“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Article 19: Universal Declaration of Human Rights
“This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and nobody seems to know or care!” From the tone of Rex Bloomstein’s introductory speech, it was clear that his latest film An Independent Mind was going to make less than comfortable viewing. “Freedom of expression has been described as ‘a dirty right’. What are the limits?” he asked provocatively. Filmed with characteristic impartiality, reminiscent of the detached style of Bloomstein’s earlier work KZ, An Independent Mind gives voice to eight individuals who have fought to exercise their right to free speech. It is precisely this neutrality – particularly when the film explores the more contentious areas of free speech – that lends its power and ultimately creates a bold and provocative film. Each story follows one to the other – there is no attempt to intercut.
For some of the characters, their fight for free speech has catapulted them to almost heroic status. The roar of excitement as singer Tiken Jah Fakoly walked onstage for a live gig gave clear testament to his popularity. Fakoly is unique within the musical fraternity because of the overtly political nature of his songs. “In contrast to predecessors who used proverbs and parables to criticise politicians, my lyrics are very direct. I came along and said: ‘We understand everything they [Ivorian politicians] are up to./They use us like camels in conditions we despise.'” Fakoly’s reggae music, which he describes as “the voice for the poor people,” caused the ultimate controversy when, following the coup d’état of the Ivory Coast in 1999, he drew attention to General Guei’s broken promise to return power to the civil authorities by sampling his speech in a new song. It was disturbing to hear the conviction in Guei’s empty promise: “We have come to put your house in order. Once that is done, believe me I will not be thirsty for power.” As a result of this song, Fakoly received death threats and was forced to flee to Mali. Despite being in exile, the singer stands resolute: “I keep fighting and expressing myself. If we want the democratisation of Africa to continue, we must have people who speak out.”
The Moustache Brothers embraced a similar defiance. Despite being banned by the Burmese military regime, the three comedians continue to perform illegally to tourists each night from their home. “We never listen. It’s our job, our ideas, our profession […] The government could arrest us at anytime. Every night our lives are at risk,” one said. Two of the brothers had already been arrested in 1996 for making political jokes at a demonstration for pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. They were imprisoned for five years at a hard labour camp where they were interrogated and tortured. Even when recounting their harrowing ordeal, the brothers continued to laugh and joke in front of the camera. “Whatever they did to me was like having flowers thrown at me,” one brother said. “After they beat me I would start singing as if nothing had happened. That’s a comedian’s heart.”
A ferry carries the Syrian poet, Faraj Bayrakdar across Stockholm harbour. He describes the psychological scars of his experience in prison, all too painfully apparent. The Syrian poet had wanted to change the world with words. “The most beautiful words and greatest thoughts are expressed in poetry. I created a new world inside myself, a more beautiful, just and loving world”. But in 1997, he was arrested for writing for the Syrian Communist Party and imprisoned for 14 years, where he suffered horrific torture. Bayrakdar has since been exiled from Syria and now lives in Stockholm as a political refugee. “Being in exile I have freedom of movement, I’m at liberty to do as I please with my own body, the space in which I live. But I do not feel free inside. I feel cut off from the present and the past. I cannot forget prison so I cannot fully embrace my new freedom here,” he explained. Gazing across the harbour, Bayrakdar says ruefully: “If this beautiful place were my country I would be in paradise.”
Despite her father, a human rights lawyer, being assassinated and faced with death threats herself, Marielos Monzón remains undeterred. Her work as a human rights journalist has made her a target for parliamentary death squads in Guatemala and, after her children were threatened at gunpoint, her family was forced to flee to Uruguay for six months. In spite of the dangers that surround her, she is determined to publish a new book about 30 Guatemalan women and the different ways they have fought for human rights, although she is aware that its publication could stir up more trouble. “I feel guilty for putting my children in danger. But then I realised my father also put our family in danger. He did this for one reason: to make this country better. I am trying to do the same so that we can leave something better for my children and the country.”
Mu Zimei is unable to continue her work in any capacity. At its peak, her online diary of her sexual encounters with 70 different men was receiving ten million hits each day. “Men think women won’t speak out so they think they can get away with being disrespectful,” she said. “This provoked me. So you think women are afraid to speak out? No. I am the one you should be afraid of.” But the moment her publishers released her book Ashes of Love – a compilation of her blog entries – the censorship authority banned it under the premise that it was “harmful to teenagers.” Zimei suspects that the real reason was that her book could threaten male dominated society. “A girl making love with many men is hard to accept morally,” she said. While many foreign journalists have suggested she is a pioneer of sexual liberation in China, in her homeland she has been called “a willing slut,” and “town bike”. After the book was banned, Zimei lost her job as a journalist and was pressured to close down her blog. She is now banned from publishing any book and has not published in mainland China since 2003. Despite this, she does not regret what she did: “I was proud of what I wrote. I’m still glad I wrote it.”
