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Protecting the creative voices of the Arab Uprising

Last week rapper Ahmed Ben Ahmed was released after three weeks in prison. The Tunisian artist, aka Klay BBJ, was originally sentenced to 21 months in prison for 'insulting the police' in one of his protest songs at a concert in the resort of Hammamet.


According to Freemuse, a music censorship NGO with UN consultancy status, incidents of severe media censorship are frequently discussed in reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, whereas the tightened censorship on music have come to pass without significant challenges from these NGOs. In the context of the Arab Uprisings, the censorship can be seen as a symptom of governments' fear of people uniting and has led to grave human rights violations, torture, exile and the morbid murdering of artists.

As the birthplace of the Arab uprising, Tunisia has led the way for many other countries in the region to express their desperation over current social and economic inequalities. Protests against regimes and police brutality have given way to brutal, as well as peaceful and creative forms of expression.

Historically, music has always been an effective way of gathering people to unite and confront oppressive governments; alone they may not feel they are strong enough. Professor Mark LeVine explained to MEMO that music takes a complex role in building an imagined sense of unity and solidarity as it helps people synchronize their feelings into words and sounds to express the depth of change they aspire to.

But artists do so at the risk of coming under attack. Rami Assam, the Egyptian protest singer in Tahrir square, was tortured while in the custody of the Egyptian military after singing 'Leave' in reference to the former President Mubarak.

Cartoonist Ali Ferzat, like many other Syrian artists, was forced to escape and smuggle his art across the border. He was attacked in August 2011 by pro-regime thugs for caricaturing Bashar al-Assad; they who broke both his hands.

The cold-blooded murder of Ibrahim Qashoush is among the most symbolic. As a young fireman and amateur poet from the neighbourhood of Hadir in Syria, he was more or less unknown until 4th of July, when a man dragged his body out of a river and found his vocal cords cut out. Qashoush was one of the greatest protest singers and became famous with his song Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar ('Bashar, depart from here'.)

Appropriating with pride the government's denouncement of them as infiltrators, anti-regime protesters continue to unite under Qashoush's song after his death.

For Prof. LeVine the real question is what role music takes on after the protests, when the "party is over." Music censorship is a process in which the state gradually violates these artists' right to express themselves. He told MEMO how Egypt was a laboratory for this: "Those that remain truly revolutionary are harassed, isolated and can't really get airplay or on TV, so they are being effectively censored without having to do so openly and with draconian laws that would raise opposition. It's a more subtle process now. But its effects are often the same." How artists can respond to this, is "still up in the air."

Anders Hastrup, the former director of the research hub turned apolitical culture and artist exile, The Danish Institute in Damascus, spoke to me about young peoples' voices in Syria. He released a book containing thoughts, short-stories and poetry of young people from the region about the current uprisings.

His introduction 'Tænd an, Tænd an' (Light it, light it!) was inspired by the Tunisian vender who set himself on fire and sparked the beginning of the protests. In the book, Hastrup expresses his support for the uprisings against the oppressive regimes: "It has been the strongest and happiest moment in my life to be allowed to witness the way in which the legacy of fear that had been saved up for generations, with one stroke disappeared like snow in the sun and a new, honest and untested discussion was opened: What can we do? What shall we do? Who are we?"

The book was published in March 2012 and in April Hastrup received a letter from the Syrian government telling him to leave the country, as he was now deemed Persona Non Grata. Now, a year and a half later, no explanation of his unwanted status has been given, but Hastrup is certain that the secret police in Damascus, whom he had no doubt were troubled with the new clientele at the institute, wanted to get rid of him. According to Hastrup, the work of young artists naturally became more politicised with the uprisings and rather than "a mirror to reflect the world" it became "the hammer with which to shape it" he told MEMO.

Ole Reitov from Freemuse, an NGO working to protect artists against music censorship across the globe, explained to me how the instrumentalisation of artistic forms of expression is often a symptom of specific socio and economic conditions. Depending on these factors, music is often co-opted by the dominant belief systems or regimes in order to 'steer people in the 'right' direction.'

According to Reitov, the reoccurring pattern of North African regimes in the 60s was to adopt a Soviet-like state apparatus and mode of thinking about art and culture in a very hierarchical way- similar to that of European selective 'high culture' . Efforts were made to change public culture to 'folklore', a drained and strictly regulated culture.

Despite new regimes and laws, the censorship apparatus still works per reflex action. With the lack of transparency, this cultural framework becomes even more rigid. Therefore, despite having won consultancy status by the UN last year, Freemuse still struggles to work through this framework to initiate a dialogue with certain regimes.

A step towards this dialogue was a report built on a questionnaire governments filled out assessing their own music censorship regulations, but as Reitov concluded, "we failed to receive an answer from 'the usual suspects.'"

However, there is an increased awareness globally on the issue and the push for change is felt little by little. "When I consult the offices in Geneva for UN treaty bodies, I can feel that there is a huge interest for musical censorship, when I point out how reports from Human Rights NGOs like Amnesty and HRW (Human Rights Watch) tend mainly to focus only on media censorship. And we all know how essential the role of music has been particularly in the Arab uprisings."

By advocating on different levels – pressurizing regimes through the UN, writing letters directly to governments and organizing conferences – Reitov sees a growing passion to address this issue among many other NGOs. If we want to support the uprisings, we need to remember the enormous influence art has had in this context and do everything we can to protect and promote it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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