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Compiled and edited by Marie Korpe Report no. 13 / 2017 ISBN 978-87-998868-1-4

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Content POLAND: Creative freedom undermined in cultural revolution


By Roman Pawlowski | 2 December 2016

VIETNAM: Popular music and censorship


By Barley Norton | 27 September 2016

TURKEY: The coup still continues for the art scene


By Yiğit Günay | 14 September 2016

Greece: Artistic freedom at stake


By Eleni Polymenopoulou | 14 September 2016

India: Censors under fire


By Ankush Arora | 30 May 2016

Turkey: “Music that sexually turns on people is a sin”


By Yiğit Günay | 18 May 2016


Freemuse Annual Statistics on Censorship and Attacks on Artistic Freedom in 2016







Documenting incidents of censorship will never be enough. From the very beginning, Freemuse has attempted to describe censorship of music and arts in a larger context. In 2015 we introduced INSIGHT – a series of articles providing readers with analytical stories on censorship of the arts and in-depth interviews with censored artists or/and cultural producers. The 2016 compilation covers five countries and provides insight on threats to artistic freedom in Poland, Turkey and Greece, the increasing polarised debate over freedom of expression in India and the Vietnamese government’s control on popular music. Freemuse annual statistics on censorship and attacks on artistic freedom of expression in 2016 provides complimentary and detailed information on killings, threats, imprisonments and attacks. Marie Korpe, Editor and founding member of Freemuse




Creative freedom undermined in cultural revolution Every government has the right to conduct its own cultural policy and to determine its own priorities and strategies. But what has been happening in Polish culture since the nationalist-Catholic rightwing ‘Law and Justice’ Party (PiS) took power in the autumn of 2015 has not been a normal democratic correction. It has instead been a wholesale undermining of the foundations that Polish cultural and social life were built upon after 1989: the values of openness, tolerance and creative freedom. BY ROMAN PAWLOWSKI | 2 DECEMBER 2016

There has never been a Polish government after 1989, except perhaps the centre-left coalition that ruled in 20012003, for which culture has had such a political significance as the present one. The Minister of Culture and National Heritage in the current administration of Law and Justice (PiS), sociologist and professor Piotr Gliński, is the first head of this ministry in free Poland to also hold the position of Deputy Prime Minister. This very high rank in the governmental hierarchy for an official that is responsible for cultural policy is revealing of the importance that the nationalist-catholic right ascribes to culture. Unlike Civic Platform (PO), which ruled from 2007-2015, and mostly viewed culture as a factor in developing social capital and the economy, PiS believes in the communal power of culture. It is seen as a tool to bind the nation together, to build its identity and to restore national pride and dignity.



New Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and PiS Party Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczyński celebrating their election victory 2015. Source: Polske Radio

This program was formulated before the elections by Wanda Zwinogrodzka, a theatre critic and the current Deputy Minister of Culture. At a PiS policy conference in the summer of 2015, she presented a project for a new cultural policy that would serve to “strengthen communal bonds”. She elaborated on this argument in the rightwing newspaper “Gazeta Polska Codziennie” writing that “The aim of this new policy should not be (…) a will to reconstruct an inherited tradition according to a pattern of contemporary political correctness that re-educates backward Poles for postmodernity (…). The aim should be defined completely differently, namely as the strengthening of the crumbling and ever shredding communal bonds of the nation. The state is an instrument of political community, thus it should not act against the community, but rather according to its interest”.

Piotr Glinski, one of the central figures in the cultural revolution as Minister of Culture. Photo: Adrian Grycuk,



Far bigger tasks have been set for culture by the chairman of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński – the politician who wields the real power in the country despite the fact that he doesn’t hold any official post in the administration. He believes that culture should not simply serve as a national communal adhesive, but as a tool for political change in the whole of Europe. In September 2016, during the Economic Forum in Krynica at a debate with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, he reasoned that the only alternative to the current crisis in the EU is a cultural revolution. Kaczyński said: “It should be remembered that Europe’s wealth is the diversity of European cultures, and the attempt of cultural integration can only happen on the level of the popular, and in this it is actually American culture”. And despite the fact that culture has never been a part of the European integration project (this area was excluded from the jurisdiction of basic EU institutions), his words were met with recognition and support across the European right wing. As in the case with social policy, almost universally neglected in Poland after 1989, in the sphere of culture PiS has some good diagnoses, but proposes bad remedies. In the place of a culture based on tolerance, openness to others, freedom of artistic expression, the right-wing proposes a narrowly understood national culture that reduces Polish identity to the criteria of ancestral heritage and religious denomination. Instead of a contemporary art that critically probes reality, it offers patriotic propaganda and hero worship of the so called ‘cursed soldiers’ – members of the armed militant anti-communist resistance that was active in Poland after the end of World War II. Instead of a vision of the future, it celebrates the safe past in numerous museums and historical re-enactment groups. Instead of European values: respect for other cultures and ideological pluralism, it promotes an artificial national unity grounded in the fear of all that is alien or foreign. This policy is deepening national divisions rather than uniting Poland in a communal vision by excluding anyone who does not fit within the frames of the Polish-Catholic picture: women, homosexuals, atheists, and persons of any national descent other than Polish.

Polish Warsaw Uprising reenactors. Photo:



The Liberal inheritance: Good infrastructure, poor culture The Right has a point when talking about a crisis of Polish and European identity. It is true that when culture is subjected to a commercial system and degraded to the role of entertainment and pastime, it is not able to build communal bonds. Liberal parties do not seem to have any idea how to change this dynamic. Civic Platform (PO) here serves as an example – the economic dimension of investing in culture was more important than its actual significance for the community. In the period when the centre-liberal, pro-European coalition of Civic Platform and the Polish Peasants’ Party (PSL) was ruling Poland, spending on culture increased significantly, mostly thanks to funding from the EU. Those funds were allocated almost exclusively on infrastructure: from 2007 to 2014, Poland received 1.2 billion euros for the renovation and building of new theatres, museums, and concert halls. The percentage of spending for infrastructure in the budgets of local governments, (also mostly controlled by Civic Platform) tripled between 2005 and 2013 to 30 percent of total expenditures. The effect was a series of spectacular investments such as new buildings for the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Silesian Museum in Katowice, the National Forum of Music in Wrocław, the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk, and the Szczecin Philharmonic, a building that received the prestigious European Union Mies van der Rohe Award Prize for Contemporary Architecture.

The Szczecin Philharmonic. Photo from

These necessary investments in neglected infrastructure from the communist era were not followed by expenditures on programming: many institutions had significant problems financing their creative activities. The salaries of people working in culture stalled – culture and art were the worst-paid economic sectors in 2013, with half of its employees earning less than 700 euro brutto per month. Seeking new ways to balance the budget in 2013, the Civic Platform cabinet led by Donald Tusk decided to remove the tax exemption granted to creative professionals making their financial situation decidedly worse. The poorest situation was in the symbolic sphere: apart from actions designed for show, such as the public readings of classical Polish literature, politicians from PO weren’t involved in cultural life on a daily basis, choosing football stadiums, rather than theatres as places in which they could be seen by voters. Despite many beneficial schemes •8•


initiated on the ministerial level such as Kultura Dostępna (Available Culture) (to mitigate the financial and competency barriers for the accessibility of culture), Biblioteka+ (Library+) (a development program for local public libraries) or the long-term Program Rozwoju Czytelnictwa (Program of Readership Improvement), the barriers to the equal availability of culture were not broken and remain the domain of the inhabitants of big cities, the better educated and those with higher incomes. The commercialisation of public television, the only widely available source of high-level cultural content, only deepened those divisions. The failure of cultural policy can be measured by the results of readership surveys in which Poland holds one of the last positions in Europe. In a 2015 survey, only 37 per cent of Poles declared reading at least one book in the last year (in the Czech Republic this result is 84 per cent). The readership of books is dwindling across the globe, due to the popularity of the Internet and new technologies, but in Poland, this decline is the largest. In the span of 15 years the percentage of readers decreased by almost one-third. The battle for the past An answer from PiS to the problems of cultural identity and the lack of mass participation in culture has been a turn towards history and seeking unity for the community in the past. The basis of this program is the politics of memory, which attempts to build Polish identity on the martyrdom and heroism of Poles that fought in the 20th century against the two totalitarianisms of Nazism and communism. The cornerstone for this politics was laid by Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław’s brother, who initiated the construction of the Warsaw Uprising Museum while he served as the president of the city. The institution, opened in 2004, presents the uprising of 1944 against the German occupation, an event that cost the lives of 200,000 civilians and left the city completely demolished, as a heroic act and the model of patriotism for present-day Poles. Activities carried out by the museum resulted in a new patriotism with a pop culture bent: popular rock bands recorded albums devoted to the insurgents, and numerous theatre performances were presented inspired by the events of 1944. As an act of homage drivers put stickers on their cars with the sign of “Fighting Poland”, the symbol of the anti-Nazi underground resistance, as if the war hadn’t ended in 1945 and was still ongoing.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum. Photo: •9•


Today, PiS grounds its politics of memory in the legend of the ‘cursed soldiers’ – members of the militant anticommunist underground who refused to give up the fight after World War II and fought against the new totalitarian rule. Information about their activities were banned during the communist era, so PiS seeks to restore and cultivate their image in a way that they can be remembered as unfaltering heroes who never surrendered, as many other soldiers of the Home Army did, and fought for freedom against the communists until the bitter end. The remembrance of the cursed soldiers takes the form of a state cult: in August 2016 a ceremonial reburial of two soldiers killed by the communists was organised in Gdańsk and attended by senior members of the government as well as President Andrzej Duda. Public funds have been spent on reenactments of the battles of the ‘cursed soldiers’ throughout the country. Sometimes this cult reaches the level of the grotesque: in May 2015, in the small town of Ostrów Mazowiecka near Warsaw, the local government administration organised the reconstruction of the wedding of rittmeister Witold Pilecki, an underground resistance soldier sentenced to death and shot by the communists. The Minister of Culture Piotr Gliński and the Deputy Minister Magdalena Gawin took part in the ceremony and were credited in the press release as “the best man and woman”. This historical propaganda has been followed by a fashion for patriotic clothing. For example, on the Internet one can find t-shirts saying “Death to the traitors of the Homeland” and even patriotic bed sheets in national colors. The cult of the ‘cursed soldiers’ fits into the right-wing narrative that regards the agreement between the opposition and the communists in 1989 that led to the first partially free elections – as a national treachery. In this narrative, it wasn’t until “the patriotic camp” won the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015, that the period of “communist thraldom” ended and the new chapter of Polish history began. At the same time the right-wing passes over the darker sides of the biographies of their heroes: such as their involvement in the killing of Belarusian civilians in eastern Poland or in anti-Semitic exterminations carried out in the Podhale region. Those historians writing about the crimes of the “cursed” are attacked as anti-Polish and excluded from the debate. The museum offensive This oversimplified, black and white story about heroes and traitors is a wonderful shelter against the challenges of modernity. It allows no space for critical thinking or complicated moral dilemmas. Piotr Gliński understands this mechanism perfectly and this is why the politics of memory dominate the activities of the Ministry of Culture. The spectacle in the church in Ostrów Mazowiecka was actually an introduction to the signing of the contract stating that the Ministry will be funding the new Museum of The House of the Pilecki Family. A few days earlier in Warsaw, The Witold Pilecki Institute of Totalitarianism Research was founded with the aim of “popularising in Poland and abroad the output of scientific research on totalitarianism and 20th century history”. The flagship project of the new government is the production of a big budget movie drawing from Polish history, akin to similar propaganda productions made in Hungary or the Czech Republic (like the 2001 ‘Dark Blue World’ about Czech fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain). A screenplay has yet to be selected from a contest, but the ministry wants to fund the movie directly from its own resources. It’s not yet known what the subject of this film will be, if it’s going to show a battle of the ‘cursed soldiers’ against the Soviets, or as was the case in the Czech Republic – the tale of Polish aviators fighting in the Battle of Britain. One thing that the new administration knows for sure is that the movie should be of a Hollywood blockbuster scale (despite the general antipathy towards American culture) and its aim will be to present to the world a version of history that serves the interests of Poland.



Historia Roja: The Story of Roj – an example of the new cultural policy. Photo: The other grand project of PiS is the construction of the Museum of Polish History, which together with the Katyń Museum, the Polish Army Museum, and the Museum of the 10th Pavilion will be at the centre of the politics of memory – all built on the grounds of the Warsaw Citadel, a 19th century fortress and prison built by the Russians – to shape future generations in the spirit of national patriotism, martyrdom and military heroism. At the same time, the new administration has been trying to take control of the Museum of World War II in Gdańsk, a project founded by the previous government. The ministry decided to merge this institution with the Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939, a new institution that was founded ad hoc a few months before and has no exhibition. The planned exhibition in the Museum of World War II, the result of the work of leading Polish and foreign historians (including professor Norman Davies and professor Timothy Snyder, among others) is under threat: PiS doesn’t like the idea of telling the story of World War II as the greatest calamity of the 20th century – and one that primarily affected civilians. Authors of reviews commissioned by the Ministry of Culture accuse the concept’s authors of holding a non-Polish perspective, criticise their emphasis on the “negative aspects of war” and call for “focusing on the positive aspects of the War such as patriotism, self-sacrifice, or acting for greater causes than selfinterest”. The fusion of the two museums, scheduled for the beginning of 2017, will make it possible to fire the director and correct the exhibition according to the ideas of the new politics of memory. Censoring artists While fighting for the past, PiS has not forgotten about the present. Soon after the elections, the public media channels were brought under direct political control by Law and Justice. Then, after passing a new media law in November 2015, the directors and supervisory councils of the public television channels and radio stations were immediately fired. The newly empowered treasury minister was then able to appoint new directors without the oversight of the independent National Broadcasting Council. The public media thereby became a state-controlled national media that has turned into a tool of propaganda. As a result, over 200 journalists were fired and replaced by new politically friendly employees. All the main news and information programs and channels started to express the ruling party’s views and promote their version of patriotic, Christian and family values.



Protest against the purge of the public media. Photo: PAP / Leszek Szymañski

The right-wing has taken over further cultural institutions, altering programs diametrically and replacing employees. The Book Institute (IK), the most important institution for Polish literature, is a good example. After a change of its director the program underwent a 180 degree turn. Instead of contemporary literature and Polish reportage highly regarded abroad, IK now promotes conservative essays and books about religion. One can grasp the nature of these changes when looking at decisions concerning translations. For example funds weren’t granted for a Lithuanian rendition of ‘Bieguni’ by Olga Tokarczuk, one of the most frequently translated contemporary Polish writers, who has been accused by the right of slandering Poland. In a comment last year in reference to the mythical image of Poland as a country tolerant toward minorities, the writer spoke about the brutal colonisation and exploitation of Ukraine by the Polish nobility in the 17th century and the anti-Semitic pogroms of the 20th century. Tokarczuk made an appeal “I think it will be necessary to face our own history and attempt to write it somewhat anew, without hiding all those hideous facts”. In the place of the “anti-Polish” Tokarczuk, funds were given for the translation of a book by Bronisław Wildstein, a right-wing publicist that supports the government. The revolution also knocked at the door of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (IAM), a key institution for promoting Polish culture abroad. Paweł Potoroczyn, the head of IAM, who together with his crew created a brand of Polish



Writer Olga Tokarczuk. Photo: Instytut Książki culture highly regarded around the world, was replaced by a former diplomat Krzysztof Olendzki. In one of his first interviews the new IAM director announced that the institution will be more active in the Philippines where, as he claimed, there is a huge Catholic population that is fascinated with Polish culture thanks to Pope John Paul II and the nun Faustina Kowalska. New priorities of cultural diplomacy set by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which is in charge of a network of Polish Institutes abroad) consists of promoting the heritage of Lech Kaczyński’s political thought and the popularization of well-known historical figures such as Copernicus, Chopin, Marie Curie-Skłodowska and John Paul II. All the effort of the last few years in promoting Polish theatre, film, visual arts, graphics, and design might now go to waste.