Ali Dilem takes a similar pride in his work. The Algerian cartoonist is awaiting trial for insulting Algeria’s president Bouteflika in his cartoons – one of which shows the president’s bottom. “If a Kabyl sees this [cartoon] and has a brother, a neighbour, somebody from his town who has been killed by the bullets of Bouteflika’s police and he sees Bouteflika’s behind and he feels a bit revenged, I’d be honoured to go to prison for drawings like that,” he said. However, he does not feel he is crusader for free speech in any way. “It’s completely normal that we criticise the government. I don’t feel like I’m leading a battle. My aim is that such words, such expressions are seen as completely everyday in the Algeria that I love,” he said. The forthcoming trial is for ten cartoons; if charged, Dilem faces 20 years’ imprisonment. He says his defence is simple: “I would just say to the judge ‘Do these cartoons seem normal in a free country? So if you sentence me that means Algeria is not a normal country.'” Despite his lawyer’s deep concerns of this approach – “Ali, if you take this line of defence you are going straight to jail,” – Dilem remains adamant that he has done nothing wrong.
Basque metal group Soziedad Alkoholika were equally adamant that they were inculpable. When asked directly whether their lyrics “blow up, pig. Dirty rat, you will die” were in any way inciting violence, one band member replied with a shrug: “There are just many ways of interpreting it. It’s not our problem, we were never going to kill anyone.” Soziedad Alkoholika is alleged to support the armed Basque separatist group ETA. They have already been tried in a national tribunal in Madrid, which usually deals with terrorism cases. If found guilty at their forthcoming court case, the band faces two years’ imprisonment. “It’s no fun to be treated like a criminal when you’re expressing a basic right,” one member said. The interview caused much consternation amongst the audience, particularly regarding the band’s alleged link with ETA. In the Q and A afterwards Bloomstein argued that, while the band’s lyrics threw up some contentious issues about the power of words and their potential repercussions, it still remains their fundamental right to express themselves. “Whatever your feelings area about ETA, nevertheless, they were expressing their right as musicians in society. Demonisation is what leads to violence,” he said.
The final interview, and arguably the most controversial, was with the historian David Irving. While he still vehemently denies accusations of racism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, Irving conceded that he had voiced “doubts and scepticism” about Auschwitz during a speech he had given in Austria in 1989. He was arrested for attempting to reactivate the Nazi party and in trial admitted that he had denied that Nazi Germany had killed millions of Jews. In February 2006, he was sentenced to three years in prison. While in no way condoning Irving’s position on the Holocaust, English PEN deplored the court’s decision. “It should not be a crime in a free society to publish opinion, however poorly dressed up as fact,” PEN said in a statement. “It is more important than ever that democracies deal with contentious issues through debate and ridicule rather than through suppression by law.” Similarly, Irving contended that everyone should be given a voice, no matter how contentious their opinion. “I want to visit a free Germany where everyone is free to say what they want and that every opinion can be freely held up and exposed either to acclaim or ridicule,” he said. “As soon as you start saying this opinion is acceptable and that option isn’t acceptable then are degrading society and society is losing in the long run.” While Bloomstein conceded that Irving “represents something immensely troubling” he was adamant that “we have to take these people on […] Irving makes us think about the limits.”
Agnes Callamard, Director of Article 19, the human rights organisation dedicated to the defence and promotion of freedom of expression, argued in the Q and A that the right to free speech is precisely about defending the unacceptable. “The right to protect what is shocking and inoffensive needs to be cherished,” she said. She cited the example of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti (Dishonour) – which was cancelled after violent protests by Sikhs at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 2004 – and accused the state of “failing to protect freedom of expression in the name of security.”
Gurpreet Bhatti said the most chilling moment for her was when MP Fiona McTaggart said that the Birmingham Rep. made the right decision to cancel the play. “This obsession with security, it’s a global preoccupation,” she said. She recalled one protester’s banner that read: ‘Shame on Sikh playwright for her corrupt imagination.’ She said: “Globally, we’re in a very strange and frightening place. I have to be positive, keep going, keep the corrupt imagination ticking otherwise what’s the point? You can’t curtail the extremes of the corners of people’s minds.”
It is this fundamental freedom of the individual mind that is central to An Independent Mind, as Bloomstein explained. “I aimed for this film to be suitable for everybody, all ages, sexes. All I can do is undermine the simplicities,” he said. “At least we have Article 19 to turn to as a benchmark … it is crucial in our mad and uncertain world.”
Report by Alex Masters
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/anindependentmind/