June 2006

Populist blasphemy

Edmund Stoiber needs to get out more. After seeking to ban Turkish film, Valley of the Wolves - Iraq and complaining about Popetown, the Bavarian Prime Minister has now gone ahead with his threat to try and widen Germanys blasphemy laws.

Germanys blasphemy law, which dates back to 1871, only considers blashphemy to be an offence if it disrupts public peace. Claiming that not everything thats holy should be allowed to be trampled on, Stoiber is seeking to have this provision removed and extend the law to cover all religions.

He doesnt appear to have much support though.

Though the German Catholic Bishops conference declined to comment on Stoibers idea, the Lutheran Church has reacted coolly.

Germanys Lutheran Church said its doubtful whether changing the countrys penal code is the right thing to do.

The question is whether meting out punishment really leads to a change of heart, said Petra Bahr, the commissioner for culture at Germanys Lutheran Church. We believe that respect for religious symbols can be better achieved through religious instruction.

Bahr added that the state wasnt in a position to decide whats blasphemous and what isnt.

And Germanys Muslim community doesnt seem too keen on the idea either.

Despite voices earlier this year angrily demanding stronger provisions on blasphemy within Europe, some believe that Stoiber who vehemently argued in favor of press freedom at the time is merely motivated by political compulsions.

When I, as a Muslim, see how Stoiber reacted to the Mohammed cartoons and see how hes now changed his mind and is calling for the law to be tightened, it rings very hollow with me, said Burhan Kesici, vice president of the conservative Islamic Federation in Berlin. We think this is just a political move, calculated to keep certain circles in Bavaria happy and so were not supporting it.

Legal and constitutional experts have pointed out that countless films, videos and songs would fall foul of Stoibers proposals, as well as coarse pub talk. The proposal would also effectively ban any critical reporting of religion and would therefore fall foul of the German constitution.

Chinas censorship disaster

Already one of the most censored in the world, the Chinese media is facing even more restrictions under a bill drafted by the government to enable fines for newspapers that report emergencies without official approval.

Media outlets could face fines ranging from £3,500 to £7,000 if they fail to seek permission from local authorities before reporting about riots, disasters, strikes or outbreaks of disease.

Local governments will be required to disseminate information on emergencies in a timely manner, but not if the reports would affect the handling of a crisis. The official Xinhua news agency said that the Bill was a reaction to errors in the handling of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003.

Which is a bit of a dishonest argument, to say the least, given that the failures to react appropriately to SARS stemmed from the attempts by the Chinese government to cover it up.

It had been expected that the censors would relax their controls to prevent a recurrence of the embarrassing incident, but the officials who are charged with vetting information available to the public have tightened their grip in recent months.

Sounds like avoiding embarrasement is still more important to Chinas leaders than responding to crises.

Nuts in Labour

Until now I havent said anything about Blairite MP Claire Curtis-Thomas rather transparent attempt to raise her profile by campaigning for magazines such as FHM, Zoo, Nuts and Loaded to be moved to the top shelf by law.

As as with most bills of this type, the MPs Regulation of Sale and Display of Sexually Explicit Material Bill is unlikely to to become law due to lack of Parlaimentary time, which is a large part of why I have ignored it up to now, but given some of the moral panic and sheer nonsense being generated around the subject, I thought I might as well chuck my two cents in.

Curtis-Thomas claims that lads mags, the adverts in the Sunday Sport and hardcore porn are all indistinguishable, that they objectify the women who appear in them and that the Government should take it upon itself to decide what can be read and by whom.

I have several problems with this line of argument. Firstly, its more than a little dishonest to try and pretend that all explicit material - regardless of how explict - is hard core porn and it would help no end if Claire Curtis-Thomas bothered to learn the difference between titillation, soft porn and hard porn.

Next is the objectify women argument. There is some truth in this - although the extent to which anyone actually accepts these attitudes is very debateable. The same argument can also be applied to much of the advertising industry as well as many other forms of media - all of which are more prevalent than a set of magazines aimed at a limited demographic and none of which Curtis-Thomas has seen fit to complain about. Its almost as if she has targetted the one group that isnt funding New Labour, but Im sure she couldnt really be that cynical

Its also worth noting, of course, that the photos in these magazines are not paparazzi shots. They are photos legally taken by professional photographers of professional models. Do we really want the government to step in and arbitrarily decide who can and who cannot decide how they want to make a living.

Trying to suppress a view that you find objectionable is rank political cowardice and, ultimately self defeating. If people dislike these magazines they are, of course, fully entitled to criticise them and challenge their underlying assumptions - but this is something that can only be achieved through debate, not through censorship.

Bollywood stars are fine, as long as theyre not in Bollywood films

A year ago, I mentioned that Pakistan had taken a step towards lifting its long standing ban on Indian films by agreeing in principle to show Mughal-e-Azam, one of the great classics of Indian cinema. Evidently in an optimistic mood, I expressed the hope that where Mughal-e-Azam lead, other films would follow.

How wrong I was.

