Art institutions accused of censoring pro-Palestine views

“Any control imposed on art, regardless of the reasons behind it, is unacceptable to an artist,” Ai Weiwei told Index today. The Chinese artist was speaking to Index following the publication of an open letter by Artists for Palestine, which has been signed by more than 1,500 artists including Oscar-winning actor Olivia Colman, and which accuses art institutions in the West of “systematically repressing, silencing and stigmatising Palestinian voices and perspectives.” This claim raises serious concerns regarding the current climate of free speech within the art world.

Since the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, when around 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 200 taken hostage, Israel’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza has reportedly killed more than 21,000 Palestinians. Many artists who have spoken out against the violence have faced backlash. In their statement, Artists for Palestine condemned those aiming to silence Palestinian voices and called for a public demand for a permanent ceasefire by the arts and culture sector.

The scale of the issue is made clear in the letter, which cites no fewer than 18 separate examples of artists allegedly being censored as a result of expressing support or solidarity with Palestinians, or simply by being Palestinian themselves, in light of the ongoing conflict. One example in the letter was the cancellation of an exhibition by Ai Weiwei, which was due to open in November at the Lisson Gallery in London. The gallery called off the event due to a post made by Ai on social media in relation to the conflict, a decision that the artist described as “lacking in rationality and comprehensibility”.

The reasoning behind the exhibition’s cancellation is disputed by the Lisson Gallery. A spokesperson for the gallery told Index that the exhibition had just been postponed, and that it was the result of a social media post which “did not refer to the current tragic situation in the Middle East” and was done “in agreement with Ai Weiwei”.

However, this claim was rejected by Ai, who confirmed that no future date had been set for the exhibition to take place and suggested that he had no control over the decision. “I find the assertion that the postponement was “done in agreement” unreasonable. I have dedicated substantial effort to preparing for this exhibition, and there is no intention on my part to advocate for its postponement,” he said.

“Should the gallery express a desire to postpone, my only option is to acquiesce. In our collaboration, they represent the exhibition side, while I stand merely as the creator.”

Another example of censorship cited in the letter also occurred in the UK. Israeli-British historian Professor Avi Shlaim was scheduled to give a lecture titled Zionism and the Jews of Iraq: a personal perspective at Liverpool Hope University in October, only to be told a week prior to the event that it would not be going ahead. Shlaim argued that such a decision was contrary to the principles of academic freedom and claimed that it was the result of political pressure from those who disagreed with his views on Zionism and Israel.

Liverpool Hope defended their decision to Index, stating that the lecture was not cancelled, but postponed until later in the year. A spokesperson for the university also said: “Many of our community are acutely distressed about the current situation in the Middle East, Gaza and Israel, especially those that have family and friends living there. At the current time we are prioritising support for these groups.

“Freedom of speech is, and always will be, core to our values.”

However, Professor Shlaim was unhappy with this explanation. He told Index: “I reject the explanation of Liverpool Hope-less University. The issue was not safety but freedom of speech and they failed to uphold it in my case. Yes, they offered to postpone my lecture but I refused.”

Liverpool Hope UCU expressed their support for the lecturer in a letter to the university’s vice chancellor, calling the decision a “serious curtailing of academic freedom”. The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine also offered their support, warning that “Liverpool Hope’s decision is unfortunately not an isolated one.”

The letter also refers to Adania Shibli, a Palestinian author who was due to be awarded the LiBeraturpreis award at the Frankfurt Book Fair for her novel Minor Detail, a story in part about the abduction and rape of a Palestinian girl by Israeli soldiers. To the outrage of the literary community, the organiser of the award, Litprom, disinvited the author and called off the award ceremony soon after Hamas attacked Israel. Although they originally suggested it was a joint decision with the author, Litprom retracted this comment after being challenged by Shibli’s publisher.

In an interview with the Guardian, Shibli spoke of her belief that a review of her book which complained that “all Israelis are anonymous rapists and killers, while the Palestinians are victims of poisoned or trigger-happy occupiers” was instrumental in the decision to postpone her award, but insists that the ordeal was “a distraction from the real pain, not more.”

