The artist Tania Bruguera who was detained last week with fellow artists in Cuba for protesting against Decree 349, an artistic censorship law, has written an open letter explaining why she will not attend Kochi biennial at a time that is crucial for freedom of expression in Cuba and beyond.
Bruguera who was due to attend Kochi states in the letter:
“At this moment I do not feel comfortable traveling to participate in an international art event when the future of the arts and artists in Cuba is at risk… As an artist I feel my duty today is not to exhibit my work at an international exhibition and further my personal artistic career but to expose the vulnerability of Cuban artists today.”
Bruguera feels it is important to highlight the situation in Cuba and also to see it as part of a global phenomenon of repression of artists and freedom of expression. Recent cases such as Shahidul Alam, the photographer imprisoned by the government of Bangladesh (who Bruguera campaigned for by hosting two protest shows at Tate Modern in October), the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi killed in the Saudi embassy in Turkey, and photographer Lu Guang who has gone missing in China, demonstrate that governments feel emboldened to openly attack high profile figures, moving beyond internal state repression which used to happen behind closed doors.
On Wednesday 5 December supporters of Bruguera held a protest exhibition at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, where participants spoke on a microphone about Decree 349 and the abuse of artists around the world. Alistair Hudson, director of the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery spoke at the event via live phone in. Tate director Maria Balshaw, also spoke out on the BBC news broadcast of the Turner Prize whilst Tate Modern director Frances Morris made a statement on Tate twitter. A speech by HRH Prince Constantijn on the occasion of the 2018 Prince Claus Awards at the Royal Palace, Amsterdam on 6 December 2018 also spoke about the situation with reference to Tania Bruguera, Shahidul Alam and Lu Guang. Many other cultural institutions around the world have also made public statements, whilst others are showing signs that they will follow.
The hope is that art institutions and events around the world, such as Kochi biennial, follow suit and show open solidarity to defend the artists’ space.
The full wording of Bruguera’s letter is as follows:
OPEN LETTER BY TANIA BRUGUERA TO THE DIRECTOR OF KOCHI BIENNALE ON DECREE 349
At this moment I do not feel comfortable traveling to participate in an international art event when the future of the arts and artists in Cuba is at risk. The Cuban government with Decree 349 is legalizing censorship, saying that art must be created to suit their ethic and cultural values (which are not actually defined). The government is creating a `cultural police´ in the figure of the inspectors, turning what was until now, subjective and debatable into crime.
Cuban artists have united for the first time in many decades to be heard, each with their own points of view. They had meetings with bureaucrats from the Ministry of Culture who promised them that they would meet again to give them answers. Instead, the Minister and other bureaucrats appeared on TV and made comments such as “[those who oppose Decree 349] want the dissolution of the institution” and “the alternative they are proposing is the commercialisation of art.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. If this were true, the artists would not have written to the institutions and sought dialogue with them.
But, a public opinion campaign by the government against the artists, with the intention to divide between “good ones” and “bad ones”, has started. This is even more concerning when under this decree the law restricts but provides no guarantee of whether an artist will or will not be criminalized or not at any time.. Moreover, the decree states that all `artistic services´ must be authorized by the Ministry of Culture and its correspondent institutions, making independent art impossible.
The last time a decree of this sort was enacted was the no. 226 from November 29 of 1997, which is evidence of the long life that such a decree could have and its long term impact on our culture.
As an artist I feel my duty today is not to exhibit my work at an international exhibition and further my personal artistic career but to be with my fellow Cuban artists and to expose the vulnerability of Cuban artists today.
We are all waiting for the regulations and norms the Ministry of Culture will put forward to implement Decree 349 in the hope that they include the suggestions and demands so many artists shared with them. I would like to add that the instructor from the Ministry of Interior who is in charge of my case menaced me yesterday, saying that if I didn’t leave Cuba and if I did `something´, I would not be able to leave in the future.
Injustice exists because previous injustices were not challenged.
Ironically, I’m sending you this text on December 10th the International Day of Human Rights.
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”102127″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]We, the undersigned hereby call for the immediate and unconditional release of the renowned photographer, artist, teacher, curator and human rights activist Shahidul Alam.
