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Index on Censorship’s upcoming “Banned by Beijing” event will highlight the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to censor and repress freedom of expression through an evening of art and performance. The CCP’s repression of human rights has been widely documented but few realise that their repression extends far beyond its borders, including into Europe. This event will provide an opportunity for attendees to see and hear what the CCP have tried to repress.
Earlier this month, the Chinese Embassy in Poland tried to block the opening of the exhibition, “Tell China’s Story Well”, by the political cartoonist and human rights activist Badiucao. Chinese embassies in Prague and Rome have previously made similar attempts to close his exhibitions. He will join the event to speak about his experience of transnational repression.
Uyghur campaigner Rahima Mahmut will also speak about her experience of transnational repression, and perform with her band the London Silk Road Collective. Mahmut previously contributed to a report by Index, which highlighted the transnational repression faced by the Uyghur community in Europe.
The event will also mark the opening of the Banned by Beijing exhibition, aimed at highlighting transnational repression from China. As well Badiucao’s artwork, works from husband-and-wife painting duo Lumli Lumlong and cartoonist and former secondary school visual arts teacher Vawongsir, will be displayed. The exhibition will run until 10 July.
The event will take place as we mark the third anniversary of the enactment of Hong Kong’s National Security Law. The exhibition will pay tribute to the 75-year-old British businessman and founder of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, Jimmy Lai who remains in prison in Hong Kong, charged with violating the national security law among other offences. It will be the first time that Lumli Lumlong’s “Apple Man” will be shown in public.
Jessica Ní Mhaínin, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Index on Censorship said:
“This Banned by Beijing event will provide an opportunity to see a side of China that the Chinese Communist Party would much rather you didn’t. We want people to join us on the evening to stand in solidarity with those who are being subject to transnational repression. The event will send a clear message: dissident artists and performers cannot and will not be censored by the long arm of the regime.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
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Mehdi Rajabian is once again facing imprisonment. His crime? Including women’s voices in his music.
Rajabian is a musician in Iran, where women’s behaviour and expression – including their ability to sing in public or record their songs – is severely limited by the regime. But Rajabian has been determined to defy the authorities’ efforts to intimidate him, repress his art, and silence women’s voices. “I need female singing in my project,” Rajabian told Index on Censorship from his home in the northern city of Sari. “I do not censor myself.”
In August, Rajabian was summoned by the security police, who arrested him and took him to court. He was handcuffed and brought in front of a judge, who told him that the inclusion of women’s voices in his project “encouraged prostitution”. Rajabian was held in a prison cell for several hours but was able to post bail with the help of his family. He remains on probation and banned from producing music.
It is not the first time that the 30-year-old has faced imprisonment for his art. He spent three months blindfolded in solitary confinement in 2013, and was subsequently sentenced to six years in prison. He was released at the end of 2017 after undertaking a 40-day hunger strike. “I was completely sick after the hunger strike,” he explained. “When a prisoner goes on hunger strike, it indicates that he is preparing to fight with his life, that is, he has reached the finish line.”
After his release, Rajabian continued to make music and last year his album Middle Eastern was brought out by Sony Music. Every track on the album, which features more than 100 artists from across the Middle East, is accompanied by a painting by Kurdish artist and Index on Censorship award-winner Zehra Doğan.
But now Rajabian says that the pressure on him has become so great that it is extremely difficult for him to be able to collaborate with other musicians and to finish his next album. In August, a music journalist was arrested and detained in Evin Prison for several days after mentioning women’s music and referring to Rajabian in an article.
“Artists and ordinary people [in Iran] are all afraid to even talk to me,” he says. “I have been completely alone at home for years. Coronavirus days are normal for me.”
At home alone, he reads, watches films, and listens to music by John Barry. “I am currently reading Alba de Céspedes y Bertini’s books,” he told Index. But he spends most of his time reading philosophy. He believes that his interest in philosophy is one of the reasons why his music has been so targeted by the regime.
“The Iranian regime is not afraid of the music itself, it is afraid of the philosophy and message of music,” Rajabian explains. “Artists who do not have philosophy in their art are never under pressure.”
What does Rajabian believe the future has in store for him? “You can’t predict anything here. I am ready for any event and reaction,” he says. “But I still believe that we must fight and stand up”.
“I will continue to work, even if I return to prison,” he says. “I know that there is a prison sentence and torture for me, but I will definitely complete and publish [the album]. In Iran, making music is difficult for me because of the bans, but I have to make it.”
“Encourage banned artists,” Rajabian concludes. “They are not encouraged in their own countries. Be their voice.”
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Marking the 50th anniversary of the end of 300 years of theatre censorship, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition explores how restrictions on expression have changed.
The Theatres Act 1968 swept away the office of the Lord Chamberlain, which had the final say on what could appear on British stages.
“The 1968 Theatres Act was one of several landmark pieces of legislation in the 1960s, including the end of capital punishment, the legalisation of abortion, the introduction of pill, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality (for consenting males over the age of 21),” Harriet Reed, assistant curator at the V&A said.
Plays that had the potential to create immoral or anti-government feelings were banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s office or ordered to be edited. The exhibition includes original manuscripts with notes on what needs to be changed and letters from Lord Chamberlain explaining why the edits are required.