Pawel Potoroczyn, former director of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. Photo:



The revolution in national institutions is accompanied by overt or secret attempts to intervene in specific programs of cultural institutions and in the course of particular artistic events. The most widely-commented case was an attempt to censor the play ‘Death and the Maiden’ based on a text by Elfriede Jelinek in the Polski Theatre in Wrocław, which is financed jointly by the Ministry of Culture and Lower Silesian Voivodeship Board. A few weeks after taking up his post, Minister Gliński ordered the local administration to block the premiere. The reason was that there was an appearance by porn actors in the performance who allegedly had actual sexual intercourse on stage. Despite the pressure by the ministry, the work was premiered but the local administration didn’t extend the contract of the head of the theatre in the following year and a candidate supported by the ministry won the contest for this position.

Poster for the theatre play ‘Death and the Maiden’ at Teatr Polski in Wrocław. Source:

Another glaring intervention in the programmatic independence of culture was a letter sent by Minister Gliński protesting against the exclusion of the film ‘Historia Roja’ from the Gdynia Film Festival. This work, recounting the story of one of the ‘cursed soldiers’, failed to qualify in the contest for the most important film festival in Poland for artistic reasons and the minister demanded its screening. The festival director was intransigent in the face of these demands, however he did present another right-wingsupported movie outside of the competition: ‘Smoleńsk’, a film that presents the 2010 presidential plane crash near the city of Smoleńsk as an assassination of President Lech Kaczyński by Russian intelligence and PO politicians. This theory of the accident as an assassination is officially proclaimed by members of the PiS administration, despite the findings of the Committee for Investigation of National Aviation Accidents and Prosecution who found it to be an accident.



Poster for the film ‘Smoleńsk’. Source: A proposal to restore censorship, which was abolished in 1990, has more and more supporters on the right. During a celebration of Patriot’s Day in Kraków, organised in October 2016, Biały Kruk, a publisher and informal think tank of PiS, held a debate about culture that raised the suggestion to censor theatres. Among the artists accused of anti-Polish sentiments by the panelists included, Monika Strzępka and Paweł Demirski, creators of politically-minded theatre touching upon the subject of Polish identity, Piotr Ratajczak who staged a book of reportage about Polish neofascism, and even a Lithuanian master director, Eimuntas Nekrošius, whose adaptation of Adam Mickiewicz’s ‘Dziady’ at the National Theatre in Warsaw was criticised by right-wing critics as disrespectful towards Poland’s national poem.

Theatre artists Monika Strzępka and Paweł Demirski. Photo: Tomasz Dubiel



Culture for religion Another important part of the government’s cultural politics is its support for the Catholic Church. PiS’s program does not differ much here from the liberals. Between 2007 and 2014 PO assigned about nine million euro from the state budget for the construction of the Temple of Divine Providence in Warsaw, a huge investment in a church commemorating Poland’s independence. In order to circumvent regulations prohibiting the funding of religious activities, a Museum of John Paul II and Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński was created inside the church so that the money could be officially allocated to a cultural institution. The administrative sleight of hand was that the museum is located in the dome of the building so that it cannot start functioning until the entire structure is finished.

The Temple of Divine Providence in Warsaw, architect’s impression. Source: The new authorities now try to outbid PO. The Minister of Culture entered an agreement with Warsaw’s curia stating that until 2018 – the year that the Temple is scheduled to open – approximately 6.5 million euro more will be designated for its construction. At the same time, the ministry decided to co-manage the church museum meaning that it will receive further funding for its future activities. Minister Piotr Gliński has made many friendly gestures towards the Church since the beginning of his tenure. He has taken part in conferences organised by the Catholic radio station Radio Maryja and granted an honourable medal for special merits in the field of culture (“Zasłużony dla kultury polskiej”) to the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa and to the catholic weekly magazine Niedziela. This is not only a result of his beliefs; it is also a political strategy: the clergy’s support will be needed for another electoral victory for PiS in 2019. This is why there are resources allocated for church investments and a new law allowing the Church to buy agricultural land without limitations. A kingdom for a narration! Despite all of the new administration’s efforts, takeovers of institutions, replacements of experts in ministerial schemes, and the subjugation of the media that has turned it into a mouthpiece of government propaganda, the rightwing has not managed to subordinate artistic output. A right-wing publicist Bronisław Wildstein didn’t become a better or more successful writer than Olga Tokarczuk, director Antoni Krauze (‘Smoleńsk’) didn’t replace Agnieszka Holland, one of Poland’s most eminent filmmakers, nor did actor Jerzy Zelnik, who supports the government, replace Janusz Gajos, one of Poland’s most acclaimed film and theatre stars, known for his appearance in Krzysztof



Kieślowski’s ‘Three Colors: White’. An idea, widely repeated by the right-wing, that the popularity of leftist-liberal mainstream artists is the result of a ‘salon cabal’ and media conspiracy, discredited itself. For a full year PiS has had full control of all the public television and radio stations but nevertheless was incapable of promoting the ‘Smoleńsk’ film. In the first four weeks it was seen by only 400,000 people. In the same period, more viewers saw the animated cat movie ‘Nine Lives’ which was released in Poland by the same distributor.

Filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. Photo: Malwina Toczek,

The right wing obviously does not feel confident in the field of contemporary culture, visual arts, theatre, cinema, or literature. Despite the high circulation of books by right wing writers and publicists, they are not respected for their literary value but rather for the anti-liberal worldviews of the authors. Right wing cinema so far consists of tendentious movies about the ‘cursed soldiers’, the Smoleńsk presidential plane crash, and the “plot” of the democratic opposition and communists during the Round Table Talks in 1989. Thus far, the only presentation of art rooted in patriotism and nationalism – an exhibition called ‘New National Art’ in the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw in 2012 showed the weakness rather than the power of the artists that draw inspiration from Christianity and national ideology. Next to the works of professional artists, the curators presented exhibits including a floral carpet made by the inhabitants of Spycimierz every year on the occasion of Corpus Christi, patriotic decorations from football supporters, and a 40 metre long scarf that motorcycle racing fans placed on a gigantic figure of Jesus Christ in Świebodzin, a city in western Poland. Painting was represented by a monumental ‘Smoleńsk’, that shows the victims of the presidential plane crash with their hearts torn out.



Excerpt of the painting ‘Smoleńsk’ by Zbigniew Dowgiałło. Source: 7th Berlin Biennale Archive, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2012, Rightist journalists claim that one of the main reasons for this situation is leftist control over opinion-forming institutions and media. The right-wing doesn’t have its own cultural institutions or festivals, significant awards such as the ‘Polityka Passport’ (a prize for young artists given by Polityka weekly) or NIKE (a prestigious literary award established in 1997 by the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza). The Deputy Minister of Culture Wanda Zwinogrodzka described the situation bluntly: “Leftist yelling paralyses the ability of articulation. It must be silenced, so one can speak at all.” What we are witnessing now in Poland is an attempted hostile takeover of an ecosystem consisting of media, culture institutions, universities, opinion-forming festivals and reprogramming it into the language of nationalist-catholic culture. It is the Right’s version of “the long march through the institutions”, an idea formulated by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist-theoretician who claimed that the cultural superstructure determines the political and economic base. However, this march might turn out to be far shorter than expected by the rightist revolutionaries: as most of the resources for culture in Poland come from local administrations, which in turn fund the most important theatres, galleries and concert halls. Only three theatres and three galleries are under the rule of the Ministry of Culture, the rest of the state-controlled cultural institutions are mostly museums. Without taking power in such big cities as Warsaw, Wrocław, Kraków, Poznań, Gdańsk, or Łódź the revolution won’t meet its aims. Local governments surely will receive less money from ministerial programs but will retain independence. The same goes for the creative industry: publishing houses, pop music, design, and mainstream cinema are only partly dependent on public funding. But this is a plan for survival, not for development.



Nationalists marching on National Day 11 November 2015 in Warsaw. Photo uploaded to Twitter by Krzysztof Bosak

An unexpected result of this cultural revolution has been the rapid integration of cultural communities as a response to the intervention in artistic freedom. Thousands of people across the country protested against the censorship at the Polski Theatre in Wrocław. Leading figures from the field of culture have taken part in demonstrations organised by the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), a grassroots movement protesting against the dismantling of democratic institutions such as the Constitutional Tribunal or the public media.

Anti-Government protests in Warsaw organised by KOD on 4 June, the anniversary of the first democratic elections in 1989. Photo: Screendump from tv report by



The most important question is whether or not cultural leaders will be able to create an alternative program to a nationalist communalist one based on the cult of the past and devotion to the Church. And what ideas and values should such a program encompass? This question was raised time and again during the recent Congress of Culture, a three-day grassroots meeting of artists, theoreticians, and cultural organisers that took place on October 2016 in Warsaw that gathered over 2,000 people from across the country. The participants indicated three main areas of activities: creating a community of creators and audience around culture, higher social awareness and the development of cultural education. The most important question – about the possibility of an alternative narration about Poland and the world, remained unanswered. In liberal and leftist circles there is a distinct lack of a common narrative that could contest the nationalist-catholic, militarist narration of the right side. Dispersion is an inherent feature: Polish culture is an archipelago of islands, as is the case worldwide. Which leaves us with the question, is diversity able to oppose propaganda?

Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science. Photo:

Roman Pawłowski is one of Poland’s most significant theatre critics and culture journalists. He has been a regular contributor to Poland’s largest daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and many other cultural magazines and journals. He is currently working as a curator and dramaturg at TR Warszawa one of Poland’s leading international theatre companies. Translation by Piotr Tkacz. The first photo in this article is from the premiere of the film ‘Smoleńsk’.



The musician Viet Khang juxtaposed with images of street protests in Vietnam about the East China Sea


Popular music and censorship The Vietnamese state operates a thorough system of music censorship, and the few songwriters who dare to directly challenge the authority of the Vietnamese Communist Party or its policies face serious consequences. Focusing on popular musicians, this article charts the history of music censorship in Vietnam from the mid twentieth century through to the current digital era.


May I ask, who are you? Why arrest me? What have I done wrong? May I ask, who are you? Why beat me mercilessly? May I ask, who are you? To stop me from protesting on the streets



Our people have endured so much for the love of our country May I ask, where are you from? To prevent me from opposing the Chinese invaders … I cannot sit quietly while Vietnam falls and as my people sink into a thousand years of darkness I cannot sit quietly to see children grow up without a future; where will their roots lie when Vietnam no longer exists in the world?

These lyrics are from a song called ‘Who are you?’ (‘Anh là ai?’) by the Vietnamese singer-songwriter Viet Khang. The song is in the style of a mainstream pop-rock ballad and Viet Khang’s warm, yearning voice seems to implore us to sing along. Yet the lyrics are unusually bold: they speak out about the police’s treatment of protestors, who are portrayed as true patriots. Viet Khang recorded ‘Who are you?’ after street demonstrations were suppressed by Vietnamese security forces. In the summer of 2011, a series of large-scale demonstrations took place on the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in response to rising tensions between Vietnam and China about the long-disputed sovereignty of the Spratly Islands and territorial boundaries in the East China Sea. For several months the authorities allowed these demonstrations to take place, but in September 2011 the government decided that they had to stop, partly due to fears that the rallies were being used to ‘stir up dissent against communist rule’. To prevent further demonstrations, the police employed strong-arm tactics, using violence to arrest and disperse protestors. Since then, activists have continued to hold small-scale demonstrations and to write Internet blogs to express their anger about the government’s foreign policy concerning the East China Sea. But large public protests are no longer tolerated. ‘Who are you?’ went viral on YouTube, and shortly after it was posted on the web, Viet Khang was detained by the police. He was formally arrested in December 2011 and was brought to trial on 30 October 2012 after spending 10 months in detention without trial. Charged with conducting propaganda against the state under Article 88 of the penal code, Viet Khang was given a four-year prison sentence followed by two years of house arrest. A “Free Viet Khang Movement” was established by Vietnamese communities in the US, and a petition concerning human rights, which includes a reference to Viet Khang, was submitted to the US government. After serving four years in prison, Viet Khang was released in December 2015 and returned to his family in the city of My Tho in southern Vietnam. Any activity that challenges the primacy of the Vietnamese Communist Party or opposes the one-party nation state is forbidden in Vietnamese law and the prosecution of Viet Khang highlights the draconian forms of punishment that musicians in Vietnam are likely to face if they are deemed to oppose the government’s policies. Given this situation, it is not surprising that few Vietnamese musicians have directly challenged the authority of the Party by writing songs with lyrics that overtly challenge the government’s policies or actions. Yet a few musicians still do. Alongside Viet



Khang, another musician, Tran Vu Anh Bình – a prominent member of the Patriotic Youth movement who was involved in producing some of Viet Khang’s songs – was also charged under Article 88. He was given a six-year prison sentence and is still languishing in prison. The Vietnamese state operates a thorough system of music censorship. Officially, music must be approved in advance by censors connected to the Ministry of Culture before it is publicly performed, broadcast or released as a recording. The lyrics of songs are typically the main concern of censors, although the way in which music is performed and aesthetic factors are also important. The censorship of music in Vietnam is not straightforward and cannot be reduced to the overt actions of state censors alone. Music censorship is mostly achieved through a complex system of prior restraint and restriction, and acts of suppression like the imprisonment of musicians and the overt banning of music are quite rare. Acts of censorship are rarely done in an open, transparent way and involve numerous organisations. Censors in the Ministry of Culture and the directors of the state-run radio and television companies, record labels and publishing houses are often not clear about what they should or should not permit. Party decrees on culture and the arts set the general tone, but specifics are often left vague and open to interpretation. Such ambiguity can lead to arbitrary decisions, which are usually not fully explained or justified, and this further encourages a climate of caution and restraint. A lack of clarity over what is permissible not only spreads confusion, it also plays into the hands of self-censorship. Musicians are left to second-guess what might be censored and this encourages them to err on the side of caution. Such internalised censorship, which permeates the social realities and mind-set of musicians, is often hard to pinpoint, but is all too familiar to many of the Vietnamese musicians with whom I have discussed censorship. The system of music censorship in Vietnam today is not a new phenomenon and is rooted in a particular historical context. In order to understand the current situation it is worth delving into this history. Music, war and censorship 1954-1975 From 1954 to 1975 Vietnam was divided into North and South along the 17th parallel. In the northern, Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) the government, led by the Vietnamese Communist Party, quickly moved to establish ideological control over the arts and it was quite effective at using music for propaganda purposes. In the DRV, the Vietnamese Communist Party’s cultural policy was that the arts should serve the ideological interests of the Party, the nation, the socialist revolution and the fight for the unification of the country. Musical activities were tightly coordinated by the state and an extensive network of state-run music troupes and schools was established. Music was considered by the Party to be an ideological weapon to propagate the new socialist society. In the 1950s, some leading intellectuals, including the musician Van Cao who composed Vietnam’s national anthem, argued for more intellectual freedom and criticised the restrictions that were being placed on artists. By the early 1960s, however, the Party quashed this dissent and managed to exert a high level of control over cultural expression. As the Vietnamese-American war escalated in the mid-1960s, considerable efforts were made to harness music to support the war effort. In response to the bombing raids in the North by American planes, which began with the ‘Flaming Dart’ and ‘Rolling Thunder’ campaigns in 1965, a movement known as Song Drowns Out the Sound of Bombs (Tieng hat at tieng bom) was established. Its aim was to use the power of song to boost the morale and resolve of the troops and the general populace.



