October 2006

Disgraceful TV

Asian Tribune reports that Sri Lankas state-funded television channel, the Sri Lanka Ruphavanini Corporation (SLRC) recently cut dialogue from the weekly drama Sudu Kapuru Pethi (White Camphor) and then went on to axe the series altogether.

The then SLRC chairman Newton Gunaratne told the media the television show had insulted the security forces. Some parts of this teledrama bring disgrace to these soldiers and their self-respect, he claimed. Gunaratne, however, made no attempt to substantiate his claims.

The series, directed by Athula Pieris, is a love story involving a Sinhalese girl from Sri Lanka’s south and a Tamil boy from the north. Based on Thushari Abesekera’s award-winning novel of the same name, the drama is set during the island’s protracted civil war prior to the 2002 ceasefire and was commissioned following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami as part of the SLRC’s attempts to present a new vision of peace.

While Sudu Kapuru Pethi is not an explicit antiwar drama, it is a humane work. Its central love story between Tamil and Sinhalese youth is anathema to the Sinhala communalists, who dominate the Sri Lankan state, including the army. Its censorship follows a pattern of increasingly serious attacks on artists, filmmakers and journalists who reject Sinhala racism or dare to raise questions about the government’s war drive.

SLRC management didnt bother to tell the director that theyd cut dialogue from the show - he found out about it when the programme was transmitted on September 3rd. When he complained the management suggested that he re-edit the entire program. He refused and the show, which had another 13 episodes to run, was summarily cancelled.

The cancellation of Sudu Kapuru Pethi foreshadows further assaults on democratic rights. As it widens its deeply unpopular war, the Rajapakse government is determined to silence any opposition. In this case, the suggestion that ordinary Tamils and Sinhalese share common problems and concerns was enough to provoke the ire of those who are deliberately stoking communal hatreds.

Cashing in liberty to score cheap points

The Guardian is slowly catching up with the blogsphere with the news that Death Of A President, the film that depicts the future assassination of George Bush as a comment on the civil liberties excesses of the current Republican administration, opened in fewer than 120 cinemas across America yesterday.

The largest owner of cinemas in the country, Regal Entertainment Group, has blocked the film from its 6,300 screens, as has the second-largest chain, Century Theatres. Two major broadcasters, CNN and National Public Radio, have refused advertisements for the film.

None of this is particularly new and I almost didnt bother posting anything on the subject. And then I reached the third paragraph.

Hillary Clinton has waded into the controversy, calling the shooting episode despicable. She has not seen the movie, as its creators have been eager to point out.

Yes, I know that Hillary Clinton is an ambitious politician, but it would have been nice if shed shown a bit of respect for freedom of speech rather than simply jumping on the next available censorship bandwagon.

Idomeneo returns

Following widespread criticism over their decision to cancel a production of Idomeneo over fears of protests, the Deutsche Oper has announced that the opera will now be staged in Berlin.

Four performances were dropped in September following a security assesment that described the risks of staging the opera as incalculable. This decision sparked debate in Germany about free speech, with Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble calling the decision crazy and Chancellor Angela Merkel warning against self-censorship out of fear.

On Thursday, the police told the opera company that its staff faced no concrete danger if the performances went ahead, and would discuss any possible security measures ahead of the performances.

Deutsche Opera issued a statement saying it had begun without delay the relevant preparations for reviving the opera.

The production includes a scene - added by director Hans Neuenfels as a protest against organies religion - in which the severed heads of Muhammad, Bhudda, Jesus and Greek sea god Poseidon are presented by the king.

Kirsten Harms, director of the opera house, had originally refused to go ahead with the production citing security risks in the wake of the furore over the Jyllands-Posten Muhammed cartoons.

Blocked in Bahrain

Several Arab bloggers are reporting that Mahmood’s Den, a popular and prominent Bahraini/Arab blog has been blocked with immediate effect on the orders of the Bahraini Ministry of Information.

Seven sites in total have been blocked by the order, although only Mahmood’s blog a Bahraini. Other web sites vary between news, religious and entertainment web sites. The full list of banned blogs is:

According to Sabbah, the memo refers to press law no. 47, which was passed in 2002 and added further restrictions on freedom of expression including the prohibition of “defamation of the person of the king and royal family members.”