Litprom has stressed that they did not intend to silence or censor Shibli for her work or her views, and instead claim to have made the decision to cancel the award ceremony for her own protection and wellbeing given the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the conflict.

In a statement to Index, the organisers said: “Litprom’s decision was made with the aim of protecting this event and also the prize winner from the politically heated discussion in Germany, which is not accessible to literary discourse.

“Instead, the aim was to enable a worthy celebration of what the award’s jury and many other literary critics consider to be a literary work of very high quality.

“Awarding the prize to Adania Shibli was never in question.”

This example is just one of many included in the open letter to have taken place in Germany. Also cited by Artists for Palestine was the case of Oyoun, a Jewish cultural centre in Berlin which had its funding cut by the Berlin Senate, who told Index that they “certainly feel censored”.

“Oyoun has explicitly refuted the accusations made by the Senate regarding ‘hidden antisemitism’”, the centre said in a press release. “Oyoun explicitly opposes antisemitism and rejects any form of hostility towards people.”

On the 7 December, Oyoun filed a lawsuit against the Berlin Senate. They stated that they wished to “draw attention to this intimidation, the associated grievances, the arbitrariness of the Berlin Senate, and the disastrous signal that the closure of Oyoun would have on artistic and freedom of expression in Germany.”

Candice Breitz, a Jewish filmmaker and artist who had her exhibition on sex work activists at the Saarland Museum’s Modern Gallery in Germany cancelled after commenting on the conflict, recently suggested that the state is weaponising false charges of antisemitism in order to repress artists.

It is clear from these incidents that censorship within the art world is a sizeable issue right now, especially but not exclusively of pro-Palestine voices. Each day brings another example from around the world – just last week a number of artists announced plans to cut ties with the Art Canada Institute after accusations that Arab and Muslim artists were being suppressed by sensitivity reviews. The week before, GQ Middle East Man of the Year winner, Palestinian musician Saint Levant, was told not to mention the conflict in his acceptance speech. This mirrors previous accusations that the BBC censored such speeches at the Scottish BAFTA Awards to avoid mentions of a ceasefire. The list goes on and Israeli artists have also been censored, such as several whose pieces were removed from the 10th annual edition of the Mediations Biennale at Art Istanbul Feshane last month. The organisers cited fears of violence as the reason.

The pattern of artists being deplatformed or silenced for showing support for either side is extremely worrying. Artists who express their views within the confines of the law should not have to risk their livelihoods to do so. Although several of the noted examples suggest that many institutions aren’t necessarily against pro-Palestine content on an individual level, they are still curtailing free speech due to fears of the potential backlash to these views. Such fears are not unfounded within the current context of the rise of Islamophobia and antisemitism, but these fears do not excuse censorship of artistic expression or opinion.

Israel and Palestine – the key free speech issues

The events of the last week have been horrific. We won’t rehash them here — the videos, photos and details coming out of the Middle East are everywhere you look. For an organisation that campaigns for free speech, we have struggled to find words to respond to the mounting loss of life and the horrendous accounts that emerge every day. But at Index our job is not to report on all of this. Instead our job is to uphold free expression, and to alert the world to the instances where this has been curtailed. So that’s what we’ll do. Here are the free speech issues we are most concerned about:

Killed and missing journalists 
Amid the deaths of civilians, journalists are losing their lives. While there’s nothing to suggest that the journalists are being specifically targeted, their lack of protection is of huge concern, both for them and for the knock-on effect for media freedom more broadly. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that at least 10 journalists have been killed so far. The first was Yaniv Zohar, an Israeli photographer working for the Israeli Hebrew-language daily newspaper Israel Hayom, who was killed alongside his wife and two daughters during the Hamas attack on Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel on 7 October. Israel Hayom’s editor-in-chief has said that Yaniv was working that day. Nine Palestinian journalists have also been confirmed dead as of yesterday and one Israeli journalist is reported missing.

