on Censorship is a nonprofit that campaigns for and defends free expression worldwide. We publish work by censored writers and artists, promote debate, and monitor threats to free speech. We believe that everyone should be free to express themselves without fear of harm or persecution – no matter what their views.

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Jodie Ginsberg

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