Dr Alam was arrested on 5 August 2018 by around 30-35 members of the detective branch of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police who dragged him away by force. Alam’s crime, we are told, is to have contravened the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. Described as “draconian” by Human Rights Watch, the act has become an infamous means of clamping down on freedom of expression in Bangladesh.
Dr Alam has been accused of hurting “the image of the nation” through comments he made on social media and in an interview with Al Jazeera in which he was critical of the Bangladesh government. His observations were triggered by violence he witnessed towards students who gathered to protest in Dhaka after two of their number were killed by a speeding bus.
Given that Bangladesh presents itself as a democracy, the state should respect the right of Dr Alam, and all other citizens, to freedom of expression. Instead, he has suffered inhumane treatment at the hands of the police and judicial system.
The morning after his arrest, 6 August 2018, he was produced in court. Film footage shows police dragging him by his arms. He is barefoot, limping and struggling to walk. Both the film and reports from his lawyers who later met
with him in custody leave no doubt that he has been tortured. During his court appearance, he shouted to observers that he had been assaulted, forced to wear the same clothes after the blood had been washed from them, and
threatened with further violence if he didn’t testify as directed.
The court returned him to police custody ostensibly on a 7-day remand.
However, the day before he was officially due back in court, the judge sent him to prison. Neither Alam nor his lawyer was present at this hearing. His lawyer was not even informed that it was taking place.
Now he is being held in the Keraniganj Central Jail in Dhaka where conditions are extremely poor. After visiting him, his partner Rahnuma Ahmed called for medical attention as he was suffering from respiratory complications, problems with eyesight, and pain in his jaw. None of these symptoms were present before his arrest.
The brutal incarceration of Dr Alam is rooted in broader political repression. In recent years, Bangladesh has seen hundreds of citizens, including writers, intellectuals, lawyers and activists imprisoned and murdered. According to a
2017 report by Human Rights Watch, at least 320 citizens have been “disappeared” since the Awami League government came to power in 2009.
This situation has occurred despite the League’s pre-election pledge to react to human rights violations with zero tolerance. Dr Alam’s entire career has been devoted to combatting abuse of power. As a curator, artist and photographer, he has used images as the vehicle for decades of fearless truth-telling about subjects that include the genocide of the 1971 War of Liberation, the employment of state death squads and the plight of the Rohingya refugees. As the founder of picture agencies Drik and Majority World, and the photography school, Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Dr Alam has also pioneered the wider practice of photo reportage in the region.
Little wonder he is admired throughout the world. In Britain, he has forged strong connections both through the presence of close family and through exhibitions at institutions including Tate Modern, the Whitechapel Gallery,
Autograph ABP, the Willmotte Gallery and Rich Mix. He has also run workshops, courses and other educational activities for young photographers in the British-Bengali community and beyond.
We now add our voices to the hundreds of others, from Nobel Laureates to Dr Alam’s own photography students, who in the last weeks have called for his immediate and unconditional release.
We also urge the Bangladesh government to respect the right to freedom of speech and expression for all citizens and to release all other prisoners detained on similar grounds.