Protest bans
Across the world, buildings are being lit up with blue and white, while green, white, black and red flags are being held aloft in protest. While these vigils and protests are being enacted, so too are calls to shut them down. In the UK, home secretary Suella Braverman suggested waving Palestinian flags might be a criminal act (depending on the context) and told police chiefs to be on “alert and ready to respond to any potential offences”. In France, the interior minister yesterday announced a systematic ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Police have also warned against pro-Palestine rallies in Sydney, after some people chanted antisemitic slogans at a previous demonstration. The Sydney event organisers have distanced themselves from those people and said: “This behaviour has no place at these rallies.” Meanwhile, police in Sydney placed restrictions on Jewish people by warning them to stay at home while that first rally went ahead, and even arrested a man who was carrying an Israeli flag for “breach of the peace”.

There are certain areas that fall into “grey free speech” areas. Protest is usually not one of them. Only sometimes it is. The office was divided, for example, on whether there should be restrictions on protest outside abortion clinics. Today we are similarly divided. The Times argues here that some protests are making the leap from a peaceful right to expression to hate crimes. The Daily Beast argues the opposite and that these bans would erode our free speech rights.

Internet interruptions 
This week we’ve heard reports of social media accounts being suspended or blocked. NetBlocks, a former Index award-winner which maps media freedom, has also reported on declining internet connectivity in areas of both Israel and Palestine, after attacks and counter-attacks. In Gaza, a total blackout is anticipated if further internet infrastructure is damaged, making access to social media all but impossible before the apps are even opened. As we reported when Erdogan cut off access to social media following the Turkey earthquakes, access to the internet and these platforms is crucial during times of disaster and war. It can be a lifeline, connecting people to aid as well as to their loved ones.

Misinformation multiplied 
On Wednesday, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins called out a video seemingly from the BBC being circulated by Russian social media users, which claimed Ukraine was smuggling weapons to Hamas. The video was entirely fake. Others have highlighted video after video claiming to be footage of Israel bombing Gaza or Hamas airstrikes on Israel, which are in fact a combination of Assad airstrikes in Syria, fireworks in Algeria and even video game footage. Both faked and reappropriated content are running rampant on X (formerly Twitter), which is not necessarily anything new. But a Wired report suggests that the scale of the problem is new. Boosted posts from premium subscribers take precedence over once-verified news providers and hordes of fired misinformation researchers now spend their time updating their CVs rather than fighting fake news on the platform. And in an added twist fake news to smear both Muslims and Jews is also running rampant behind China’s Great Firewall on Sina Weibo.

Fair journalism
Getting news from on the ground is a huge challenge in this conflict, and it’s in that vacuum that the kind of misinformation we just outlined takes hold. So it’s all the more concerning that Israel’s public broadcaster Kan News reported that the Israeli cabinet is planning emergency legislation to ban Al Jazeera, which does have a presence on the ground in Gaza. This is not the first time Israel has announced a ban on the network. Back in 2017 Israel looked set to join a boycott by Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which all accused the network of sponsoring terrorism. Relationships between Al Jazeera and Israel have also been very strained since the May 2022 killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh. But if Al Jazeera is banned, one of the few media outlets reporting from within Gaza will go silent. 

We know that conflicts can deal a blow to free expression. At Index we are here to ensure that doesn’t happen, or at least if it does happen that it doesn’t go unnoticed. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.

Letter from Palestine: “I am either dead or I am muted”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116823″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]I can’t remember the first time I heard the slogan “No voice is louder than the voice of the intifada”.

I was born at the peak of the intifada (uprising) in which this slogan first appeared, in 1988. I became more aware of it during the second uprising, at the start of the millennium when the slogan re-emerged.

When I chose the topic of my dissertation in sociology on the impact of a prevalent ideology in determining the options of sociological research in Palestinian universities, I found that the slogan summarised how the existent national ideology works against critical visions in social sciences and tries to silence them. After research, I found that the slogan was a modification to a slogan that existed during phases of tyranny in Arab countries in the last century, namely “No voice is louder than the voice of the battle.”

Ever since I was born, I’ve been living through the “battle” in which no other voice should prevail. This is what happens when you live in a conflict that has not been resolved for more than 70 years. I live in Ramallah in the West Bank, an area that is subject to Israeli military occupation according to the UN since 1967.

There have been national movements that worked towards ending the occupation but these were transformed into an authority that signed a peace agreement with Israel and that hasn’t led to peace. Instead, there were understandings reached that resulted in administrative and security coordination.

