Tania Bruguera: Injustice exists because previous injustices were not challenged


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:


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.

Un abrazo,

Tania Bruguera[/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:1544431942749-6dbcba3e-bd36-2″ taxonomies=”15469, 7874″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

#IndexAwards2017: Here’s what you need to know

Freedom of Expression Awards

Each year, the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards gala honours courageous champions who fight for free speech around the world.

Drawn from more than 400 crowdsourced nominations, this year’s nominees include artists, journalists, campaigners and digital activists tackling censorship and fighting for freedom of expression. Many of the 16 shortlisted are regularly targeted by authorities or by criminal and extremist groups for their work: some face regular death threats, others criminal prosecution.

The gala takes place Wednesday 19 April at the Unicorn Theatre in London and will be hosted by comedian, actor and writer Katy Brand. If you aren’t lucky enough to be attending, you can catch the night’s events by tuning into coverage and a live Periscope stream @IndexCensorship beginning at 7:30PM BST.

We will be live tweeting throughout the evening on @IndexCensorship. Get involved in the conversation using the hashtag #IndexAwards2017.

Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards nominees 2017


Luaty Beirão, Angola

Rapper Luaty Beirão, also known as Ikonoklasta, has been instrumental in showing the world the hidden face of Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos’s rule. For his activism Beirão has been beaten up, had drugs planted on him and, in June 2015, was arrested alongside 14 other people planning to attend a meeting to discuss a book on non-violent resistance. Since being released in 2016, Beirão has been undeterred attempting to stage concerts that the authorities have refused to license and publishing a book about his captivity entitled “I Was Freer Then”, claiming “I would rather be in jail than in a state of fake freedom where I have to self-censor”.

Rebel Pepper, China

Wang Liming, better known under the pseudonym Rebel Pepper, is one of China’s most notorious political cartoonists. For satirising Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and lampooning the ruling Communist Party, Rebel Pepper has been repeatedly persecuted. In 2014, he was forced to remain in Japan, where he was on holiday, after serious threats against him were posted on government-sanctioned forums. The Chinese state has since disconnected him from his fan base by repeatedly deleting his social media accounts, he alleges his conversations with friends and family are under state surveillance, and self-imposed exile has made him isolated, bringing significant financial struggles. Nonetheless, Rebel Pepper keeps drawing, ferociously criticising the Chinese regime.

Fahmi Reza, Malaysia

On 30 January 2016, Malaysian graphic designer Fahmi Reza posted an image online of Prime Minister Najib Razak in evil clown make-up. From T-shirts to protest placards, and graffiti on streets to a sizeable public sticker campaign, the image and its accompanying anti-sedition law slogan #KitaSemuaPenghasut (“we are all seditious”) rapidly evolved into a powerful symbol of resistance against a government seen as increasingly corrupt and authoritarian. Despite the authorities’ attempts to silence Reza, who was banned from travel and has since been detained and charged on two separate counts under Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act, he has refused to back down.

Two-tailed Dog Party, Hungary

A group of satirists and pranksters who parody political discourse in Hungary with artistic stunts and creative campaigns, the Two-tailed Dog Party have become a vital alternative voice following the rise of the national conservative government led by Viktor Orban. When Orban introduced a national consultation on immigration and terrorism in 2015, and plastered cities with anti-immigrant billboards, the party launched their own mock questionnaires and a popular satirical billboard campaign denouncing the government’s fear-mongering tactics. Relentlessly attempting to reinvigorate public debate and draw attention to under-covered or taboo topics, the party’s efforts include recently painting broken pavement to draw attention to a lack of public funding.


Arcoiris, Honduras

Established in 2003, LGBT organisation Arcoiris, meaning ‘rainbow’, works on all levels of Honduran society to advance LGBT rights. Honduras has seen an explosion in levels of homophobic violence since a military coup in 2009. Working against this tide, Arcoiris provide support to LGBT victims of violence, run awareness initiatives, promote HIV prevention programmes and directly lobby the Honduran government and police force. From public marches to alternative awards ceremonies, their tactics are diverse and often inventive. Between June 2015 and March 2016, six members of Arcoiris were killed for this work. Many others have faced intimidation, harassment and physical attacks. Some have had to leave the country because of threats they were receiving.