In the past, authorities have blocked access to a number of political sites, including those of opposition groups, because the officials claim that these sites incite “sectarianism” and contain “offensive content.” The criteria for making such determinations, though, are not clear. In some cases, the Ministry of Information claimed it blocked only sites that seek to “create tension between people and to provoke resentful sectarianism.”

In April 2005, the Bahrain Information Ministry ruled that any web site or blog that included any information on Bahrain were obliged to register with the Ministry and to assume responsibility for all materials published online.

A panic response to a non-existent problem

The BBC (via) is reporting that police chiefs are calling on the government to make flag-burning a new criminal offence, as part of a drive to crack down on Islamic extremists and others preaching violence and religious hate.

Civil rights group Liberty described the proposed new laws as unnecessary.

Shami Chakrabarti, Libertys director, said: It looks like some people have been watching too many American movies.

As understatements go, I think unnecessary wins the prize for the week. When, exactly, was the last time that someone burned a flag in the UK? And who is actually harmed by flag burning?

At the end of the day, a flag is a piece of cloth. If you go out and buy one, then why shouldnt you be allowed to set fire to it?

Granted, there are some safety issues around waving burning bits of material around, but there are also plenty of public safety laws that should more than adequately be able to cover this.

This looks very much like a demand for a piece of legislation to send a message rather than actually achieve anything. In itself, this makes it the demand an inherently dangerous one. And this is compounded by the fact that the message that the police chiefs want to send is that you have the right to express your views but only when and how it suits us.

Dixie Chicks told to shut up and sing

Reuters (via) reports that NBC has rejected a TV commercial for Shut Up and Sing, a film documenting the furor over the Dixie Chicks criticism of President George W. Bush in the run up to the 2003 Iraq war. Ads for the documentary were also refused by the smaller CW network, although local affiliates of all five major broadcasters, including NBC and CW, ran promotional spots for the film in New York and Los Angeles where the film opened on Friday.

The films distributor, the Weinstein Co., seized on the rejection of its spots as evidence of political censorship by NBC and CW and said it was exploring taking legal action.

The studio provided media outlets copies of clearance reports from NBCs standards and practices department bearing handwritten notations stating the ads were deemed unacceptable because they are disparaging of President Bush.

Its a sad commentary about the level of fear in our society that a movie about a group of courageous entertainers who were blacklisted for exercising their right of free speech is now itself being blacklisted by corporate America, studio co-owner Harvey Weinstein said in a statement.

The Dixie Chicks are currently on tour in Canada and were unavailable for comment.

Blogging Tunisia: Censorship, bans and censorship

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the Tunisian Ministry of Culture’s review board had decided to censor playwright Jalila Baccar’s new work, Corps-otages (Captive Bodies). So thanks are due to Klaus for pointing me in the direction of the much fuller picture contained in this roundup of Tunisian blogs.

Although theatre is the only cultural form subject to preliminary censorship, TV is far from immune to state intervention, as highlighted by blogger and former judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui. He points to the popular Bidoun Istithan (Without Invitation) in which journalist, Farah Ben Amara highlights the hidden side of Tunisian society by broadcasting his meetings with the poorest people in the country. The programme, which was broadcast on Hannibal TV - Tunisias only private TV station - has been cancelled following a campaign organised by some journalists working in government-controlled media.

Internet censorship in the country is still going strong with many expressing surprise at the discovery that this includes online translation sites. According to the Open Net Initiative the reasoning behind this form of censorship is that:

Like anonymizers, translation sites can permit users to reach blocked content. A user who requests that such a site translate a filtered page can often read the prohibited content since it is the translation site, not the user, that accesses the blocked content.

And finally, a pair of related stories which very effectively highlight the connection between censorship and repression. So lets start with Fulla, the dark-eyed doll with Muslim values.

Claiming that the hijab-clad doll encourages sectarianism, the Tunisian authorities have started the school year by cracking down on toy shops, confiscating both the doll and other goods bearing a photo of it.