Musicians in the ‘Song Drowns Out the Sound of Bombs’ (‘Tieng hat at tieng bom’) movement performing on the battlefield. Source: unknown Music that did not promote socialist ideals, such as foreign love songs and pre-war Vietnamese music, was derided as “yellow music” (nhac vàng) and was banned. Yet some musicians in the DRV like the singer Phan Thang Toan, known as “Hairy Toan”, dared to perform it. In the mid-1960s, Hairy Toan performed yellow music at weddings and parties, but in 1968 he was arrested along with other 6 other band members. When the band members were eventually put on trial in 1971, they were accused of “disseminating depraved imperialist culture and counter-revolutionary propaganda” and were sentenced to long jail sentences. Even though these musicians claimed they did not have a political agenda and were only motivated by their love for yellow music, their imprisonment illustrates the extent to which Party leaders were determined to crack down on musical activity which they thought would undermine people’s commitment to socialism and their resolve for war. The long sentence meted out to Hairy Toan, who was not released until 1980, served as a warning to other musicians: toe the Party line or be incarcerated. Compared with the DRV, popular music in the American-backed Republic of Vietnam (RVN) was less tightly controlled. Popular songwriters in South Vietnam had greater scope to experiment with different musical styles and to express diverse feelings about the war. While patriotic and anti-communist songs that expressed support for the RVN government and army were encouraged, the regime was unable to silence dissent. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, for instance, Vietnam’s most famous singer-songwriter Trinh Công Son (b.1939-d.2001) wrote sentimental anti-war songs about the pain and suffering of war, about the desire for peace, and about lost love and human fate. On 30 January 1968, the army of the northern Democratic of Vietnam (DRV) and the guerrilla forces of National Liberation Front (NLF) launched the Tet Offensive, which consisted of a series of co-ordinated attacks against targets across the RVN. As part of the Tet Offensive, the old imperial city of Hue was attacked and held by communist forces for nearly a month before South Vietnamese and American troops regained control of the city. In the fierce fighting in Hue, thousands of civilians, as well as troops, were massacred and the city itself was reduced to ruins. Trinh Công Son was in his hometown of Hue during the Tet Offensive and he witnessed the devastation first-hand. In direct response to the horrific loss of life, Trinh Công Son wrote several songs including ‘Singing on the corpses’ (‘Hat tren nhung xac nguoi’), which conveyed a humanist and pacifist stance. The lyrics of ‘Singing on the corpses’, sung by •24•


Khanh Ly, describe corpses strewn around after the battle and the confused reaction of bereaved women. The final lines are as follows:

Afternoon by the mulberry groves, Singing on the corpses. I have seen, I have seen, Trenches filled with corpses. A mother claps to welcome war, A sister cheers for peace. Some people clap for more hatred, Some clap to repent.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Trinh Công Son performed regularly with the female singer Khanh Ly at the Quan Van club in Saigon and at other venues across South Vietnam. In addition to live performances, Trinh Công Son’s songs became hugely popular as a result of Khanh Ly’s recordings and through the printing of songbooks, which encouraged others to learn his songs.

Trinh Công Son and Khanh Ly. Source: unknown As Trinh Công Son’s fame grew, the RVN regime became concerned about the impact of the “Trinh Công Son phenomenon” and in 1969, a decree was issued banning the circulation of his songs. However, the ban proved ineffective as Khanh Ly’s recordings were still widely circulated and Trinh Công Son moved from one printing press to another to ensure that he could still self-publish his songbooks.



Trinh Công Son did not associate himself with a particular musical movement or political faction. Other songwriters in South Vietnam like Tôn That Lap, Tran Long An and Mien Duc Thang, however, were active in the anti-war movement called ‘Sing for our compatriots to hear’ (‘Hat cho dong bào tôi nghe’). This student-led movement held street demonstrations, public debates and performance events at university campuses, which voiced opposition to the RVN regime and the American military presence. When I interviewed Tôn That Lap, the recognised leader of the Sing for our compatriots to hear movement, in 2012, he estimated that about 10,000 people participated in the movement’s first event in 1968 just before the Tet Offensive. At the protest, Tôn That Lap told me that his song ‘Sing for my people to hear’ (‘Hat cho dân tôi nghe’) was sung in unison by a chorus of over 200 students. The song begins with the words:

Sing so the people hear, the sound of singing unfurls the flag each day. Sing in the autumn nights, while fires burn the enemy’s camps. A sombre song in the night, thousands of arms rise up. Sing for the workers, to break their chains like a dispersing cloud. Sing for the farmers, to put aside their ploughs and follow the call. Each day the people freely rise up to break the chains of slavery. Each day we stand undaunted together with our compatriots. Take back the river water for growing rice in the green fields. Take back the cities, hands rise up for peace.

Tôn That Lap in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012. Photo by Barley Norton



The “Sing for our compatriots to hear” movement grew as more people became disillusioned with the war, especially after the devastation caused by the Tet Offensive. At a street protest held in September 1970, Tôn That Lap said the police fired flares from helicopters, threw tear gas grenades to disperse the crowd, and arrested him along with fellow students. According to Tôn That Lap the students were released a few days later after going on a hunger strike, but while in prison they continued to sing in defiance. In our interview, Tôn That Lap recalled that, during the time when he was imprisoned, the head of the police bureau called him in to his office and said angrily, “You can do whatever you want, but I forbid singing!”. In Tôn That Lap’s view the police chief had reprimanded him in this way because he was “afraid of the power of song”. Despite suppressing demonstrations, the authorities were unable to stem the wave of anti-war protests and they continued until the end of the war. Music censorship in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam after 1975 On 30 April 1975, the North Vietnamese army took Saigon, and this marked the end of the Vietnamese-American war. With official reunification in 1976, the country was renamed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Music censorship in the years after reunification was extremely severe. As part of the effort to mould the more commercially oriented culture of the south into the form of the socialist north, the Vietnamese Communist Party implemented “purification” campaigns that sought to eradicate the music culture of the former RVN. Communist cadres pilloried the popular music that had thrived in South Vietnam as neo-colonial poison. The state took control of the distribution and broadcasting of music, and “unhealthy” records, tapes and songbooks were systematically collected, confiscated and destroyed. Many popular musicians from South Vietnam fled the country and those that remained were likely to be sent to “reeducation” camps. In place of the “reactionary” culture of the former RVN regime, musicians were encouraged to compose edifying political songs with nationalist, revolutionary and socialist themes. This situation changed little until after 1986, when reforms began to be implemented. Music and the renovation policy The introduction of the Renovation policy, known as doi moi, in 1986 was primarily aimed at introducing reforms to invigorate the failing post-war economy, but it also signalled a shift toward greater creative freedom in the arts. The songwriter Tran Tien was one of the first musicians to take advantage of the shift in cultural policy. In 1987, he formed the rock band Black and White (Den Trang) and in November that year the band performed their first concerts in Ho Chi Minh City. In an interview I conducted with Tran Tien in 2011, he said the atmosphere at the concerts was akin to a street demonstration and he described how many of the audience were moved to tears when they heard his songs. After the second concert the authorities in Ho Chi Minh City acted: they accused Tran Tien of “inciting a riot” and arrested him. Although Tran Tien was detained for just one night, Black and White was prevented from performing any more concerts. According to the authorities, the band’s songs had caused “public discontent” because of their “bad content”. One of Tran Tien’s songs that caused much controversy was ‘Naked ’87’ (‘Tran Trui ’87’). The song begins with the following lyrics:



I have seen my Vietnamese friends selling goods on the streets in Russia. My friends beg on the streets of America. Friends in the homeland trick each other because of poverty. Does this cause you pain? I have seen mothers who in the past greeted the troops, And brought rice for the soldiers, Mothers who now wander around as beggars on train coaches. Does this cause you pain? Does this cause you pain? Please don’t always sing songs that praise. Songs with dull lyrics have lulled our glorious homeland, which is full of pride, into forgetting about food, clothing and roses. The soldiers who fell, Never thought they would see, Our homeland today, Full of beggars, whose screaming breaks our hearts.

‘Naked ‘87’ is a passionate rock ballad that speaks out against the use of music as Party propaganda. The lyrics challenge the system of censorship, which only permitted songs that “praised” the new society and ignored the severe hardships many were suffering in the post-war period. In a recording of the song, which is available on the Internet, Tran Tien’s vocal delivery is full of heartfelt anguish and seems to encapsulate the disillusionment that many people felt during the post-war economic depression. The reflections in the song lyrics on the impoverished position of those who gave so much for the war – including the ‘mothers’ whose sons fought in the war – are given added weight by the fact that Tran Tien is himself a war veteran. In the song, the exodus of Vietnamese refugees to the US after 1975 and the dire circumstances of Vietnamese working in the Soviet Union are exposed as a sign of lost pride. In the spirit of the new cultural freedoms promised by the Renovation policy, in “Naked ’87”, Tran Tien offers a candid view of life in post-war Vietnam that is far removed from Party rhetoric. Tran Tien told me his aim was to truthfully reflect people’s realities and sentiments, yet the authorities clearly thought he had gone too far. Despite the cultural liberalisation of the Renovation policy, the prohibition of Tran Tien’s songs in the late 1980s made clear that the freedom of expression for musicians was still circumscribed. As Vietnam introduced further market reforms during the 1990s, the government became increasingly concerned about declining morale standards, especially among the younger generation. Anxiety about morality led the government to initiate a campaign against “social evils” in the mid and late 1990s. Karaoke bars, which had become places where prostitution was commonplace, were a prominent target of the “social evils” campaign, and scrutiny of pop song lyrics also intensified. In a high profile case, an album called ‘Solar Eclipse’ (Nhat Thuc) featuring the famous pop diva Tran Thu Hà, encountered problems with the censors in 2001 because some of the lyrics were deemed to include “vulgar” sexual references. All the songs on the album, which were composed by male musician Ngoc Dai, use poems by the young female writer, Vi Thùy Linh. Lyrics thought to be too risqué included: “My body goes crazy when it is held in your arms” and “Suddenly in front of me, the skirt of a nun flew up”. While such lines may seem very mild, they were •28•


criticised for not conforming to Vietnamese cultural values and were “corrected” by the censors. When I discussed the censorship of Solar Eclipse with the composer Ngoc Dai in 2011, he expressed his view that the corrected lyrics were “coarse” compared with the original lines. Yet he said that he had no choice but to comply with the censors’ demands otherwise the album would not have been approved. After several months of delay and modifications to the titles of songs as well as lyrics, the album was officially authorised for release. However, only 7 of the 13 songs that were performed during the live concert tour were permitted on the album. Despite the censorship of the album, the Vietnamese press hailed Solar Eclipse as a significant landmark in the development of popular music and the album sold tens of thousands of copies, a large number in the Vietnamese context.

Ngoc Dai performing in the Hanoi Opera House in 2009. Source: unknown

Since ‘Solar Eclipse’, Ngoc Dai has continued to push boundaries and court controversy. In 2010, I made a film called ‘Hanoi Eclipse: The Music of Dai Lam Linh’, which focused on Ngoc Dai and his band Dai Lâm Linh. The film includes a scene in which a panel of censors criticise Dai Lâm Linh’s concert performance. Although Dai Lâm Linh’s recorded album was not censored, the panel suggested that Ngoc Dai should “correct” and “improve” his songs so that there was “less noise and screaming”. As reported by, Ngoc Dai got into trouble with the Vietnamese authorities again in 2013 when he unofficially self-released and sold his solo album ‘ThIng Mõ 1’. Vietnamese rap, the Internet and censorship The rise of the Internet in Vietnam since the late 1990s has greatly increased access to popular music from around the world. Although Vietnam is one of the most restricted countries in the world in terms of Internet access and is listed as an ‘Internet enemy’ by Reporters Without Borders, the censors have targeted most of their efforts on contentious political and religious content and they have found it hard to restrict the circulation of music. Exposure to a vast array of music on the Internet has stimulated many young Vietnamese musicians to experiment with styles of popular music like metal and rap. The “underground” rap scene in Vietnam is one of the most vibrant



areas of musical activity that has proliferated in cyberspace. Most underground rap would not pass the censors because of its explicit lyrics, but it is widely circulated on social media, local Internet forums and international sites like YouTube. Underground rap addresses a diverse range of issues that concern young Vietnamese, but most rap does not deal directly with politics. One notable exception is the track by the rapper Nah called “Dit Me Công Sán”, or “DMCS” for short, which translates as “Fuck Communism”. Nah, whose real name is Nguyen Vu Son (b.1991), grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, where he gained a reputation for conscious rap that commented on social issues.

Rapper Nah. Source:

In 2013, he went to the US to study and, while there, he released ‘DMCS’ (‘Dit Me Công Sán’) on YouTube in 2015. The translation of the rap chorus is as follows:

Who would go to hell if not me? Fuck Communism Is it wrong to dare to change the country? Fuck communism You dare to sell our fathers’ land? Fuck communism. Killing, blinding, gagging? Fuck communism Slaughtering our people in Hue? Fuck communism I will never fucking accept being a slave. Fuck communism. You will be overthrown soon. Fuck communism. Everyone will know the truth. Fuck communism.



Shortly after being posted on the Internet, ‘DMCS’ went viral and it has stimulated considerable media interest, especially outside of Vietnam. It is unclear what the response of the authorities will be if and when Nah returns to Vietnam. The circulation of uncensored rap tracks on the Internet has enabled young Vietnamese to express themselves, at least to their peers, in ways that are far removed from anything that is permitted in the official media. This would seem to be indicative of the increasing inability of the state to control cultural expression in the way it has done in the past. The potential of the Internet for bypassing state censorship has often been noted, but it is important to point out limitations. In Vietnam, censorship of the web is widespread and without official permission to broadcast on staterun media, to perform publicly and to release recordings, it is hard for musicians to reach a large audience. Technological change and access to the Internet has challenged, to some extent, the state’s ability to control musical expression. Yet the Party is still quick to punish musicians who are seen as a political threat, as demonstrated by the imprisonment of Viet Khang discussed at the start of this article. As in the past, songwriters in contemporary Vietnam who dare to write lyrics that directly challenge the authority of the Party or its policies face extremely serious consequences.