Breaking the Silence, Israel

Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organisation consisting of ex-Israeli military conscripts, aims to collect and share testimonies about the realities of military operations in the Occupied Territories. Since 2004, the group has collected over 1,000 (mainly anonymous) statements from Israelis who have served their military duty in the West Bank and Gaza. For publishing these frank accounts the organisation has repeatedly come under fire from the Israeli government. In 2016 the pressure on the organisation became particularly pointed and personal, with state-sponsored legal challenges, denunciations from the Israeli cabinet, physical attacks on staff members and damages to property. Led by Israeli politicians including the prime minister, and defence minister, there have been persistent attempts to force the organisation to identify a soldier whose anonymous testimony was part of a publication raising suspicions of war crimes in Gaza. Losing the case would set a precedent that would make it almost impossible for Breaking the Silence to operate in the future. The government has also recently  enacted a law that would bar the organisation’s widely acclaimed high school education programme.

Ildar Dadin, Russia

A Russian opposition and LGBT rights activist, Ildar Dadin was the first, and remains the only, person to be convicted under a notorious 2014 public assembly law. Aimed at punishing anyone who breaks strict rules on protest, the law was enacted to silence dissent after a wave of demonstrations following Putin’s last election victory. Dadin’s crime was to stage a series of one-man pickets, often standing silently with a billboard, attempting to duck the cynical law and push for free expression. For his solo enterprise, Dadin was arrested and sentenced to three years imprisonment in December 2015. In November 2016, website Meduza published a letter smuggled from Dadin to his wife, exposing torture he claimed he was suffering alongside fellow prisoners.  The letter, a brave move for a serving prisoner, was widely reported. A government investigation was prompted, and Dadin was transferred – against his will – to an undisclosed new location. A wave of public protest led to Dadin’s new location in a Siberian prison colony being revealed in January 2017. In February 2017, Russia’s constitutional and Supreme Courts suddenly quashed Dadin’s conviction, ruling he should be released and afforded opportunity for rehabilitation.

Maati Monjib, Morocco

A well-known academic who teaches African studies and political history at the University of Rabat since returning from exile, Maati Monjib co-founded Freedom Now, a coalition of Moroccan human rights defenders who seek to promote the rights of Moroccan activists and journalists in a country ranked 131 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. His work campaigning for press freedom – including teaching investigative journalism workshops and using of a smartphone app called Story Maker designed to support citizen journalism – has made him a target for the authorities who insist that this work is the exclusive domain of state police. For his persistent efforts, Monjib is currently on trial for “undermining state security” and “receiving foreign funds.”

Digital Activism

Jensiat, Iran

Despite growing public knowledge of global digital surveillance capabilities and practices, it has often proved hard to attract mainstream public interest in the issue. This continues to be the case in Iran where even with widespread VPN usage, there is little real awareness of digital security threats. With public sexual health awareness equally low, the three people behind Jensiat, an online graphic novel, saw an an opportunity to marry these challenges. Dealing with issues linked to sexuality and cyber security in a way that any Iranian can easily relate to, the webcomic also offers direct access to verified digital security resources. Launched in March 2016, Jensiat has had around 1.2 million unique readers and was rapidly censored by the Iranian government.

Bill Marczak, United States

A schoolboy resident of Bahrain and PhD candidate in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, Bill Marczak co-founded Bahrain Watch in 2013. Seeking to promote effective, accountable and transparent governance, Bahrain Watch works by launching investigations and running campaigns in direct response to social media posts coming from activists on the front line. In this context, Marczak’s personal research has proved highly effective, often identifying new surveillance technologies and targeting new types of information controls that governments are employing to exert control online, both in Bahrain and across the region. In 2016 Marczak investigated several government attempts to track dissidents and journalists, notably identifying a previously unknown weakness in iPhones that had global ramifications.