1. Abu Jafar (Artist)
2. Alessio Antoniolli (Director, Gasworks & Triangle Network)
3. Anne McNeill (Director, Impressions Gallery, Bradford)
4. Anish Kapoor (Artist)
5. Akram Khan (Choreographer and Dancer)
6. Antony Gormley (Artist)
7. Assemble (art, architecture and design collective)
8. Ben Okri (Poet and Novelist)
9. Brett Rogers (Director, The Photographers’ Gallery)
10.Chantal Joffe (Artist)
11. Charlie Brooker (Writer and Producer)
12.David Sanderson (Arts Correspondent, The Times)
13.Fiona Bradley (Director, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh)
14.Frances Morris (Director, Tate)
15.Hans Ulrich Obrist (Artistic director, Serpentine Gallery)
16.Helen Cammock (Artist)
17.Iwona Blazwick (Director, Whitechapel Gallery)
18.Jodie Ginsberg (CEO Index on Censorship)
19.Joe Scotland (Director, Studio Voltaire, London)
20.John Akomfrah (Artist)
21.Sir John Leighton (Director, National Galleries of Scotland)
22.Jonathan Watkins (Director, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham)
23.Konnie Huq (Writer and Broadcaster)
24.Louisa Buck (The Art Newspaper)
25.Lubaina Himid (Artist)
26.Mahtab Hussain (Photographer)
27.Dr Mark Sealy MBE (Director of Autograph ABP)
28.Mark Wallinger (Artist)
29.Martin Parr (Photographer and Photojournalist)
30.Michael Landy (Artist)
31.Michael Mack (Founder of publisher MACK)
32.Nadav Kander (Artist)
33.Neel Mukherjee (Writer)
34.Nicholas Cullinan (Director, National Portrait Gallery)
35.Nick Serota (Chair of Arts Council England)
36.Olivia Laing (Writer)
37.Pippa Oldfield (Impressions Gallery, Bradford)
38.Polly Staple (Director Chisenhale Gallery)
39.Rachel Spence (Poet and Arts Writer, Financial Times)
40.Rana Begum (Artist)
41.Rasheed Araeen (Artist)
42.Sally Tallant (Director, Liverpool Biennial)
43.Sarah Munro (Director Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art)
44.Sophie Wright (Global Cultural Director, Magnum Photos)
45.Steve McQueen (artist and film director)
46.Sunil Gupta (Photographer)
47.Teresa Gleadow (Curator, Writer and Editor)
48.Vicken Parsons (Artist)
49.Dr. Ziba Ardalan (Founder/ Director Parasol unit, London)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1536055987310-fa96858b-d48c-8″ taxonomies=”6534″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
On 6 August 2018, Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam was arrested and detained for allegedly “making provocative comments”, and “giving false information” to media, contrary to the Information Communications Technology Act (ICT Act). He remains in detention. Since being taken into custody, Alam has been denied access to his lawyers, and was reportedly beaten and is in poor health. Authorities initially agreed that Alam would be taken to hospital for medical assistance, but after a brief visit on 8 August he has been returned to detention. We, the undersigned civil society organisations, call for Shahidul Alam’s immediate and unconditional release, that all allegations against him be dropped, and that he receive proper medical care.
63-year old Alam was arrested at his home in Dhaka on the evening of 5 August 2018 and brought into police custody a few hours after he posted a video on Facebook and participated in an interview with Al Jazeera about the ongoing road safety protests in Dhaka, where more than 40 journalists and media workers have been injured by groups of armed men.
Alam is accused of violations under Section 57 of the Information Communications Technology Act. However, journalists and rights activists have consistently raised concerns that the law is incompatible with international human rights standards, including Bangladesh’s international obligations under Article 19 of the ICCPR, due to its broad powers to restrict online expression. It has been widely applied against journalists and ordinary citizens who have been arrested, prosecuted and jailed solely for their expression.
On 9 August, a petition by Alam’s lawyers was heard at the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh demanding they have access to Alam, that he be brought before the court and seeking a court order that he is not subjected to ill-treatment while in custody. The High Court ordered the Home Secretary of the Government of Bangladesh to “arrange medical treatment” for Alam in accordance with Section 2(6) of the Torture and Custodial Death Prevention Act 2013, to make a full medical assessment for ill-treatment, and to report to the court by 13 August 2018.
ARTICLE 19 and the undersigned national and international human rights organisations call for Shahidul Alam’s immediate and unconditional release, and that all allegations against him be dropped as they represent a blatant violation of his right to freedom of expression. We further urge the Ministry of Home Affairs to immediately comply with the court’s order and grant Alam proper medical assistance without delay.
We remain deeply concerned by the use of laws such as the ICT Act in Bangladesh to legally harass journalists and media workers and violate the right to freedom of expression, and call for its urgent repeal.
Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK)
Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF)
Bandhu Social Welfare Society (BSWF)
Bangladesh Adivasi Forum
Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movements (BDERM)
Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC)
Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP)
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
German Section of Amnesty International
Sramik Nirapotta Forum (SNF)
Boys of Bangladesh (BOB)
Friends Association for Integrated Revolution (FAIR)
International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX)
Index on Censorship
Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF)
National Alliance of Disabled Peoples Organizations
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Steps Towards Development
Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB)
Open Society Foundations Program on Independent Journalism