Not surprisingly, the campaign that started with dolls has quickly extended to people with police applying with renewed vigour a decree dating back to 1981 which prohibits women from wearing Islamic headscarves in public places. Decree 108 pioneered legal bans on the veil in the country at the height of the confrontation between the authorities and Islamists.

Police in Tunisia have been stopping women on the streets and asking them to remove their headscarves and sign pledges that they will not go back to wearing them.

Human rights groups in the country have described the move as unconstitutional and Francophone blogger, Stupeur, highlights the contradictions inherent in banning things by publishing pictures of a selection of things banned in the country.

Not offensive

A Danish court has rejected a libel case brought by several Muslim groups against Jyllands-Posten over the Muhammad cartoons controversy.

The organisations brought the lawsuit in March after the Danish attorney-generals decision not to make criminal charges against the newspaper under racism and blasphemy legislation. Since the racism and blasphemy laws cannot be used in a civil suit, the groups sued the editor-in-chief and cultural editor of the newspaper for libel, accusing the paper of publishing text and cartoons which were offensive and insulting to Muhammad.

However, the City Court in Aarhus ruled on Thursday that the cartoons were not offensive even if the text accompanying the pictures could be read as being derogatory and mocking.

Of course it cannot be excluded that the drawings offended some Muslims, the ruling said.

But there is no sufficient reason to assume that the cartoons are or were intended to be insulting or put forward ideas that could hurt the standing of Muslims in society.

In bizarre response news, Ameer ul-Azeem, a spokesman for Jamaat-e-Islami - one of the groups behind the riots earlier this year - claimed that: It is not up to the court to decide if Muslims will have hard feelings or not. Presumably he therefore feels that the civil action should never have been brought in the first place.

And, in Syria, legislator Mohammed Habash said that publishing the cartoons represents a true insult to millions of Muslims who do not follow Danish laws. He didnt elaborate on what laws he thought Danish people in Denmark should be following.

Ken Livingstone wins the right to offend

Back in February, London Mayor Ken Livingstone was suspended by the (unelected) Adjudication Panel for England for bringing his office into disrepute by being rude to a journalist. Livinstone appealed against the suspension and vowed to take his case as far as the House of Lords if necessary. The fundamental issue, he argued, was not whether or not he was insensitive but the principle that those whom the people elect should only be removed by the people or because they have broken the law.

The case did go to the High Court, and Livingstone won.

While remaining critical of Livingstones behaviour during the exchange with the journalist, Oliver Finegold, and his subsequent refusal to apologise, the judge, Mr Justice Collins ruled that he had not brought his office into disrepute.

The judge had already indicated that he would quash the decision of the Adjudication Panel, which rules on disciplinary cases in local government, to impose a month-long suspension on the mayor.

He also agreed that the mayor should be spared potentially ruinous bills for costs arising from the high court appeal. Mr Livingstone could not be held responsible for having to challenge what was effectively a miscarriage of justice. The judge brushed aside any suggestion that the outburst was fuelled by anti-semitism.

According to the ruling, Livingstone was off duty when the confrontation took place, so his behaviour was not covered by the disciplinary code of conduct he signed on taking office in 2000. Also, implicit within Mr Livingstones right to freedom of speech was the right to be offensive.

Slowing down for censorship

The Guardian (via) reports that the Islamic government in Iran has banned high-speed internet links in an attempt to stifle domestic political dissent and combat the influence of western culture.

In a blow to the countrys estimated 5 million internet users, service providers have been told to restrict online speeds to 128 kilobytes a second and been forbidden from offering fast broadband packages. The move by Irans telecommunications regulator will make it more difficult to download foreign music, films and television programmes, which the authorities blame for undermining Islamic culture among the younger generation. It will also impede efforts by political opposition groups to organise by uploading information on to the net.

The ban follows a recent purge on illegal satellite dishes, which millions of Iranians use to clandestinely watch western television, and has been widely condemned by MPs, internet service companies and academics, who say it will hamper Irans progress.

Every country in the world is moving towards modernisation and a major element of this is high-speed internet access, said Ramazan-ali Sedeghzadeh, chairman of the parliamentary telecommunications committee. The country needs it for development and access to contemporary science.

Iran already filters more websites than any other country apart from China.