Pakistans Culture Minister, GG Jamal, has declared that, while Indian actors would be welcome in Pakistan, Indian films would not. Bizarrely, however, foreign films starring Pakistani and Indian stars will be permitted.

The minister made no comment on why Pakistan TVs telethon featuring Indian film stars had to be called off last week.

A host of Bollywood artistes were scheduled to participate in it for collecting funds for the October 2005 earthquake victims, but cancelled the visit after poet-writer Javed Akhtar was denied a visa.

The minister also had a whinge over the fact that the number of cinemas in Pakistan has plummeted from 1500 to 211. Quite frankly, Im not surprised.

Blogger defamed

An Italian blogger has been convicted of defamation, even though he hasnt actually defamed anyone.

Mr Mancini set up his blog Il Bolscevico Stanco (The Weary Bolshevik) in 2005, dealing with events in the Valle dAosta region in northern Italy. Using the pseudonym of General Sukhov, he wrote various articles attacking local figures in crude and sarcastic terms. Four people, including two journalists, had filed complaints for defamation, and Mr Mancini was ordered to pay $16,900 (£9,300) in fines and damages.

The General Sukhov columns were certainly written in an extreme style, the press watchdog group said, but the complainants were not able to show they were untrue.

Reporters Without Borders have condemned the €13,500 sentence.

It looks like the blogger is being punished for his bad language and not because he posted false information, which is unacceptable. He was found responsible for comments posted on his blog by some of his readers, a decision which goes against European jurisprudence.

The organisation also pointed out that defamation complaints against journalists and bloggers should go before civil courts, and not as in the case, to a criminal court which could hand down prison sentences.

Flexible propaganda

South Africas public broadcaster, the SABC, has banned high-profile critics of the government from its programmes, fuelling claims of bias towards the ruling African National Congress. At least six political analysts have been blacklisted so far.

The decision followed several censorship rows that prompted accusations that the SABC had become a mouthpiece for the ANC, just as it was once a propaganda tool for the apartheid regime. It ditched a documentary critical of the president and refused to show images of a cabinet minister being booed during a speech.

The blacklist of commentators that producers are not allowed to use was drawn up by the head of news, Snuki Zikalala, an ANC member and former government spokesman who answers to a board appointed by an ANC-dominated parliamentary committee.

but some dont have a mind of their own

After the Andhra Pradesh High Court stayed the order from the state government banning the screening of The Da Vinci Code on Wednesday, a group of Christian activists responded on Friday by barging into Prasad Imax theatre which was planning to show the film.

The activists, holding banners and placards against the film, surprised the Imax staff and broke the glass planes of the booking counter to register their protest.

The situation turned violent when the theatres security personnel tried to stop the activists from entering the premises of the Imax.

Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Nagaland and Meghalaya are other states which had also banned the screening of the film.

Seeking self-censorship

The Afghan security services are taking a lead in a new bid to intimidate editors to impose self-censorship about the security situation and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

The 24-point list was delivered to editors of newspapers and television stations in Kabul in a document that bears only the name the ‘Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’ and carries no signature or official stamp.

It is widely agreed to have been issued by the intelligence service, following an agency briefing to editors on the same subject.

The list - which is marked not for publication - demands that media reports should not weaken people’s morale and says that there should be no interviews with ‘terrorist commanders’ and that criticism of the NATO and US led forces based in Afghanistan is forbidden.

Reporters Without Borders have called on President Hamid Karzai to have this list of banned subjects officially withdrawn and to make sure the intelligence services do not interfere in media content again.

The media obviously have a role to play in promoting peace, but it is absolutely outrageous that the Afghan authorities should harass the privately-owned media in this manner and tell them what to say and write. Criticising the Afghan authorities or the coalition forces is not the same as condoning terrorism.

Alaa Freed

Egyptian blogger and democracy activist Alaa, who was arrested in May for attending a sit-in protest in support of judicial independence, has been freed along with 22 other activists.

In his own words:

when you speak of the 22 who where released this week dont say 22 out of 30 where released say 22 out of 600, when you speak of sharkawy remember that more than 600 comrades went to prison for the same reason, facing the same charges and fighting the same tyrants.

All Indians have a mind of their own

The Andhra Pradesh High Court on Wednesday stayed the order from the state government banning the screening of The Da Vinci Code.

The state government had issued orders on June 1 banning the films screening after considering representations from various minority organisations, calling for a ban on the movie on the ground that it would hurt the religious sentiments of Christians.

Dealing with a batch of writ petitions filed by the distributors seeking a stay on the governments orders, Justice Raghuram stayed the ban.

The Hindustan Times has an excellent editorial on the subject:

We all know the basic issue that has made this film controversial. We also know the almost clockwork regularity with which certain people, perhaps seeking their 15 minutes of fame, come out of the woodwork against a film or a book or a painting that has supposedly hurt the sensibilities of a section of society they apparently represent.

In a 48-page judgment, the Andhra Pradesh High Court has stated what is fundamentally wrong with a government kowtowing to pressures of ban-seeking groups.

So, kudos to Andhra Pradesh High Court.

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