In the exhibition there are several pieces including a manuscript about the play Saved by Edward Bond. The play tells the story of a group of young people living in poverty and includes a scene in which a baby is stoned to death.
“When the Royal Court Theatre submitted the play to the censor, over 50 amendments were requested. Bond refused to cut two key scenes, stating ‘it was either the censor or me – and it was going to be the censor’. As a result, the play was banned,” Reed said.
Before the act was passed, playwrights got around the law by staging banned plays in “members clubs” which meant they could not be persecuted since it was private venue.
“The continued success of this strategy and the reluctance to prosecute made a mockery of the Lord Chamberlain’s powers and reflected the increasingly relaxed attitudes of the public towards ‘shocking’ material.
“The first night after the Act was introduced, the rock musical Hair opened on Shaftesbury Avenue in the West End. It featured drugs, anti-war messages and brief nudity, ushering in a new age of British theatre,” Reed said.
The exhibition changes from showcasing plays that were censored by the state to art, plays, movies, and music that are censored by society as a whole.
“It could be argued that a mixture of government intervention, funding/subsidy withdrawals, local authority and police intervention, self-censorship, and public protest now regulates what is seen on our stages,” she said.
Behzti, a play, and Exhibit B, a performance piece, were cancelled after protests by the public. The creators of both pieces were advised by the police to cancel their plays for health and safety reasons related to protests over the content.
Similarly, Homegrown, a play about radicalisation created by Muslims was shut down by the National Youth Theatre. The play was later published and a public reading was held.
On video, people involved in the UK arts industry such as Lyn Gardner, a theatre critic and Ian Christie, a film historian comment on what they believe to be censorship today. They cite art institutions that refuse to exhibit controversial material for fear of losing funding or facing public uproar. Julia Farrington, associate arts producer at Index on Censorship and one of the participants, calls this the “censorship of omission.”
The exhibition is capped by a piece by George Scarfe. The piece, the last work that attendees see, is a painting of two white masks on black cloth. The first one which is slightly higher and to the right of the second has it red tongue sticking out with the tip severed by a red scissors. The second one has a red cloth tied around it mouth. The word Censored is written in red and all caps below the two masks.
The painting is bold and the image of the tongue being cut off by scissors creates a “visceral” feeling. It depicts the two types of censorship that people now face– either talk and be violently censored or self-censor and never be heard.
“Many people would say that we are freer to express ourselves than ever before – with the boom of social media, we are able to communicate our thoughts and opinions on an unprecedented scale. This can also, however, invite more stringent and aggressive censorship from either the platform provider or under fear of criticism from other users,” Reed said.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_column_text]
Index currently runs workshops in the UK, publishes case studies about artistic censorship, and has produced guidance for artists on laws related to artistic freedom in England and Wales.
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“My job is to make good art,” said Belgian artist Kris Verdonck. “I have no interest in being deliberately offensive or provocative.”
Verdonck was speaking at an event at the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens last week, entitled Art Freedom Censorship. Featuring a range of international speakers and organisations, including Index on Censorship, the event was inspired by recent works and performances that have been shutdown in Greece following public outcry.
In Verdonck’s case, that outcry came predominantly from one man: a local priest.
Last year Onassis Cultural Centre put on one of Verdonck’s works, Stills, a series of oversized, slow-mo nudes that move within confined spaces. The artist has been showing the images around Europe, projected on to buildings associated with historical dictators. In Athens, the show lasted just one day before a priest complained. A staff member from Onassis was temporarily held in police custody before the centre agreed to halt the projections.
Also speaking at Art Freedom Censorship was director Pigi Dimitrakopoulou, who presented a play, Nash’s Balance, at Greece’s National Theatre in January, before it was pulled mid-run after vehement protests and threats of violence. The work used text taken from a book by Savvas Xiros, a convicted member of the 17 November group, which the Greek government considers a terrorist organisation.
In one of the more heated debates of the evening, Dimitrakopoulou said she hadn’t given much thought to censorship before being embroiled in the scandal. “I always thought I was too conservative to be affected by such things.” She spoke of a “political tsunami” that engulfed the show. “I expected a reaction, but more related to the work,” she said, adding that she believed most critics hadn’t seen it.
Greek journalist and publisher Elias Kanellis, who had been outspokenly against the decision to use the 17 November text, stood by his criticism but clarified that he never called for it to be censored. “Criticism is the founding principle of democracy,” he said. “But what if I were to publish Jihadi propaganda?”
Discussions also included a look at the role of the church in Greece today. Stavros Zoumboulakis, president of the supervisory council of the Greek National Library, spoke of orthodox priests refusing to admit the nation is now a post-Christian society, with only a tiny percentage attending mass. But Xenia Kounalaki, a journalist from Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini, argued the issue was less about numbers of active worshipers, more a problem of top-down influence, which still extends into the nation’s education system.
Other speakers included former Charlie Hebdo columnist and author of In Praise of Blasphemy Caroline Fourest; Mauritanian filmmaker Lemine Ould M. Salem, who has run into difficulties with France’s film classification board over his documentary about Salafi fighters in Mali; and German director Daniel Wetzel, who is presenting a theatrical interpretation of Mein Kampf at Onassis in April.
Vicky Baker spoke at Art Freedom Censorship on behalf of Index on Censorship