Barley Norton is a Reader in the Music Department at Goldsmiths, University of London and is currently serving as Chair of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology. His publications include the book ‘Songs for the Spirits: Music and Mediums in Modern Vietnam’, the co-edited volume ‘Music and Protest in 1968’, and the film ‘Hanoi Eclipse: The Music of Dai Lam Linh’. His writing on music censorship includes the chapter ‘Music and censorship in Vietnam since 1954’ in the Oxford Handbook of Music Censorship. Translation of all lyrics were made by the author, except for the song ‘Dit Me Công Sán’.




The coup still continues for the art scene The state of emergency following the failed coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016 resulted in increased pressure against artists. The already-ongoing attack against freedom of art has accelerated after the coup attempt. Artists are trying to keep their heads up under the pressure, while the government is planting the seeds for a total transformation of the cultural scene. BY YIĞIT GÜNAY | 14 SEPTEMBER 2016 “For the first time in 35 years, I’m concerned if we’ll be able to do theatre in the near future.” It is hard to swallow to hear this from a veteran of Turkish art scene. Kemal Kocatürk, 52, is an actor, playwright, director and poet with numerous awards throughout his career. Kocatürk was one of the six artists who were suspended from the Istanbul City Theatre, following the coup attempt in Turkey on 15th of July, claimed to be organised unsuccessfully by a religious sect headed by a Pennsylvania resident imam called Fethullah Gülen. The Gülen movement had been an ally of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) since they won the elections and became the government in 2002. Around 2012, the alliance started to decay, which ultimately resulted in the conspirative religious movement attempting to overthrow Erdoğan through their cadres inside the army. The attempt was defeated due to the facts that a small portion of the army actively participated in the coup, the plan and practice of the putschists (coup-attempters) were clumsy in many aspects and pro-Erdoğan thousands took to the streets to stand against the tanks and soldiers, thereby shattering the already minimal legitimacy of the coup.



Kemal Kocatürk. Photo: YeniSafak Kocatürk was reading a book in his house in Istanbul on the evening of Friday 15 July 2016. “After I received a phone call from a friend about the military mobility, we turned on the tv. We were watching it alive, but things were not adding up. What is the point of cutting the traffic on the Bosphorus Bridge? It felt like a badly-written, third-class comedy play.” This sentiment of a coup ‘too-bad-to-be-real’ was shared among all the elder generations, who witnessed the coup on 12 September 1980. The coup resulted in death penalties for hundreds, torture and jail time for thousands, and a still effective, insultingly oppressive constitution. The coup remains as the paradigmatic break in the history of Turkey. Kocatürk was 17 back then, a youngster interested in arts and especially theatre. He was arrested with the accusations of “possession of illegal publications and membership to an illegal organisation” and spent 52 days in prison. He definitely has a good understanding of what a military coup would mean for the art scene. “If you gathered together with more than three people, with whatever purpose, they breathed down your neck. People were even avoiding going out on the street as much as possible.” It practically meant a shutdown of all social cultural activities. However, Kocatürk evaluates that it was not a total political blackout, but the contrary: The military junta was deliberately enforcing right-wing politics, especially the Islamist rhetoric. “In the mosques, politics was being practiced and propagated in every sense of the word, but a theatrical play? No sir,” says Kocatürk, and draws a parallel to the actuality of Turkey: “The actuality today is a direct reflection of the politics of those times. The fear of a socialist revolution resulted in a country, whose streets are now full of jihadists.” Factually, Kocatürk has a point. Fethullah Gülen started his cemaat, his religious movement in 1970s. When the army took over the government in September 1980, the Gülen movement was content with it. The leading article of the October issue of the magazine of the movement, Sızıntı (which, ironically, means both leakage and infiltration in Turkish), was warmly saluting and praising the junta:



“Thus, here we are now, full with a thousand hopes, with a thousand joys, we consider this last resistance, which is the dawn of our long-awaited expectations, as the insignia of the existence and perpetuity of the last sentry; we salute once again the Mehmetçik [the popular name for rank-and-file soldiers], who have come to our rescue like Hızır [Khidr, a righteous servant of the God for Muslims].” Gülen and his movement did not receive any serious intervention under the military regime. An unexpected assault Kemal Kocatürk and his family had booked a vacation for the 16th of July. Late Friday night of the coup attempt, the family, upon understanding that it would not succeed, decided to go to bed. The next morning, they drove out of town. Four days later, all public workers were called to immediately return to work and report to their superiors. The theatres were closed, but the bureaucracy, in a state of total shock and dismantlement, did not listen to any excuses. The family returned to Istanbul. At this point, Kocatürk was not expecting any imminent aggression against himself. The coup attempt was defeated, it was revealed that it was an attempt by the Gülen movement, and Kocatürk, “a life-long defender of socialism” as he defines himself, had nothing to do whatsoever with the Gülen movement. “A few years ago, when we criticised the Gülenists, pro-Erdoğan people would aggressively counter us,” says Kocatürk. But this was not a naïve sentiment: Kocatürk was already facing a lot of pressure. Many artists working for the Istanbul City Theatre were aware that those who did not support the government faced imminent threats of legal cases or loss of job. The pro-government media often published articles criticising repertoire, the supposed nudity in certain theatre plays, sometimes naming certain artists, other times calling for a “radical transformation” of the theatres. And for Kocatürk, the threats had already been realised. In May 2016, an institutional investigation was started against Kocatürk. At the beginning, the accusation was “making political comments like an ordinary citizen”. Public workers cannot become legal members of political parties. Then they changed the accusation to “insulting the President”. The same accusation was made against German comedian Jan Böhmermann, making Erdoğan’s already nationally wide and well-known cases against artists and intellectuals internationally infamous. It was not only Kocatürk, who was targeted. Two other directors, Ragıp Yavuz and Arif Akkaya were also involved in the investigations. And the administration of the theatre was defending these political investigations in a twisted but revealing way. Kocatürk tells: “During an administrative board meeting, our situation was brought to the table. One of the administrators said, ‘In fact, the government has sent us a list of 50-60 artists. We avoided that pressure by only starting investigations against three people.’ They presented the investigations against us as the survival of all the artists!” On 29 July 2016, Kocatürk received a phone call from the administration of the theatre at 16:30, half an hour before the end of workday. “There is an urgent yellow envelope for you, you have to pick it up before 10:00 AM on Monday,” the caller said. Upon Kocatürk’s question of what if he didn’t, the caller explained, “he would be served the envelope by law enforcement officers”. It was obviously a serious thing. A yellow envelope was indicative of a bureaucratic matter. When Kocatürk went to the theatre on Monday, he recognised he was not alone. They were six artists: Actors Arda Aydın, Mahberi Mertoğlu, İrem Arslan, Mahberi Mertoğlu and Sevinç Erbulak and directors Ragıp Yavuz and Kemal Kocatürk.



They went for the responsible person from whom they had to receive their envelopes, but the responsible person was not there. Then started a Kafkaesque runaround – they were being tossed from door to door, everybody rejecting to give them their envelopes. Telling me the details of their comical and desperate endeavors to receive their envelopes, Kocatürk starts laughing and asks me if I know the ‘Turkish hell’ joke. I don’t. He tells: “A group of Turks die. The demons welcome them at the gates of hell. One of the deceased also holds a US passport, so the demon asks him if he wants to go to the Turkish hell or the American hell. ‘What is the difference’ asks the dual citizen. ‘In the Turkish hell, they make you eat a ladleful of shit every day. In the American hell, you eat a spoonful of shit every day,’ explains the demon. The dead chooses to go to the American hell. Several weeks later, he decides to visit his friends and goes to the Turkish abyss. His friends look quite pleased. ‘I cannot endure eating that spoonful of shit each and every day, how can you bear it?’ he asks. One of his friends respond: ‘Well, we haven’t eaten any shit yet. One day there is no ladle, the other day there is ladle but no demons, another day there is ladle, there is demon, but no shit. They never come together.’” Finally, the director himself came to the theatre at 13:00 and delivered the envelopes. They were laid off from their jobs. Reason? “Law number 657, article 125” was the reason stated in the letters. It is the article that lists all possible disciplinary punishments for public workers. The artists asked the director what the reason was. “It might be that you did not protest enough against the coup,” he answered. Kocatürk tells that they asked the art director, the municipality, the governorship of Istanbul, and nobody had an answer to give. It was unexpected for the artists. Not the fact that they were being targeted, but the fact that they were targeted as ‘supporters of the coup attempt’. “I very much prefer the ‘insulting the President’ accusation’,” says Kocatürk, “but being accused to be part of this Gülenist attempt is defamation.” The ‘cleaner-artists’ get ‘cleaned’ Apparently, it was the beginning of a political purge against “blacklisted 50-60 artists” in the Istanbul City Theatre. On 12 August, 20 more artists were laid off: One musician, one dramaturgist, one choreographer and 17 actors. These 20 artists did not have the status of public workers. On paper, they were contractual staff for the subcontractor cleaning company. The government was not opening any new positions for theatre artists for years, despite the need for new ones and the openings from retired or deceased artists. Instead, they were hiring the new artists through a cleaning company. The contracts of the artists were for three months and were being renewed every three months – a way to deny them the rights severance pay in case they were fired. When this policy first started, the veteran artists, including Kocatürk, were thinking to protest against it. “But the young artists told us, ‘Please don’t, don’t risk our earning breads, this is the only way we can do art,’ so we didn’t make a huge fuss about it,” says Kocatürk. The 20 artists made a collective statement, saying the reason for their being laid off was “low performance”, but no authority explained to them who and with which criteria evaluated their performances. These “cleaner-artists” are not second role actors. They are crucial for the plays of Istanbul City Theatre, many playing leading roles. Kemal Kocatürk has assessed the damage: “There are 35 plays in the repertoire. Without these 20 and the six of us, only five out of the 35 can be played. Thus, it is not possible for the theatre to open its curtains in the new season.” The website still does not have the programme for the upcoming season for autumn.



Ragip Yavuz. Photo: Gazete Yolculuk

This was the biggest blow for Kocatürk and other artists’ resilience in the Istanbul City Theatre. They were already struggling to continue their artistic endeavours. The City Theatre is under the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, which is controlled by Erdoğan’s AKP. This fact increases the provocative, targeting news in the pro-government media against the artists there. Like, when the Islamist mouthpiece Akit newspaper published a piece titled ‘Foulmouthed Ragıp earns his bread from Istanbul Municipality’, mentioning Istanbul City Theatre director Ragıp Yavuz’s critical tweets. Or when a columnist in the same newspaper implied actress Sevinç Erbulak’s mother “was a whore” because she cheated on her husband in an article written after the actress attended a meeting of the Enlightenment Movement (Aydınlanma Hareketi), a mass campaign for defending secularism and opposing the Islamisation policy of the government. There was also pressure inside the institution. Kocatürk tells that most times, when he suggested a project to the art director, the art director would reply to him, “I haven’t even read it,” ten days later and the project would be put aside to be omitted. Kocatürk thinks that the idea of pro-AKP directors of the theatre is to get rid of all “unfavored” artists inside the institution, which would mean – as right now is the fate the theatre is facing – that the number of plays the artists inside the institution produce would significantly drop. “Then,” Kocatürk continues, stating his opinion, “they will start to outsource plays to some small, independent but pro-government companies who produce plays which would be entertaining but void of any significant meaning or message.” This is already on the way. Many local municipalities in Istanbul that are controlled by AKP select this way to make use of their theatre halls. And, because, as a result of the urban transformation many independent halls are getting closed, independent theatre groups fight hard to acquire places to play. Most of the available places are small halls for a few dozen people at most. This is why Kocatürk confesses his concern about being able to do theatre. He starts thinking loudly, asking himself “if he is going to bow down, if he will lose his hope”. Then he turns to me again, and says, “I am considering street theatre”. He tells about a recent experience. He was to perform his play ‘Can’ in the Thracian city of Edirne. The



governorship prohibited the performance. So he decided to take it out on the streets. “The municipality is controlled by CHP [the social-democratic opposition party]. They also supported my decision and prepared a beautiful street stage. The result: The audience was 2500, when it would have been 250 in the hall if they had let me.” Increasing animosity towards artists The Islamist AKP’s relation with the art scene and culture in general has been problematic since it gained power in 2002. Cases of censorship have become a routine agenda on the daily editorial meetings of local newspapers. Erdoğan has developed this habit of having dinner with “artists” every couple of months, which has the not-so-tacit purpose of demonstrating which artists are openly supporting him. The first few days following the coup attempt on 15 July 2016, Erdoğan’s statements were very aggressive. However, seeing this tactic of further strengthening the already existing polarisation in the country would not work well in a situation where the government could not trust anybody anymore inside the state apparatus, Erdoğan and the AKP government shifted to a “national reconciliation against the putschists” rhetoric. Yet, this new period of reconciliation between the parliamentarian political parties did not reflect quite so to the art scene. Zeytinli Rock Music Festival was first prohibited, then postponed. The Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival got canceled for the entire year. The concerts of Joan Baez and Muse were canceled by the artists over security concerns, but the play about Turkish communist poet Nâzım Hikmet and Bertolt Brecht by the reknowned actor Genco Erkal was prohibited by authorities, due to the state of emergency declared by the government. After much reaction by the public, the prohibition was revoked. And going deeper into the localities, artists facing the same repression cannot make their voice loud enough to create a similar public protest, like in the case of Armenian guitarist Ari Hergel, who was fired by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality from his eight-year job as a guitar teacher with the absurd accusation of “being part of the coup attempt” which was organised by an Islamist faction. Maybe not visible as much, but certainly equally dangerous is the reactionary sentiment growing amongst the progovernment masses against all cultural activities and artifacts and artists in general. The day after the coup attempt, the crowd which gathered in İzmir’s main square attacked the city’s historical, symbolic Clock Tower, damaging the architecturally important monument and the clock mechanism. It was thanks to Feti Pamukoğlu, member of a family which has been responsible for the maintenance of the clock for three generations, that the mechanism was saved. He climbed up the tower, “stole” the dial plate and took it to his home to protect it from the attackers. The occasion was obviously a continuation of frequent cases of vandalism against sculptures in İzmir’s metro stations in the last few months. When famous pop singer Sıla Gençoğlu tweeted “I am absolutely against the coup but I don’t prefer to participate in such a show” to announce that she would not go to the demonstration organised by the government in Istanbul, it triggered a social media lynching against her, including harsh insults and even threats of murder. All municipalities controlled by AKP canceled any already-booked concerts by the singer, and, obviously exhausted under the psychological pressure, the singer announced that she decided to “take a vacation” and cancel all her concerts for a period. The culmination of this general ill-sentiment against culture was uttered by an imam. Erol Olçak, the man behind AKP’s publicity campaigns, was killed along with his son by the putschist soldiers during the night of the coup attempt while protesting near the Bosphorus Bridge. During their burial ceremony, in the presence of Erdoğan and other top government figures, the imam said, “Oh God, please protect us from the evil of the educated ones” during his prayer.