#ThisFlag and Evan Mawarire, Zimbabwe

In May 2016, Baptist pastor Evan Mawarire unwittingly began the most important protest movement in Zimbabwe’s recent history when he posted a video of himself draped in the Zimbabwean flag, expressing his frustration at the state of the nation. A subsequent series of YouTube videos and the hashtag Mawarire used, #ThisFlag, went viral, sparking protests and a boycott called by Mawarire, which he estimates was attended by over eight million people. A scale of public protest previously inconceivable, the impact was so strong that private possession of Zimbabwe’s national flag has since been banned. The pastor temporarily left the country following death threats and was arrested in early February as he returned to his homeland.

Turkey Blocks, Turkey

In a country marked by increasing authoritarianism, a strident crackdown on press and social media as well as numerous human rights violations, Turkish-British technologist Alp Toker brought together a small team to investigate internet restrictions. Using Raspberry Pi technology they built an open source tool able to reliably monitor and report both internet shut downs and power blackouts in real time. Using their tool, Turkey Blocks have since broken news of 14 mass-censorship incidents during several politically significant events in 2016. The tool has proved so successful that it has begun to be implemented elsewhere globally.


Behrouz Boochani, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea/Australia

Iranian Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani fled the city of Ilam in Iran in May 2013 after the police raided the Kurdish cultural heritage magazine he had co-founded, arresting 11 of his colleagues. He travelled to Australia by boat, intending to claim asylum, but less than a month after arriving he was forcibly relocated to a “refugee processing centre” in Papua New Guinea that had been newly opened. Imprisoned alongside nearly 1000 men who have been ordered to claim asylum in Papua New Guinea or return home, Boochani has been passionately documenting their life in detention ever since. Publicly advertised by the Australian Government as a refugee deterrent, life in the detention centre is harsh. For the first 2 years, Boochani wrote under a pseudonym. Until 2016 he circumvented a ban on mobile phones by trading personal items including his shoes with local residents. And while outside journalists are barred, Boochani has refused to be silent, writing numerous stories via Whatsapp and even shooting a feature film with his phone.

Daptar, Dagestan, Russia

In a Russian republic marked by a clash between the rule of law, the weight of traditions, and the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalism, Daptar, a website run by journalists Zakir Magomedov and Svetlana Anokhina, writes about issues affecting women, which are little reported on by other local media.  Meaning “diary”, Daptar seeks to promote debate and in 2016 they ran a landmark story about female genital mutilation in Dagestan, which broke the silence surrounding that practice and began a regional and national conversation about FGM. The small team of journalists, working alongside a volunteer lawyer and psychologist, also tries to provide help to the women they are in touch with.

KRIK, Serbia

Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) is a new independent investigative website which was founded by a team of young Serbian journalists intent on exposing organised crime and extortion in their country which is ranked as having widespread corruption by Transparency International. In their first year they have published several high-impact investigations, including forcing Serbia’s prime minister to admit that senior officials had been behind nocturnal demolitions in a Belgrade neighbourhood and revealing meetings between drug barons, the ministry of police and the minister of foreign affairs. KRIK have repeatedly come under attack online and offline for their work –threatened and allegedly under surveillance by state officials, defamed in the pages of local tabloids, and suffering abuse including numerous death threats on social media.

Maldives Independent, Maldives

Website Maldives Independent, which provides news in English, is one of the few remaining independent media outlets in a country that ranks 112 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. In August 2016 the Maldives passed a law criminalising defamation and empowering the state to impose heavy fines and shut down media outlets for “defamatory” content. In September, Maldives Independent’s office was violently attacked and later raided by the police, after the release of an Al Jazeera documentary exposing government corruption that contained interviews with editor Zaheena Rasheed, who had to flee for her safety. Despite the pressure, the outlet continues to hold the government to account.