At various times, this led to calm periods full of economic opportunities and cultural activity that were supported internationally. It seemed as if the battle’s voice receded or faded away. Yet the national authority maintained the battle discourse, which must remain above all others.

Years ago, on the wall of an oil press, in the village of my maternal grandparents, I read a slogan that shocked me: “You are either a mine that explodes under the feet of the enemy or you shut up.” Underneath was the signature of a leftist faction. I realised that I faced two choices: I am either dead –because I am a mine that explodes under the enemy’s feet – or I am muted.

In 2016, when I wrote my novel A Crime in Ramallah, I was subject to a dual-pronged attack.

The first manifested itself legally through the public prosecutor and the Palestinian Authority (PA), who confiscated my novel from bookstores and libraries, issued an arrest warrant against me and detained the distributor of the novel.

The second was of a popular dimension in social media, which fed on the prevalent ideology and its logic. This incident highlighted the reality relating to freedom of speech in the areas controlled by the PA, through legal tools on the one hand and national tools connected to the prevalent ideology on the other. Accusations were hurled against me regarding public morals in the current law, along with charges of treason and insulting national symbols that are prevalent in the discourse of the “battle”.

The current laws in force in PA areas remain a topic of legal argument. These include the penal code of 1960, which is a regressive law with an abundance of violations to freedom of expression and speech in addition to violations of political freedoms, freedom of sexual orientation and freedom of women.

Further, the law is vague and can be maliciously misinterpreted. The arrest warrant was issued against me on this basis. Efforts to amend the law or enact a contemporary law that allows for even minimal freedom of expression have all failed.

In 2018, the electronic crimes law was issued which violated freedom of the press and online expression and statement. It included harsh penalties that had an impact on writers, journalists, artists and everyday people who have become hesitant to merely criticise the authorities with a post or tweet on social media.

Recently, and at an unprecedented level, major social media outlets have started censoring Palestinian content. Accordingly, I cannot write anything about the occupation and its practices in Arabic without the threat of my account being restricted or removed.

Due to the weak algorithms of these sites in the Arabic language, the context thus becomes irrelevant. So merely mentioning certain words might result in the restriction or cancellation of my account. Two options here remind me of the graffiti on the wall I previously mentioned: I either shut up or become non-existent in this cyberspace.

Today as I write these words, I am unable to freely express my thoughts on both sides of the “battle.” I fear that many began surrendering indeed to the truth that there is no voice above its voice, and I worry that I am one of them.



Report finds challenges to digital freedom in Palestine

(Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

The internet is a vital platform for Palestinians to express themselves, but web access and targeting of social media users, bloggers and journalists remain big challenges, according to a new report from the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedom (MADA).

“The internet and the broad tools of communication made available by the social networks gained great importance specifically in the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, who have been under firm siege by the Israeli occupation forces since 2006, and for the Palestinian people in general due to the dispersion they have experienced since the Nakba of 1984 [sic], and now they can communicate with their relatives and friends in the different parts of the world quickly and immediately”, said Mr. Mousa Rimawi, MADA’s general director.

The report states that 67% of Palestinians polled by MADA in 2012 believe Facebook contributes to the promotion of freedom of expression.

However, the latest figures quoted show that internet penetration in Palestine is at 32.1%; 34.3% in the West Bank and 27.9% in the Gaza Strip. Lack of infrastructure due to the Israeli occupation and high service charges are the biggest blocks to access, the report finds.

The report also highlighted threats to journalists working in Palestine. Examples included the imprisonment of Al Quds TV reporter Mamdouh Hamamrah for posting an image deemed to be offensive to President Mahmoud Abbas, and the arrest of journalist Esmat Abdel Khalek for a comment she made on Facebook demanding an end to the Palestinian Authority.

“Violations against journalists and citizens simply for expressing their opinions lead to the strengthening of self-censorship, which is incompatible with the idea of ​​having the social platforms that is suppose to make it easier for citizens and journalists to express their opinions”, said Riham Abu Aita, a MADA spokesperson.

The article was edited on 30 September at 12.00 pm to acknowledge an error in the quote from Mr. Mousa Rimawi, which gives the year of the Nakba as 1984, it took place in 1948.