Sıla Gençoğlu. Photo: Numerous cultural institutions and organisations are issuing statements about raising concerns for the art and culture scene in Turkey. On 2 August 2016, PEN International called the international public to send appeals to Turkish authorities, expressing their concerns against “increasing crackdowns on freedom of expression and human rights in the country” under the state of emergency. Turkish Publishers Association warned the government against making use of the possible authoritarian authorisations to ban books. The government has not used its newly acquired authority under the state of emergency to start a massive campaign of banning books or cultural activities, but it has used it for a much sinister aim. On 12 August, at midnight hours, an eagerly and hastily working Parliamentary Commission of Planning and Budget accepted a resolution, giving the Privatisation Board the authority to take over, privatise or shut down approximately 100 public cultural entities, including the Atatürk Cultural Center in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the Turkish History Institution, State Theatres, State Opera and Ballet and the Turkish Language Institution. The coup attempt did not change the direction of Erdoğan’s government’s policy suppressing the culture scene, but accelerated it. On the 24 August, as a bunch of friends from university years, we are sitting in a patisserie in Nişantaşı, the fanciest neighbourhood of Istanbul. The waiters have a hard time emptying the ashtrays full of hastily, frequently and angrily smoked cigarette butts. Hamit Demir, 49, an actor, raises his voice: “Guys, Friday evening we have a theatrical play, if any of you would like to come, it’s on me, please do.” A prolonged, awkward silence follows the question. At last, one of our friends responds: “Maybe, if Taylan gets released, we will all come together.” Taylan Eren Yenilmez is the son of Hamit Demir, and a close friend of mine. A brilliant academic with a PhD from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, he is a researcher in Istanbul University. Or, better said, he was. Taylan’s house was raided by the police on 20 August and he was arrested under the criminal investigation against the Gülen network behind the coup. It didn’t make any sense, as an atheist and leftist economist, he had nothing to do with either Gülen movement or AKP. But, under the state of emergency, even the lawyers could not get to see him for the first five days, and the concrete accusations were a secret. His friends had been waiting near the police station in Nişantaşı, along with his parents.



A kid raising his head thanks to art Taylan’s father, Hamit Demir, is this person who dedicates his life whole-heartedly to art. His grandparents were assimilated Greeks, praying as Muslims but still speaking their ancient language. When Demir was six years old, Turkey invaded Cyprus, once again raising the nationalist hatred against Greeks inside the country. His grandparents cautioned the little boy not to tell anybody that they were speaking Greek. When the military coup happened on 12 September 1980, Demir’s introvert personality even got stronger. A few days after the coup, he was walking on the street to buy some bread. His elder brother, a leftist, was on the run. His father was a worker in Saudi Arabia. It was his duty as the only “man” in the family. He passed a primary school, apparently turned into a prison; screams of torture were spreading from the building. A soldier pointed his rifle towards him, telling him to get lost. While he was escaping, some older boys called the 13-year-old child on the street, asking if he was a leftist or rightist. He did not know what he was, which resulted in him getting beaten anyway. He started to think by himself, deciding he was for equality, justice and respect; “thus, I decided I was a leftist,” remembers Demir. The uneasy, cautious daily life after the coup prevented the boy from constructing his personality and overcoming his introversion. “I always held my head down, as if there was a huge burden on my shoulders, afraid to look up to the world,” tells Demir. “A couple of years later, my bigger sister took me to a play of the State Theatre in Ankara. The play, of course, did not have any political message. But there was this scene, where the female character was giving birth to a baby, as a result of a rape. She was in agony, screaming forcefully. I drew a parallel between the actress’ screams and the screams of the tortured people. I was charmed, mesmerised. That’s how I decided to become an actor, and finally get my head up.” This start of his career has always been lingering in his mind: Theatre and art meant a social responsibility, especially for children. When the earthquakes took place in Van in October and November 2011, resulting in hundreds dead and dozens of thousands of homeless people, he went to Van and played between the debris to the children. It was his sympathy for another kid that cost him his rare, well paid job for a tv-series. Berkin Elvan was 14-year-old boy. During the Gezi Protests, he was shot in the head with a tear gas capsule by a policeman. After months of struggle for survival, Berkin died on 11 March 2014. The government was refusing to identify the suspected policemen and punish the responsible people. Hamit Demir took part in a video clip prepared by a group of artists, asking, “I am Berkin Elvan, where is my murderer?” to the camera. “I was playing a shaman in a tv-series for the state channel TRT. It was one of the main characters, and the production company had promised me that I would have a role in each episode for three seasons. The week after the clip, I wasn’t invited to the movie set. My character was in the middle of a plot from the previous episode. When I watched the new one, they had changed the script, making a character say ‘The shaman went to the mountains to pick up some herbs’. A few weeks later, they called me on the phone and told me that I was fired.”



Hamit Demir, an actor who had been victim of the repression against artists in the past, is now struggling to find justice for his arrested son. Photo: Demir’s Facebook page He disclosed the political nature of his getting fired. “I have never been a very famous actor, but the reaction on the social media to my messages were huge. So many people were expressing their support. Later I understood that, in fact, this kind of firing was not rare, but other artists were afraid to disclose it.” The fear of the other artists was not in vain. After his comments on social media, the producer called Demir and told him that “now he was blacklisted and should not expect any roles for any tv-shows for a few years”. It was a pure example of how the government was politically controlling the private companies in the culture industry. And it continued: The state sent inspectors to a cultural association and a theatrical company Demir was involved in, and imposed fines worth of dozens of thousands of dollars. Still, he did not expect the post-coup attempt investigations to hit him. “Of course, I knew that the pressure over art would increase. We revised the texts of all our plays, replacing any political criticism explicitly citing a political figure by name with more obscure but still obvious formulations playing with the words.” Demir thinks that the repression of art from the state “was already there and will increase”, but the more dangerous notion in the post-coup attempt atmosphere is auto-censorship. “Let me tell you, all theatres are revising each and every play right now.” But watering down the language of the plays was not enough for Demir, because the investigations hit him not through his cultural practice, but through his son. “It’s a blasphemy to cite our names along with the Gülenists. My son has fought against the ideas of AKP and the Gülen movement all through his life. I think, his inclusion might be the result of a search for vengeance over Taylan’s open letter which he wrote during the Gezi protests criticising Erdoğan and the government.” I personally know Taylan’s character, and was sure he would stay strong in prison. When I asked Hamit Demir about his son’s situation, he said, “I have total confidence in him. But, to confess, when I read Aslı Erdoğan’s letter in the newspapers, I could not keep myself from doubting the health of my son.” The price of supporting Kurdish rights Aslı Erdoğan is an internationally well-known novelist. Same age as Hamit Demir, she graduated from the top •40•


university of Turkey, Boğaziçi University (like Taylan) as a computer engineer, worked at CERN as a particle physicist between 1991-1993, made her PHD in Rio de Janeiro and returned to Turkey in 1996 to start her career as a full-time writer. The evening of 16 August 2016, police raided her house and detained the author. She was a columnist for the proKurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem, and was also a member of the symbolic Advisory Board of the paper. The accusation against her was “provoking the people” and “being member of an illegal organisation”, both, in Turkey, implications of being accused for supporting the national Kurdish movement’s struggle for ethnic, democratic and cultural rights.

Aslı Erdoğan spoke at the World Conference on Artistic Freedom of Expression in Oslo 2012. Photo: Biyografya Aslı Erdoğan’s arrest triggered a chain of protests from many literary associations, including Turkey’s Trade Union of Writers and PEN International. Hundreds of intellectuals signed a petition for her release, and several demonstrations were held protesting her arrest. On 24 August 2016, Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet published a letter from the author. Erdoğan told about the inhumane conditions of her imprisonment: “I have health problems with my bowels for the last ten years. But they have not given me my drugs for five days. I am diabetic, thus I need a special food regime but can only eat yoghurt. The bed I have to sleep on was urinated upon. Though I have asthma, I was never let to the yard to get some fresh air. They treat me in a way that would result in permanent damages for my body. I could not have endured the circumstances if I did not resist unrelentingly.” Resisting unrelentingly has a different connotation in the words of Hamit Demir. The actor, with his air of wisdom rooted in the millennia of cultural tradition of Mesopotamia sided with his long, white beard, mentions the example of the ancient lineage of dervishs – Sufi Musli ascetics known for deserting all ego and material self-interest to reach God. “We have been here, at this point, forever, and still we are. They are the ones changing their positions and betraying each other. We shall not move an inch from our position, stand our positions like a dervish, as if we are standing in the center of the world and it would shatter into pieces if we move.” •41•


POSTSCRIPT: Taylan Eren Yenilmez (in the middle with the blue shirt) was released and greeted by his friends and family on 1 September 2016, after this article was written. He will still stand trial, but is out of the prison. Aslı Erdoğan remains under arrest by the date of publication of the article. Photo: Gazete Yolculuk

Yiğit Günay is a journalist and art historian based in Istanbul. Former editor-in-chief of Turkish alternative newspaper soL and co-author of the book ‘Arab Spring Legerdemain’ published in Turkish in 2013, he does freelance journalism and is part of the MOKU collective. The first photo in this article shows Kemal Kocatürk, a renowned actor, playwright and director, who was laid off from his job in the Istanbul City Theatre after the coup attempt in Turkey. Photo: SinemaTürk




Artistic freedom at stake Censorship incidents and controversies over artworks have multiplied over the last few years in Greece, particularly since the crisis hit the country in 2008. At the same time, legal controversies over blasphemous and obscene publications continue while hate crimes are on the rise, as exemplified by the murder of young rapper Fyssas in 2014.


In early 2016, a theatre play titled ‘the Balance of Nash’ (Ισορροπία του Nash) was scheduled at the experimental scene of the National Theatre, Ethniko Theatro. The scenario was based on extracts from a book written by a member of the Greek terrorist organisation 17 Noemvri, Savvas Xiros, who as a result of his terrorist activities was sentenced to life imprisonment. While the play director insisted that the motivation of the script was not to support terrorism but rather to criticise the Greek judicial system, public and media reaction towards the play were so vehement that it was cancelled. Although a prosecution was not initiated, significant controversy sparked over the legitimacy of ‘the State funding the artistic work of a terrorist’.



Protests over the ban of ‘the Balance of Nash’ at the National Theatre. The poster reads: ‘No to the resurrection of the Saint Inquisition’. Photo:

Blasphemy and obscenity offences in court This is not the first time that artistic freedom in Greece comes under attack. While the Greek Constitution (that was promulgated after the junta’s demise in 1975 proclaims that ‘art and science, research and teaching shall be free’, prior censorship of offensive artworks and publications is still exceptionally allowed under Article 14 of the same Constitution. Criminal laws are used to censor artworks. Such laws typically include the blasphemy clause of the Greek Penal Code that provides that ‘whosoever insults God in any way publicly and maliciously shall incur a period of incarceration of up to two years’ (Article 198), as well Law no 5060 of 1931 (so-called ‘obscenity law’) that defines obscene materials in a very broad manner, namely as ‘all manuscripts, publications, images and other relevant objects that are offensive to public morals, according to the common sentiment’. In a significant number of cases both laws have been used to protect the Christian Orthodox Church, i.e. the majority religion, and the official religion of the State. As a result, censorship of artworks on the basis of minor offences against public morals or religious beliefs, including controversies over gay identities, is on the rise, typically also accompanied by the seisure of the contested artworks. At the same time, a turn towards extreme right wing parties, conservative and nationalistic attitudes is visible in all areas of public life at least since the crisis hit the country in 2008. The murder of young rapper Pavlos Fyssas that triggered protests in Greece and abroad exemplifies this situation. Akin to Grigoropoulos who was shot down by the police during protests few years earlier, Fyssas became a symbol of resistance. More significantly however, Fyssas murder equally triggered the prosecution and arrest of Golden Dawn leaders in September 2013 for running an ‘organisation of a military character aiming at overthrowing democracy’.



Graffiti showing Fyssas in the streets of Barcelona. Photo:

Legacy of the ‘Last temptation of Christ’ In 1988, a first instance court banned Scorsese’s film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. While the film had already been scheduled for screening, this court entertained a civil claim brought by religious organisations. After a thorough examination of the script which it detailed in several pages, it found itself compelled to accept the blasphemous character of the film, which was based on a novel under the same title by Kazantzakis. More astonishingly, in its legal reasoning it considered that religious beliefs are part of one’s personality and ought therefore to be protected against offences. This legal outcome is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, because by allowing public values such as religious sentiments to be protected through a ‘negative’ protection of one’s religious freedom the first instance court assimilated a criminal offence (i.e. blasphemy) to a civil one (i.e. harm of personality rights). Secondly, because in this manner civil courts assume the power to impose censorship for the benefit of an individual or a particular group of individuals and effectively claiming damages in favour of the ‘victims’. Has the situation changed since then? Not quite. Artworks cause social turmoil for any minor reason, usually amounting to prosecutions of anything that may be considered offensive. By way of illustration, the Last Temptation judgment was followed by another judgement banning Androulakis’s novel ‘Mn’ in 2000, quahed only by the Greek Court of Cassation (Areios Pagos), and five years later, civil actions requesting the ban Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander the Great’, and ‘The Da Vinci Code’ were also brought to court. In 2004, a Belgian artist, Gerhard Haderer, creator of the comic book ‘The Life of Christ’ was prosecuted and sentenced to imprisonment on the grounds of blasphemy, namely for depicting among other things Jesus as a surfer and cannabis smoker, while in 2005, Eva Stephani’s Anthem for freedom [Ύμνος στην Ελευθερία], which consisted of a short video showing a half-cut woman masturbating under the soundtrack of the Greek national anthem and exposed during the exhibition ‘Art Athina’ in 2005 was seized. Once more, the exhibition’s director was arrested and prosecuted under the criminal obscenity criminal law and the laws protecting national symbols; he was acquitted only after the pre-investigation took place. •45•


Most alarmingly, while many complaints stop or are extremely delayed at the prosecution stage (trials involving police abuses for instance), complaints involving artistic freedom are almost always taken forward. As a result, artists and curators rush to remove artworks in order to avoid conviction. This was the case with the exhibition ‘Outlook’ that was organised in 2003 during the so-called ‘Cultural Olympiade’ (which coincided with Greek Orthodox Easter), where a painting by Belgian artist Thierry de Cordier, entitled Asperges me, and representing a penis ejaculating on a cross sparked controversy. Following complaints by the Bishop of Athens, as well as conservative MPs, a prosecution was again initiated and the exhibition’s curator Christos Ioakeimidis was indicted and asked to appear before a first instance criminal tribunal. While the artist defended himself by pointing out that ‘he was not Christian’, the curator removed the painting in order to avoid criminal conviction.