#IndexAwards2016: Tania Bruguera’s #YoTambienExijo ignites a worldwide movement

From an artist who had barely used Facebook to the face of #YoTambienExijo, the international online movement for free speech – Tania Bruguera describes how the perfect coalescence of art, social media and politics allowed the world to see the real Cuba at a crucial time in the country’s history.

The beginnings of the #YoTambienExijo movement were born on 17 December 2014, when President Obama announcement a landmark warming of the 53-year chill between the United States and Cuba.


“When I first heard about the Cuba-US reconciliation it had a great impact on me as an artist, but also as a Cuban citizen,” Tania Bruguera told Index. “I was glad about the decision, but at the same time a lot of questions came to my head. Who is going to define that different Cuba? Who is going to be in charge of creating that different Cuba?”

Writing an open letter addressed to Obama, the Pope and Cuban president Raúl Castro, Bruguera demanded for Cubans “the right to know what is being planned with our lives”, also demanding that Cuban citizens gain more from his political change than a place at the table of North American trade.

“Yo Tambien Exijo was one of the phrases in the letter – I also demand. I also demand to know. I demand as a Cuban.”

The sentiment resonated with many Cubans around the world, and after her sister Deborah Bruguera created the Facebook page, #YoTambienExijo, the site quickly attracted thousands of followers.

In the final part of her letter, Bruguera called for Castro to hand over the microphone to the people of Cuba – a reference to a performance piece of Bruguera’s which gives any audience member one minute of unhindered free speech. The idea captured the imagination of #YoTambienExijo’s online audience, who asked Bruguera to stage the performance at the Havana Biennial, an art fair taking place in Cuba’s capital that month.

But arriving in the country days later, Bruguera found her words had not been met with the same level of support by the Cuba government. “I was pretty naïve,” says Bruguera. “When I entered the country, I start behaving as if human rights were being respected. And that clashed with reality.”

A smear campaign was launched against Bruguera, with government-sponsored blogs characterizing the artist as a provocateur acting under the influence of foreign pressure, and even labeling her as a drug smuggler. It’s not uncommon for the Cuban government to attempt to undermine dissenting voices as CIA or right wing, the artist says: “I think one good thing is I’ve worked for 20 years. So people know who I am. Sometime when you are dissident or you are an activist just starting working, in Cuba they are very good at putting in people’s mind the image of that person they want for the rest of the people.”

But in spite of continued pressure from government officials to cancel the performance, Bruguera refused. “I always say I have no money, I have nothing. I have only my word. So I have to defend that. In this case I gave my word to the 12,000 people who were waiting for this.”

Organising collective action is difficult in Cuba, where low internet connectivity and high levels of state security tend to impede any political protest. So the #YoTambienExijo team put out an online plea for Cubans around the world to call their families and tell them about the performance – which many did.

On the day of the performance Bruguera was arrested, along with several dissidents who had expressed solidarity with Bruguera’s project. But the attempt to stop the performance failed; news of the #YoTambienExijo page and the performance had already spread to Cuban people.

Imprisoned for the whole performance (she was subsequently released and then rearrested twice), Bruguera only learnt later of the arrests of several audience members. As these events unfolded, reporting from the #YoTambienExijo team spread online, gathering international support for Bruguera, and after 14 prominent artists wrote a letter to The Guardian condemning Bruguera’s arrest, the hashtag #FreeTaniaBruguera soon began trending, and another online letter began circulating. “In 24 hours, more than 3,000 people from the international art world signed, including directors from MoMa and the Tate.” Bruguera refused to allow her own release until all audience members were freed along with her. The mounting pressure from the global community meant that, eventually, the every person arrested in connection with the performance was released.

These events were an important wake-up call, Bruguera believes. “Cuba was trying to sell itself to the world as the next opportunity for business, and as a good person, as a victim for 50 years. This unveiled the truth.” In reality, Cuban government’s control over media public discussion and the arts has been absolute for over five decades.

But what happened also showed Bruguera a way forward for Cuba. “It was for me a very difficult experience – the most difficult I have ever had in my life. But it really put us in a way that we are all together, and we understood that we can make a change in Cuba. Because we were able to mobilize not only that many Cubans, but we were able to mobilize also a big group of international artists.”