De Cordie’s ‘Asperges me’. Photo:

Banning gay kisses Debates over gay identities are another exemplary illustration of the turn towards conservative attitudes in the last years. The first gay kiss that sparked controversy was aired by private channel ‘Mega’ during the series ‘Close your Eyes’ (Κλείσε τα μάτια) in 2003 and earned the Channel a fine of 100,000 euros by the National Radio and Television Council (Ethniko Symvoulio Radiotileorasis). Following an administrative complaint against the tv channel, the Supreme Administrative Court (ΣτΕ) annulled this decision with a judgement hailing artistic freedom and its prevalence over moral sensibilities. Given that LGBTI rights have never been effectively accepted in Greece however, other ‘gay kisses’ that followed the Court’s judgement equally became the object of debate in the Greek cultural scene. In 2009, a theatrical play at the National Opera Scene (Ethniki Lyriki Skini) triggered once more extreme reactions. The play was based on Antonin Dvorzak’s melodic fairytale ‘Rusalka’ and directed by French director Marion Wasserman, in a co-production with the Opera House of Nice. Prior to the opening of the play, a homophobic text signed by the Administrative Board of the Opera was circulated and handed to the audience stating that the specific version of the play embraced homosexual attitudes ‘attributing to the main protagonist of the play homosexual tendencies through extreme scenes’.



Likewise, in 2012, another controversy sparked, this time for a male to male kiss during the first episode of the tvseries ‘Downtown Abbey’ – aired on a daily basis in the UK and scheduled to be aired by Greek state television for the first time. In 2016, the Terrence McNally theatrical play Corpus Christi, re-configured by a young theatre group and presenting the image of Christ as a homosexual sparked protests in Athens. Following a complaint for blasphemy and obscenity by members of the Orthodox Church, accompanied by Golden Dawn MPs, a prosecution was initiated but once again charges were not pursued further.

Fear of protests following Corpus Christi. Photo:

Lax application of hate speech standards While blasphemy and public morals trials seem to prevail in Greek judicial practice, the issue of hate speech in Greece has never been particularly problematic – unless it leads to violence as in the case of Fyssas. Hence, contrary to blasphemy, literary, artistic or other expressions concerning genocide or Holocaust denial have never been considered as a form of expression that should specifically be the subject of a restriction or outright ban. Greece has ratified the ICCPR, which contains restrictions on hate speech (Article 20 Paragraph 2) and has since 1979 adopted a law on racial hatred (the so called ‘anti-racist law’) that incorporates the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in the Greek legal order. Its application, however, has traditionally been relatively lax: as noted by the local NGO Greek Helsinki Monitor, since 1979 there has been only one conviction. By way of example, in a case concerning an anti-Semitic historical book that negated the Jewish Holocaust, the Athens Appeals Court ruling in 2009 reversed a first instance court judgment and acquitted the author, pointed out that ‘pen is free’. A new law was passed in 2014 to combat hate speech. Its application however, is not predicted to be any more effective than its predecessor as it contains a number of flaws that have been already highlighted by the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) in its concluding observations on Greece in 2015. Most notably, it is an extremely generic law since, along with hate speech, it criminalises also the denial of genocide as well as ‘other acts of racism’, including homophobia. It provides moreover for disproportionate punishments and fines – something that may hinder its effective application.



Protest against refugees by Golden Dawn adherents. Photo:

Artistic freedom in the post-crisis era In 2008, Greece was hit by a severe financial crisis that resulted in record unemployment rates and unbearable taxes. The art world, as well as the entire public sector and the media, were affected in multiple ways. According to Reporters without Borders’ (RwB) index of freedom of expression standards, Greece dropped nineteen places, sharing bottom place with Bulgaria. This downgrade did not come as a surprise. Following the crisis many journals were forced to stop their operations, while others were compelled to self-censorship partially losing their independence. By way of illustration, in 2011, the widely read daily Eleftherotypia, the first paper to circulate after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1975, closed down due to lack of funding; TA NEA and Kathimerini both journals widely circulating significantly reduced or stopped their print capacity; while in 2013, Greece’s public service broadcaster, ERT, was also shut down and remained so for almost two years. In 2016, one of the largest bookstores in Athens closed down. Book publishers as old as Estia also shut down, whereas others significantly reduced their stock capacity, leaving by implication authors, graphic designers, illustrators and other applied arts creators jobless. Artists and musicians have also presumably been amidst the 200,000 individuals (350,000 according to other statistics) who left in the massive ‘exodus’ from the country. What is left behind is a rise in popular music, usually situated outside the ambit of either legal or judicial control. A flagrant example is the music of Pantelides, a young singer who died in a car accident in 2016. Although the quality of his songs had in some instances raised significant controversy, he was a beloved persona in the Greek music scene and his funeral was attended by thousands of people. In other instances, popular music raises concerns in terms of equality and human rights issues. The song ‘Bulgarian girls’ [Βουλγάρες] for instance by rapper TUS recently came under the spotlight following its condemnation by the General Directory of Equality (Geniki Grammateia Isotitas) because, as noted in the relevant statement dated 8 August 2016, ‘it presents sex trafficking as normal behaviour that can make one rich’. This is another illustration of abuses of freedom of expression in the post-crisis era – a particularly worrying one given that the song already since its release has to date more than 1,200,000 views (including however several thousand dislikes); that TUS channel on YouTube has more than 160,000 subscribers; that other hits by TUS have several million of views; and that a large percentage of TUS and other such rappers’ audience are teenagers. •48•


Nonetheless, in many other ways the crisis has also had positive effects on the Greek art world. While shops put locks and many parts of Athens were deserted by fear of protests and violent episodes, graffiti on ran-down walls branded the city with a new, vibrant and revolutionary aesthetics. New forms of collective, cultural and artistic community actions started taking place, in many cases in self-ran open spaces, while Athens for the last four years has been proudly organising an LGBTI movie festival. Artists started being proactive, looking for new ways to promote and sell their artworks, including on the web and on cyber-art platforms; musicians, comedians, performers, handicraft makers and street artists are visible in all parts of Greece; and independent film makers and theatre companies as well as small festivals mushroomed, including in smaller cities and on the islands. Theatre producers, comic artists, newspapers illustrators and all forms of satirists along with students, bloggers, journalists and academics have found themselves contributing to Greece’s cultural and political awakening and, despite censorship, boosting their political message. In many instances, as in the case of Xiros’s play, the message was perhaps more provocative than what society can handle. In other instances, however, it became strong and fearless. In one of the most controversial cartoons that appeared during the negotiations for the new bailout deal in 2015, cartoonist Tasos Anastasiou portrayed Wolfgang Schäuble, the German Finance Minister, dressed in Nazi uniform. Published in the daily Avgi, the cartoon was accompanied by the caption ‘Negotiations have started’, with Schäuble stating in a bubble: ‘We insist on the soap from your fat… We are prepared to discuss the fertiliser from your ashes’. The cartoon was criticised not only by Schäuble himself, who stated that the cartoonist ‘should be ashamed of himself’, but also by the umbrella group ‘Jewish Communities of Greece’ that denounced the cartoon as ‘insulting and odious’. The Prime Minister, Mr Tsipras, explained in the Greek Parliament that such cartoons are ‘way too provocative’ highlighting that ‘they do not represent the Greek government’. In a letter to the Communities published online, Anastasiou replied: “The controversial cartoon … was not intended to be “humorous”, nor to make someone laugh. It contained a lot of pain, a lot of anger and sought precisely the opposite: to remind that the concepts about the ‘Untermenschen’ i.e., those who should be treated inhumanely by the ‘Aryan’ race, do not belong, unfortunately, to Europe’s past […] There was no intention to challenge the historical memory or disrespect for the most savage and repulsive moment in modern history, the Holocaust.”

Anastasiou’s drawing that sparked controversy. Source: •49•


Self-censorship on the rise Greece’s approach to freedom of artistic expression is hybrid. Its Constitution solemnly proclaims that ‘arts are free’ with no further qualification, yet the number of attempts to prosecute artists and curators do not do justice to this proclamation. When it comes to religion and public morals, the public as well as first instance courts appear to follow a traditional and relatively conservative direction similar to Muslim and Eastern European states. In respect of other issues however, including hate speech and Holocaust denial, it seems rather influenced by the American model on freedom of expression standards, where speech is free (and restrictions content-neutral) unless there is evidence of incitement to violence. This practice is in many ways contrary to contemporary international practice. Although at the international level there is a clear trend to consider blasphemy laws and religious defamation outdated, in Greece legal controversies and artistic prosecutions for blasphemy are common, even in respect of relatively innocuous art works. In 1988, a civil law first instance court allowed seizure of an artwork – while in 2004 a criminal Court condemned a Belgian cartoonist for blasphemy. Furthermore, despite the significant developments in the area of LGBT rights, any representation of homosexuality in the media leads to considerable social outcry, and moreover, despite the European trend to consider Holocaust denial a crime, in Greece until 2006 holocaust denial raised little concern because, as an Appeal Court had then said, the ‘pen is free’. At the same time, global hate speech controversies that shook the world such as the controversy over the ‘Danish cartoons’ in 2005 passed almost unnoticed in Greece, with the public sentiment being in favour of non-publication of the contentious drawings. Contrary to other European cities, the protests following Charlie Hebdo were equally minimally attended in Athens. In terms of procedures, triggering a prosecution and even a criminal trial at the first instance for either blasphemy or outrage of public morals is relatively easy under the current legal framework. The seizure of any offensive, either immoral or blasphemous material is allowed under Article 14 of the Greek Constitution. In this context, artists and curators commonly ‘rush’ to take down any offensive artworks, for fear of a criminal conviction. It is relatively simple for any individual who feels offended to file a civil law action claiming an offence against his or her moral sentiment or religious beliefs, since both blasphemy and offences against public morals are understood by the Greek courts as involving an active infringement contrary to one’s personality rights. If artists are found liable, seizure is again possible as a provisional measure and compensation is due to victims. This legal framework is amenable to abuse, as demonstrated by the series of cases that stop at the first instance courts – and rarely reach appeal stage, like Haderer’s blasphemous comic. Although the Greek Court of Cassation (Άρειος Πάγος) as well as the Supreme Administrative Court (ΣτΕ) have never ruled against artistic freedom, they has significantly contributed to raising self-censorship among artists and maintain the culture of vexatious jurisdiction from which Greece suffers. This state of affairs further raises alarming questions of censorship since the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent rise of right-wing extremism. The murder of Fyssas as well as the protests against any form of art that is found to promote ‘gay attitudes’ or which is otherwise allegedly offensive to (Christian) religious beliefs indicate that the crisis has not only had financial effects, but considerable legal and social ones.

Eleni Polymenopoulou is Lecturer in Law at Brunel University in London, United Kingdom. Her research focuses on cultural rights, with a specific interest in the intersections between arts, religions and the law. Prior her academic appointment, she has worked as a practicing artist, illustrator and children literature writer, as well as a legal researcher in a number of NGOs in Greece, France and the UK, including at the international organisation for freedom of expression, Article19. •50•


Still from the film ‘The Textures of Loss’ by Pankaj Butalia


Censors under fire Nearly halfway into the term of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the world’s largest democracy is witnessing an increasingly polarised debate over freedom of expression; and what many critics and civil society members say is an atmosphere of intolerance in the country.

BY ANKUSH ARORA | 30 MAY 2016 When Indian filmmaker Pankaj Butalia applied for a screening certificate to his documentary on Kashmir, he had no idea he would be taking the country’s censorship panel to the court. On 15 February 2016, an Indian court struck down the Central Board of Film Certification’s objections to his documentary, bringing to an end a certification process that started in 2013. Butalia’s documentary ‘The Textures of Loss’, part of a trilogy on conflicts in India, is about stories of people dealing with personal loss after the protracted violence in Kashmir. Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, witnessed insurgency against Indian rule towards the end of the 20th century. Amnesty International says the Indian government has allowed “systemic violence to take root in the Himalayan region hit by more than two decades of conflict.”



The human rights violations include extra-judicial killings, mysterious disappearances of people and sexual violence. The report holds Indian security forces responsible for the crimes. Butalia’s film is about ordinary Kashmiris and their trauma after losing their family members to the violence that began in the 1990s.

Still from the film ‘The Textures of Loss’ by Pankaj Butalia

“In 2010, stone pelting took place in Srinagar and around, which resulted in 120 people being killed, young people mainly. So I wrote that paramilitary forces responded with disproportionate violence. They said you can’t use the word disproportionate,” the filmmaker said in an interview. The other objections of the censorship panel were – a widow’s use of the word ‘jihad’ for her husband, who became a militant; a man, while mourning his son, saying ‘the whole of India be damned’; and his comment about how the boy’s killers didn’t spare his face and teeth either. “Because I believe I could be in trouble tomorrow, I applied for a certificate [a certificate is needed for screening the film publicly] and when I do, you sit back and lose two years of your life just trying to get a certificate. So I was doing it to prove how difficult it is for other people,” he said.