The international reaction to Bruguera’s story turned #YoTambienExijo into a movement capturing more than just the Cuban experience. Around the world performances were staged in solidarity, with arts organisations including Creative Time in New York, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Netherlands’ Van Abbe Museum, and the Tate Modern, all giving audiences one minute of free speech. It also became a form of protest in countries around the world where citizens and artists face censorship.

“It became Cuba focused and then it became more about totalitarianism in the world in general,” said Bruguera. “And it became also about the role of an artist who wants to deal with political issues in contemporary art.”

Last year Bruguera was shortlisted for the Hugo Boss prize and named one of Foreign Policy’s Global thinkers of 2015. She is now planning to return to Cuba to set up a space in Havana, the Hannah Arendt International Institute of Art and Artivism, a place for the Cuban people to advance their freedom of expression.

#IndexAwards2016: Marking International Women’s Day

Caption here

Outspoken and irreverent comic and writer Shazia Mirza will host the 2016 Freedom of Expression Awards Gala on 13 April.

From a journalist who trains women to tell the story of Syria’s civil war and a comedian who uses her routines to campaign for women’s rights in Indonesia, to a women-led campaigning group taking on the fight against internet censorship in Pakistan, the shortlist for the 2016 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards showcases women with leadership and bravery.

On International Women’s Day we celebrate the amazing women on our shortlist.

zaina5While many fled, Syrian-native journalist Zaina Erhaim returned to her war-ravaged country in 2013 to ensure those left behind were not forgotten. She is now one of the few female journalists braving the twin threat of violence from both IS and Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

Sakdiya-Maruf2Arts nominee Sakdiyah Ma’ruf is a stand-up comedian from Indonesia whose routines challenge Islamic fundamentalism. Born to a conservative Muslim family in Java, Ma’ruf went against her father’s wishes and started using comedy to speak about religious-based violence and extremism, ethnic extremism and xenophobia, as well as fear, terror and violence against women.

taniabruguera2Artist Tania Bruguera was arrested after an attempt to stage her performance piece #YoTambienExijo in Havana in late 2014. Mounted soon after the apparent thaw in US-Cuban relations, Bruguera’s piece offered members of the public the chance of one minute of “censor-free” expression in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución.

vanessabehre2Campaigning nominee nineteen-year-old Vanessa Berhe continues to fight for the release of her uncle, journalist Seyoum Tsehaye, who has been imprisoned in Eritrea for the last 15 years. She also launched the campaign Free Eritrea to draw the world’s attention to a little-reported country with one of the worst track records for free speech.

madamasr3Lina Attalah, chief editor, is just one of the women and men — friends and journalists — who in 2013 founded an independent news collective Mada Masr after newspaper Egypt Independent was censored into bankruptcy. Mada Masr was launched as a media co-operative that aims to hold those in power accountable.

bolobhi4Bolo Bhi are a digital campaigning group who have orchestrated an impressive ongoing fight against attempts to censor the internet in Pakistan. The all-women management team have launched internet freedom programmes, published research papers, tirelessly fought for government transparency and run numerous innovative digital security training programmes.

belarusfreetheatre2-440x440Belarus Free Theatre, co-founded by Natalia Kaliada, have been using their creative and subversive art to protest the dictatorial rule of Aleksandr Lukashenko for a decade. Despite pressure from authorities since their inception, the group thrived underground, with performances in apartments, basements and forests despite continued arrests and brutal interrogations. In 2011, while on tour, they were told they were unable to return home. Refusing to be silenced, the group set up headquarters in London and continued to direct projects in Belarus.

This year, the Index awards gala on 13 April will be hosted by stand-up comedian and writer Shazia Mirza, whose outspoken and taboo-busting comedy explores Islamic fundamentalism and women’s rights. Mirza is fresh from her sell-out London run and in the midst of her current UK tour.

This article was published on 8 March 2016 at indexoncensorship.org