Pankaj Butalia. Photo: courtesy of Ankush Arora

Butalia, who also challenged the censor panel’s guidelines in court, said he hasn’t “bothered” to submit his other films for a certificate. He said the panel would not allow his other documentary from the trilogy, ‘Manipur Song’, because it shows a lot of violence, with people shouting on the street “Indian Army go back.” While the filmmaker fought for his artistic freedom, a Polish theatre crew complied with censorship. There was no particular order as such, at least not publicly known, although it is believed the crew was told to cut a scene (the theatre director said it was done to respect Indian culture), during a performance in the country’s capital in February 2016. Before the show came to Delhi, its production in eastern Indian state of Odisha led to protests by a women’s rights group, because the play showed a Polish woman in the nude after Nazi soldiers sexually abused her during the Second World War. [Activists of a women’s group staged a protest a day later. They blocked roads, seeking apology for “vulgar display of women’s bodies. It was surprising. Although nudity is uncommon in theatre in India, it has been part of performances earlier.] But during their second performance in India, Poland’s Aleksander Wegierko Drama Theatre didn’t show the scene that had also caused offence to the Odisha state minister, who sought an explanation from the country’s top drama school for depicting “vulgarity” that is against “Indian culture.” Interview requests eliciting opinions on the controversy from the Indian drama school and the Polish embassy in New Delhi went unanswered. Amitesh Grover, the school’s faculty member, wrote a critical opinion piece, The Murder of a Scene, in The Indian Express newspaper: “While the official response of the Polish embassy and the International Theatre Festival of India takes refuge in the brilliant tactical statement of circumventing a ban on the show — the nude incident was an “accident” on stage — the fact that we need to turn to prudence that is reminiscent of performance practice under dictatorial/colonial regimes is •53•


itself alarming. As the country erupts in solidarity for the freedom of expression in universities and elsewhere, a small scene in a play is quietly murdered to let the show go on.” Atmosphere of intolerance Nearly halfway into the term of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the world’s largest democracy is witnessing an increasingly polarised debate over freedom of expression; and what many critics and civil society members say is an atmosphere of intolerance in the country. For example, several incidents in the recent past have triggered concerns related to democracy, religious freedom and the liberty to express dissent. These include – the ban on beef consumption based on Hindu religious sentiments, a Muslim man is lynched to death on suspicion of cow slaughter, and traders are harassed by Hindu groups; attacks on churches; campaigns are organised to convert Indians back to Hindu faith; and warnings are issued against Hindu girls marrying Muslim boys. The intolerance debate also originated after the murder of three rationalist scholars, whose views on social and religious issues angered right-wing groups. Their murders remain unsolved. Now, the debate is split along the lines of what is nationalism (as perceived by the ruling party and their supporters) and what is not. This was set off by arrests of sloganeering university students, called “anti-national”, on charges of sedition that were proven false in the court. The intolerance has not only caught the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama, who recently warned India against being “splintered along the lines of religious faith.” In a statement released in February 2016, well-known global intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky and Orhan Pamuk, condemned the government for a “culture of authoritarian menace” in one of its best-known universities. In India, writers, scientists and filmmakers returned their awards in protest against crackdown on dissent and incidence of violence based on religion. As stories related to social and cultural intolerance continue to make top news in India, its cinema – a huge pastime for the country’s over 1 billion people – is being censored in the name of morality and “national interest”. The history of censorship Censorship of films and theatre in India is about hundred years old, originating during the British rule that ended in 1947. The Central Board of Film Certification was set up over 60 years ago, around the time India became a republic by adopting a new constitution. The government appoints the members of the panel, including the chair. Revised rules were issued in 1983. Censorship during the colonial era was borne out of tracking seditious and anti-British content that challenged the masters of the day. It also had to do with a moral, paternalistic attitude protecting the public from “indecent and objectionable representations.” Present-day censorship discourse is, as closely related to nineteenth century Indian bourgeois attempts to carve out aesthetic and moral grounds of judgement in the face of mass publicity as it is to any imported British Victorianism, writes William Mazzarella in his book ‘Censorium – Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity’. In India, the practice of film censorship became a highly contentious issue since the country’s economy was liberalised in the early 1990s. That period was preceded by a two-year long Emergency in 1975, imposed by the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, suspending civil liberties, including press censorship. In the 1990s, as India was being exposed to a more globalised content through the arrival of satellite television, an aggressive Hindu nationalist movement was started by what is now India’s ruling political party. The movement’s •54•


main aim was to build a temple for Lord Rama – a god of the Hindus – by destroying an ancient mosque, believed to be his birthplace. Stories of vigilante right-leaning groups attacking different forms of mass media that had content differing from their nationalist and moral worldview were commonly reported in the press, creating an unofficial scenario of censorship. The Indian actor Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘My Name is Khan’ (2010) drew protests from right-wing groups because the he spoke in favour of including Pakistani cricketers in the Indian Premier League, angering the Shiv Sena party. The screening of “PK” (2014), a film that ridicules the cult of gods and god-men in India, also witnessed violent protests, including alleged interruption of the show. The film ‘Bombay’ (1995), about a Muslim girl marrying a Hindu boy during the Ayodhya temple movement and the subsequent violence, faced bomb scares and death threats and heated religious debates. Lesbian films like ‘Fire’ (1996) and ‘Girlfriend’ (2004) too faced protests against theatres screening these films. Despite a screening certificate, films like ‘Fire’ and ‘Bandit Queen’ (1994), for example, faced the ire of religiousminded groups for their explicit portrayal of nudity, rape, lesbianism and even masturbation. India’s history of censorship also comprises of artist MF Hussain and author Taslima Nasreen being hounded out of the country because certain Hindu and Muslim groups found some of their works offensive. In 1988, India, then under a Congress government, banned Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘Satanic Verses’, considered blasphemous by Muslims. The controversy haunted him years later, when the Kashmir-born author couldn’t travel to the cities of Jaipur and Kolkata because of threats to his life. The censorship panel The contemporary discourse over film censorship in India has been dominated by an outcry over the grandfatherlytype moral tone adopted by the censor chief. At the centre of conflict is Pahlaj Nihalani, the head of the censorship panel located in the city of Mumbai, where Hindi films are produced.

Pahlaj Nihalani, Chair of the Panel



Since Nihalani’s appointment as the panel chairman last year, several Hindi and English language films have had to face “cuts” for love-making scenes, cuss words, and content that has political or religious subtexts. Although such orders by the censor panel are not new, what has alarmed producers and actors is their frequency. Last year, the panel drew flak – and ridicule – for its decision to trim by half two kissing scenes in the latest Bond film ‘Spectre’. As news of such orders continued to trickle in, and film critics, producers and viewers expressed their outrage, the government decided to set up a committee to reform India’s censorship process. The committee is likely to submit its recommendations in April 2016. (More here) Miffed with the censor panel’s so-called regressive ideas, the demand for a change in the functioning of the panel has grown, with some filmmakers asking for a ban on censorship and introducing a rating-based system only. Even though this is not the first time that a revamp has been planned for the censor panel, the development has been seen as an indirect criticism of the panel’s functioning. Nihalani, however, says India should have a wider rating system to allow different forms of content, including sexually explicit scenes and violence. But in his defence of the panel’s decisions, he often cites promoting Indian culture as the benchmark for clearing films. Nihalani, who doesn’t mind being called conservative, has problems with content that has pun-intended dialogue, abuse and offensive material. “How can we allow ourselves to give young generation wrong education?” he said in an interview that gives a lot of insight into his perception about what should be seen. As with many conservative societies, many Indians expect their children to be obedient, not questioning, with women wearing “decent” clothes that are not “revealing”. The expectation of subservience to the family or the head is translated into the state, where the government doesn’t like being questioned. With this government, it’s even worse. They seem to be far more intolerant towards dissent. This should be viewed in the context of the nationalism debate that celebrates Indian culture – especially, now, in the form of Bharat Mata Ki Jai (Long Live the Goddess), representing the idea of India as a female figure. Many see that as appropriating Hindu culture. “India has only three ratings. There is a need to change them according to the worldwide rating system. USA has six to seven ratings; Australia and Singapore have six each. My hands are tied because of the guidelines. I can’t say [they are] outdated, but because of the rating our culture cannot permit to do such thing,” Nihalani said in an interview. The censor panel’s guidelines are as old as independent India is and they reflect the existing premium on morality and squeamishness about matters related to sex. That is despite the fact that India is severely lagging behind in dealing with the rising number of sexual crimes against women. Women and girls being subjected to eve-teasing, harassment, groping and staring are common on India’s streets, offices and homes. It is ironical that India’s discomfiture with sex has to be seen with its exploding population, expected to overtake China soon. So, there is no doubt that India is having a lot of sex; and has a proliferating culture of people watching porn, even though the country is still finding ways to ban it. At same time, India can’t accept sex as a society, evident from one of the censor panel’s guidelines – to provide “clean and healthy entertainment”.



“They go on to say that the films promote scientific temper. Why? What if I don’t believe in scientific temper? I have a right to espouse my views. The guidelines are too general and violative. Offending your sensibilities is not a ground for impairing free speech. It’s a clear judgement by Supreme Court. But the guidelines say that you don’t offend anybody,” Butalia said. The hearing in his case challenging the guidelines is due in April 2016.

Film poster: ‘Father, Son and Holy War’ by Anand Patwardhan

Film poster: ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’ by Anand Patwardhan



Sex or nudity is not the only point of objection. Political topics involving crimes linked to religion or caste make the job of the censors’ even more precarious, in a bid to avoid causing offence to communities or politicians. Case in point is Indian filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. He is known for his protracted legal battles against censorship for making documentaries on – prejudice and violence against Dalits (also referred to as ‘untouchables’ or backward), nuclear tests in the Indian subcontinent, and the prevalence of patriarchal violence in social rituals and religion. [Anand Patwardhan fought against all cuts and won. And even after winning the battles, he continues to fight. He was one of the filmmakers to return his awards in protest against intolerance. More here]

Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan

A new book by Indian film critic Mayank Shekhar provides an interesting, if not surprising, insight into the working of the censor panel. Members of the board shall hold office during the pleasure of the government, the law says. Several censor board chiefs have been from the film industry, including current chief. “Even for the appointment of the CEO or regional officers, the government prefers bureaucrats with an inclination or interest in films,” says Pankaja Thakur, former board CEO, quoted in Shekhar’s book. Apart from being shown prudish, the members are uncomfortable with scenes showing violence, or comments about India’s diverse caste and religious communities. The panel previews thousands of films each year, with over 1,200 being feature films. The members, about five hundred people working from regional centres, decide what the rest of the country should watch. The panel, however, like any government-run institution is run by the bureaucracy, Shekhar writes in an excerpt from the book. In an episode reminiscent of the “Spectre” controversy, advisory members find an eleven-second love-making scene in ‘Khoya Khoya Chand’ (Lost Moon) “too much… and should be cut at least by half.” “It’s here that the heroine finds her man with another girl, a shorter scene would curb the impact,” is Shekhar’s reply, as one of the advisors to panel, during a debate with his colleagues. But he suggests there are no clear answers to questions of sex and morality. •58•


“The law on anything to do with morality, vulgarity, sex, and other subjective matters will always remain open to interpretation, and individual judgment. Hence, the Censor Board can only be as progressive or in tune with reality as the person heading it,” he said in an email interview. He also said that the recent “diktats” of the panel have been “near-Neanderthal.” Online campaigns by independent websites such as #SaveOurCinema and ( organises petition and campaigns to mobilise support for issues and work with decision makers; has 300 payee clients, including Amnesty. (More here). The other website was started by a few redditors, protesting against the “ridiculous curtailment” of freedom of expression. “Have you recently gone to a movie in India and scratched your head trying to understand what was going on because of all the muted dialogues?” #SaveOurCinema’s introduction reads, a reference to the recent cuts in films that have attracted the ire of people. What’s missing, however, is a campaign by the film industry players, who otherwise take to social media or give press interviews to speak against censorship. And that’s Butalia’s problem too. He said the feature film industry is not “really bothered” nor does it challenge the guidelines, but “bargains” [In 2014, a corruption scandal hit the panel, CEO was booked for asking for bribe from an agent, (more here) with the censor board.] The documentary producers, he said, are “too small to fight against censorship.” Nihalani, whose views on censorship are retrograde according to Butalia, said the debate over freedom of expression is restricted to a few unhappy producers. “There are only a handful of producers who are saying that according to the guidelines freedom of expression is being stifled. They are habitual about creating controversies, who have been grumbling since their first film. Definitely, it’s a job in which someone will be happy and someone will not be,” he said. And with a committee being set up to examine the film certification process, the chances of a campaign by producers, directors or actors are slim. “We have made our views known and the government has appointed this committee, which comprises of a very good representation from the industry. What is important is that the recommendations made by the committee are implemented,” said director Hansal Mehta during a phone interview from Mumbai. The films first go to the examining committee, then to revising committee if the former can’t decide, if there is still no solution then the client can go to the film certification appellate tribunal. (More here). Political appointments The censorship discourse in India has moved beyond subjective interpretation of what is offensive and what is not. Larger questions about the autonomy of its cultural as well as educational institutions are being raised. Nihalani, a former film producer, is an admirer of Prime Minister Modi, having made a video praising the Indian leader and his election promise of reviving the country’s economic growth and job market. And yet, it is not only his appointment to the censor panel that raises concerns of partisanship or nepotism. At least five of his colleagues are either members of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its ideological parent, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.



In October 2015, students of India’s top film school, located near Mumbai, ended an over 100-day strike against the appointment of a ruling party member as their chairperson. The appointment of a former actor, whose credentials the school’s striking students found un-exemplary apart from his affiliation to the ruling party, added fire to criticism that the government had been giving top positions to its loyalists. “Sidelining merit while making appointments to academic or cultural bodies of course ends up harming institutions. Now the logic given to that is all governments do it on the basis of political affiliations. BJP is only doing what the Congress has always done. Well, now that does not make it okay,” film critic Shekhar said. The so-called interference in institutions, seen with a recent crackdown on sloganeering students in universities, is part of a bigger debate over India’s nationalism, which is being seen as hyperactive. Phrases such as “anti-national”, insult to “Mother India” or “Muslims should go to Pakistan” are often heard, some of them spoken by lawmakers. When Indian actor Aamir Khan joined the chorus against intolerance in 2015, he was asked to go to Pakistan by the Shiv Sena group, BJP’s local political ally. The actor said his wife asked him whether they should “move out of India”, while adding that there was a sense of fear and insecurity. Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali cancelled his [2015] concerts in India after the Shiv Sena, known for its views against the neighbouring country, threatened to disrupt the performance. “What has happened is what the Shiv Sena was doing and others is now being done by groups everywhere. That danger and creating that level of fear in society is what is now being tested. If we manage to stand up to it I think it might recede, if we don’t it’s going to explode,” Butalia said.

Postscript: In April 2016, the committee, appointed by the government to recommend reforms for the censor panel, submitted its report. In an interview to a newspaper, the head of the committee, Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal, said the “Central Board of Film Certification” should keep within the bounds of its job, which is to certify and classify films according to the age and maturity of audiences.” Benegal’s views on censorship are well known, he is against “application of scissors” by the film certification board. The report has recommended more categories for film certification and suggested a new process of appointing members of the censor panel, who are currently selected by the government. The recommendations can be read here. Ankush Arora is working as a communications consultant for U.S.-based think tank Institute for Transformative Technologies. He earlier worked with the India edition of as a web producer; anchored a show on the Indian stock market for the China Central Television (CCTV); and wrote about New Delhi’s art and culture scene. Ankush Arora lives in New Delhi.




“Music that sexually turns on people is a sin” Artists are facing severe difficulties under Erdoğan’s rule. On 15 February 2016, The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, issued a fatwa – a religious ban – on ‘sexual’ music. The latest victim of this arbitrary repression is an imam who runs a rockband and opposes the Directorate’s fatwa from a religious perspective. BY YIĞIT GÜNAY | 18 MAY 2016 The Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs is a governmental institution responsible for managing the religious affairs in Turkey. It is infamous for its scandalous fatwas: that removing body hair is a sin, that one should not marry a non-Muslim, that engaged couples should not be left alone or walk hand-in-hand, that a woman who has abortion has to pay a fee of “the equivalent of five camels,” that a father’s sexual desire for his own daughter is not a sin. Though, the last one was way off even for the Directorate itself. After the incestuous recommendation in the name of Quran was reported on Turkish newspapers in January, a top official declared that they’ve shut down the ‘Platform for Answering Religious Questions’, a platform with many workers who were 24/7 consultants about any questions (and sometimes, quite weird ones, as the last question above, which one might not be surprised but rather appalled if knew that it was asked late at night over the phone), answering both on the line and via the website. The official



rejected the fatwa, despite it was written online and claimed that “it was written and put on the site by some hackers with the intention of creating a negative perception about Islam”. Very credible, indeed. On 15 February 2016, a new fatwa hit the news. The Directorate distributed a 2016 calendar, in which they included a Q&A for each day. On the page for the day 24 August, the question was “What is the place of music in religion? Which types of music are halal (acceptable for Islam)?” The answer started with some general information: “According to Quran, there is no proof which shows that making or listening to music is a sin. In this sense, the types of music which do not contradict with the fundamental beliefs of our religion and with the general moral values are unobjectionable.” Then came “the but”: “But, making or listening to music which includes expressions or depictions that arouse sexual desires or which show haram things as beautiful is a sin.”

The fatwas by the Directorate, whose members are all appointed by the government, are not legally binding or cannot be used as legal opinions or precedents, but they have practical effect. They form public opinion. They direct the central and local governments about what type of art and which artists to support. They encourage public prosecutors to start cases against ‘Islamically unacceptable’ art works and artists. They present legitimacy for the government’s change of legislature. They are influential. Art and culture are already living through a difficult period under Erdoğan’s rule. Cases of censorship and repression are numerous. Renowned pianist and composer Fazıl Say has been a permanent target, including a conviction for blasphemy. The ‘Monument to Humanity’ by sculpture Mehmet Aksoy, devoted to the friendship between Turkish and Armenian people and built close to the border between the two countries was called a “monstrosity” by Erdoğan and demolished, and Aksoy risks over four years in prison on charges of insulting the president. ‘The Soft Machine’ by William S. Burroughs was censored for obscenity, and the publisher and the translator were charged by the prosecutor, facing up to nine years imprisonment. Erdoğan threatened the theatres with cutting the state support after his daughter, Sümeyye Erdoğan, said that an actor insulted her. The fatwa about music is agonisingly ambiguous – and thus very dangerous. Who will decide which music arouses sexual desire? Is it the video clips, the lyrics, or the instrumental base of the song that is to be controlled, which all •62•


create effects on people’s emotions, which is in fact the point of art? And what about that “general moral values” thing? The ambiguity is practically an open invitation to any arbitrary repression against music. The latest victim of this arbitrary repression is an unusual but much-telling musician: An imam who runs a rock band. Ahmet Muhsin Tüzer was born to a family of piety: His grandfather was an alim, a Muslim scholar, and his father an imam. But the family’s intellectual life was not solely built upon religion – music was also a shared interest. The ezan, the traditional call to prayer from the minaret of a mosque five times a day is in itself musical – each five ezans of a day are sang in five specific makam. Other forms of religious music like eulogies, Islamic hymns and recitations were also a permanent part of the ambiance in this family house. The beautiful voice of Tüzer’s father and his possession of numerous recordings helped strengthen the boy’s relation with music. “In fact, our family was the first to release an album of Islamic psalms in Turkey”, Tüzer says. However, like many people, it was high school years in the 80s when Tüzer’s personal gusto was really shaped. He discovered rock music through his friends. “Unchain My Heart immediately caught me. This was my first contact with rock music in my teenage years,” Tüzer told me, “I distinctly remember listening to Bohemian Rhapsody – the ‘bismillah’ in the lyrics hooked me, and the song was splendid”. It was cheesy to get hooked to Freddie Mercury via the “bismillah”, but it worked for this devoted Muslim youngster. He continued to discover, going from Queen to Metallica and others. “It appealed to me. I liked rock music.” In 1990, he started working as an imam. Two passions dominated his life: Islamic thought and philosophy; and rock’n roll. Later, another passion was added: His Romanian lover and consequent wife, whose Christian background was another reason for suspicion in the eyes of Tüzer’s professional conservative milieu. For years, the former, religion, was the professional part of his life, the latter, rock’n roll, the amateur part. However, this changed when he met Doğan Sakin, a seasoned musician. He was part of a very famous rock band of the 90s, Kramp, as the guitarist and the composer. They easily clicked, and decided to form a new band in 2013: Firock. The imam was now officially a rocker.

Firock •63•


Birth of the Directorate of Religious Affairs Modern Turkey was an unintended consequence in history. It was never meant to be as such. The Ottoman Empire was sided with the losing party of the First World War, and the victors – Britain and France – planned of a much smaller territory left to the ‘sick man of Europe’. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led a successful ‘war of liberation’, got loads of weaponry and ammunition from the newly born northern neighbour – Soviet Russia – and managed to lay claim on modern Turkey’s borders, he had to choose how to continue: Continue as the Ottoman Empire, or found a new young country. He chose the revolutionary way. The parliament declared the republic, and every step they took was to break with the Ottoman legacy. The dynasty was banished, the Caliphate – the equivalent of Papacy – was abolished, and the new state was declared staunchly secular. The young Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923, was not the direct continuation of the Ottoman Empire in another sense also: The Ottoman Empire was much cosmopolitan, however ruled according to an Ottoman interpretation of Sharia, the Islamic law code. Because of the population exchange with Greece, the new republic was left with a population overwhelmingly Muslim, yet it was secular. The republic had to exert control over religion. Thus, one year after the declaration of the republic in 1923, the Directorate of Religious Affairs was founded. It was a bureaucratic apparatus of the state, under the Prime Ministry; all its personnel from the chief to the imams were civil servants. The Directorate had the responsibility to regulate the religious affairs, without any involvement whatsoever in politics. They gave advices and formed opinions on certain religious questions, but they were only advisory and had not legal enforcement. On the paper, it seemed a good idea. Practically, in time, it became a means for governments to utilise religion for their political goals. Atatürk himself, as the great pragmatist he was, did not hesitate to bend the rules when he deemed politically necessary – open the Parliament with an imam praying, forming alliances with certain tarikats, religious societies, over others etc. The subsequent governments followed the same pragmatism: The state was kept secular for most part, but to appeal to the religious masses in the elections, religion was frequently used as a rhetorical instrument. With Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) coming into power in 2002, the role of the Directorate of Religious Affairs started to change drastically. The AKP increasingly started to impose the Islamic rule in both politics and everyday life, and the Directorate was an extremely useful tool. The fatwas, authoritative opinions on practically everything from family issues to economy and politics issued by the Directorate became more and more like party bulletins of the AKP. In time, it has become an irrationally humongous bureaucratic apparatus. In 2015, the Directorate’s share from the annual budget was 5.74 billion Turkish liras, approximately 1.79 billion euros. With over 120 thousand personnel, its budget is bigger than the budget of seven ministries including the ministries of Culture and Tourism (yes, they belong to the same ministry in Turkey which tells much about the government’s take on culture), Economy, Development, Urban Planning and Environment, Foreign Affairs, Energy, and even Health. In fact, it is bigger than the budgets of the ministries of Development, Economy and Urban Planning and Environment combined! This money is not used for constructing mosques or anything: In Turkey, individuals or foundations exclusively finance mosques. The government announces that 95 per cent of the budget goes to the personnel, most of them imams. But the Directorate has also become a huge propaganda machine for the Islamic government. The 24/7 consulting platform was not the only example. They organise events. They take primary school kids to umre, the travels to Kaaba in Saudi Arabia. The most recent example was a new protocol signed on 24 March 2016 between the Directorate and the Ministry of Education. Now, all the printed and visual materials produced by the Directorate will •64•


be included in the network of information of the national education system. Invited to perform in Portugal Arbitrary repression. That is what Ahmet Muhsin Tüzer faced exactly. When Tüzer and his friends formed the rock band Firock in 2013 and released some songs on YouTube, they rapidly became famous. A rocking imam was definitely interesting. Both local and international media interviewed him. Their songs were listened and appreciated. They shot video clips for a couple of them. They started giving concerts. Things were good. Last year, Tüzer was acquainted with Catherine Christer Hennix. 68 years old, Hennix is a Swedish-American academician of mathematics and a music composer. Hennix had grown a deep interest in Islam, so Tüzer and she got along easily. They started to make music together. Through Hennix, the Serralves Musem of Contemporary Art invited Tüzer to Portugal for a concert. Tüzer received the invitation mail on 8 January 2016. As he is a civil servant, paid by the state, he wrote a petition to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for a permission to attend the concert abroad and abstain from work. At the beginning of February, the Ministry replied affirmatively, appreciating the opportunity. “Look, there are bureaucratic procedures for civil servants in these kind of situations”, Tüzer told me: “The Ministry of Culture sent a letter to the Governorate of Antalya, the city where I live and work. But the delivery system is complicated. As I am personnel under the Directorate of Religious Affairs, the letter is first delivered to the mufti of the city, my superior in bureaucratically hierarchy. Normally, he should simply forward the letter to the governorate. But instead, he sent it to the Directorate, as he evaluated the situation ‘sensitive'”.

The chairman of the directorate for religious affairs, Mehmet Görmez, together with Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo from Görmez’s personal website. Tüzer was well aware that the higher echelons of the Directorate were overtly antipathetic to his worldview and his relation with music – especially, rock music. He started making phone calls. “I had the number of the mobile of Mehmet Görmez, the Director himself. I explained him the situation, how this was a good opportunity to reach to people.” On 18 February, he received a mail of permission from the Directorate. A week later, on 24 February, he received another one: This time, the mail was explaining that “the first mail was mistakenly sent” and he was not



permitted to abstain from work and go to the concert in Portugal. The Directorate decided to practically ban his music. “The Directorate, till this day, not once tried to sit down with, listen to and understand me. And I’ve witnessed how these people, the people who I had thought to be close to my lifestyle, were so far away from the reality”, Tüzer told me. Interviewing him, it was not like speaking to political people, where the argumentation and vocabulary was much more common to the language of contemporary media. With Tüzer, it is drastically different. As a Muslim scholar, Tüzer is close to the tasavvuf school of Islam, or better known as Sufism. “This is not reality in which we are living right now. It is a realm of dreams, of imaginary. It is an illusion”, Tüzer says, summarising one of the core beliefs of tasavvuf. The tasavvuf belief has some parallels with Plato’s philosophy. The perception of material world as the reflection of the Idea – or, the God – was a reason for some academics to consider the former as an offspring of the latter. This approach was criticised for being orientalist as the relation between the two schools of philosophy was handled too reductively, but, in the case of Plato and Tüzer, we can speak of another, much unusual common topic. Plato knew that music was seductive; it could easily arouse sexual desire. But his understanding was very complicated: The erotics of the eternally material sexual desire contained the energy to apprehend the immaterial, transcendent absolute. Millenials later, in 1987, Allan Bloom was much less complicated in his best-selling book, “The Closing of the American Mind”: “Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire – not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored.” And today we have Tüzer, a Muslim preacher close to the Platonic philosophy who plays rock music, and who also happens to be the target of a religious institution which preaches that “sexual music is a sin”. How does Tüzer comprehend and evaluate his case, the Directorate’s intervention, and the relation between music and sexuality? He goes back explaining with the vocabulary of a sufist scholar: “There is a beautiful verse of the Quran, ‘On the earth and in the skies you observe the noor – the light – of God’. Everything is a reflection of the God. In the nature, everything, rain, thunder, all have their own notes, their music. How we perceive it depends on what data our processor, our brain, has accumulated. I reject the concept of opposites. Something you perceive as negative, I might get it as positive. When I listen to music, my mind opens, the door to inspiration opens. But these people”, he refers to the top officials in the Directorate of Religious Affairs, “they have not developed themselves, they have not grasped the reality, they look at music from such a low stage.” He gives a provoking example, which also touches the hot topic of female veils: “My wife is beautiful. But when these people see my wife, their minds are capable of thinking very bad things.” This logic is what lies beneath the tendency of covering the hair, the skin, effectively the image of woman. Tüzer refuses to let the “undeveloped minds” of those “on the lower stages of grasping reality” rule his relation with music. The rocking imam opposes the Directorate’s fatwa from a religious perspective. However, despite the AKP government’s endless attempts to undermine it, Turkey is legally still a secular state. Thus, when the Directorate refused our requests for interview to understand who was to decide which music was arousing sexual desires and how, it was no surprise. Religion should not have any say in it whatsoever. Tüzer started to get prepared to sue the Directorate. “I know that the reason of their behaviour stems from their dislike of me and my music, and I am confident that, with God’s will, I will win the case against them.” But he had other allies in his fight for this very humble cause of giving a concert. One ally was the Portuguese officials. They have attempted to reach out to the Directorate, sending official petitions, making phone calls, even sending e-



mails to the personal address of the Director, Mehmet Görmez. None was fruitful. They failed to make contact with the Directorate, let alone speaking and not being able to convince. They haven’t changed their position, and did not even bother to explain it: Tüzer was not appropriate – for some reason. However, another ally was the local officials from the District Governorship of Kaş, a small town of 50 thousand people. They took initiative and used their legal right to give absence permission to Tüzer for the time of the concert. It had its downsides, such as a financial one: Tüzer was not able to get a transportation allowance from the Ministry and had to pay for the plane tickets. At least, he managed to go to Porto. They performed, along with Christer Hennix, on 1-3 April 2016 at the Serralves Foundation Museum. We spoke on the phone while he was in Porto, practising before the concerts. His tone reflected a bittersweet joy. “I am here, very happy to be able to participate in the concert. The financial downside is not so much important, but the fact that my art, which I believe has a very strong message these days as a Turkish imam and musician, was not embraced by Turkey breaks my heart.” Finally, Tüzer succeeded in giving a concert in Portugal. But the Directorate has already won a political case: a clear message that ‘inappropriate music’ will not go unnoticed, and probably unpunished.

Yiğit Günay is a journalist and art historian based in Istanbul. Former editor-in-chief of Turkish alternative newspaper soL and co-author of the book “Arab Spring Legerdemain” published in Turkish in 2013, he does freelance journalism and is part of the MOKU collective.


@ 2016 |





Freemuse Annual Statistics on Censorship and Attacks on Artistic Freedom in 2016 In 2016, artists were censored, tortured, jailed and even killed for their creative expressions. Claims of defending “traditional values” or “the interest of the state” were, in many cases, driving arguments behind the violations.

Freemuse focuses on music, visual arts, cinema/films (fictional), theatre (including performance art), literature (fiction) and dance. The annual statistics cover artists who were attacked, persecuted, killed, abducted, detained, prosecuted, imprisoned and censored within a calendar year. The statistics even cover attacks and censorship of artistic productions, venues and events.

Populists and nationalists, who often portray human rights as a limitation on what they claim is the will of the majority, are on the rise globally. As this phenomenon rises, artists continue to play an important role in expressing alternative visions for society. But as the 2016 Art under Threat report shows – this year with a record 1,028 registered cases – artists also continue to be silenced all over the world.

Increasing hostility As seen on the following two pages, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, China and Russia top the list of serious violators. Documenting violations in these and other countries has never been easy. Further, as Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, pointed out in 2016, an increasing number of states are becoming more hostile to official UN mechanisms, as well as independent civil society groups, when they wish to enter a country or otherwise document and work to improve the human rights situation. At Freemuse we experience this in our daily work. However, “even where the powerful might seek to deflect our work and evade our scrutiny, we and other human rights actors will always continue to seek the truth and stand up for the rights of all people”, as Al Hussein told member states of the UN Human Rights Council. With populist and nationalist leaders questioning the universality of human rights, Freemuse will continue to document violations and use those facts to defend and amplify threatened artistic voices. Read the full report ‘Art Under Threat: Attacks on artistic freedom 2016’ on






Targeting the arts 2016  

INSIGHT articles about controversies and conflicts over art in 2016

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