Rohan Jayasekera

Journalist, editor and online free expression advocate, tracking human rights, digital media, cultures of change and the conflict zeitgeist. Views are my own.

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    Statement: The right to protest but not to censor

    We the undersigned members of Artsfex condemn an alarming worldwide trend in which violent protest silences artistic expression that some groups claim is offensive.

    People have every right to object to art they find objectionable but no right whatsoever to have that work censored. Free expression, including work that others may find shocking or offensive, is a right that must be defended vigorously.

    We call on artists, arts venues, protestors and the police to work together as a matter of urgency, to stand up for artistic free expression and to ensure that the right to protest does not override the right to free expression.

    This means that every possible step is taken to ensure that the art work remains open for all to see, while protesters voices are heard.

    We must prevent the repetition of recent ‘successful protests’ in which the artist is silenced by threats of violence towards the institution, the work or the artist him or herself, as we saw with Exhibit B in London, and The City, the hip-hop opera by the Jerusalem-based Incubator Theatre company, which was disrupted and consequently cancelled earlier this year in Edinburgh.

    Greater clarity around policing of controversial arts events is an essential first step. In the United Kingdom there is nothing at present in Association of Chief Police Officers guidance relating to the particulars of policing cultural events, except in reference to football matches and music festivals.

    Controversial art triggers debate - and in the case of Exhibit B there was a huge outpouring of feeling in opposition to the work. A contemporary institution should anticipate and provide for this. Detailed planning such as this is important if the arts venue is to cater for both the artwork and the debate it generates.

    We are concerned that unless arts institutions prepare procedures to manage controversy, including to develop strategies for working with the police to control violence, our culture will suffer as a result and become less dynamic, relevant and responsive.

    • Article 19, freeDimensional, Freemuse, Index on Censorship, National Coalition Against Censorship (US), Vivarta

    ARTSFEX is an international civil society network actively concerned with the right of artists to freedom of expression as well as with issues relating to human rights and freedoms. ARTSFEX aims to promote, protect and defend artistic freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly, thought, and opinion in and across all art disciplines, globally. http://artsfex.org/

    Free expression champion. Give that boy an internship at Index on Censorship.right away I say.

    The meaning of (working) life, Ver.1.5.1

    I’m researching the impact of new and existing communications networks on nationalist & ethno-religious conflict, and working with partner organisations, primarily in Eastern Europe & the Middle East to broaden that impact in support of human rights and informed reporting from these regions.

    1. Field research, missions and investigative journalism in the target countries
    2. Bringing new and emerging online media tools & techniques to the practice of monitoring & reporting human rights issues in the Middle East & Eastern Europe
    3. Researching methods of collection, verification and reclassification of ‘big data’ from existing and new sources to contextualise this work.
    4. Supporting public advocacy for freedom of expression, including local civil society groups, human rights defenders, and contributors from the creative arts and literature sector.

    I’m particularly interested in challenging the widely held view that greater freedom of expression through new and old media, and/or freedom of association in the form of participatory politics, increases the threat or scale of violence in conflicted, closed or transitional states.

    VivartaOrganisationally I work with associates & partners under a non-profit company, Vivarta, registered in the UK. Vivarta is a media production house and international advocate for free expression rights.

    As vivarta.org we help defend free expression in conflict zones and repressive states with investigative reporting and creative advocacy carried out from the Free Word Centre in Farringdon, London.

    As vivarta.com we apply new digital media, security and situational analysis tools to support this work from the Google TechHub start-up incubator near Old Street.

    I am also carrying out academic research into the subject of nationalist & ethno-religious conflict and technical training in big data systems: I am in the first year of a two year part time masters’ degree on the subject at Birkbeck, and taking part-time courses in statistical inference, programming and database development.

    Reading up for another year of nationalism & ethno-religious conflict studies, I’d thought I’d start with a laugh…

    One of my long-ago Kickstarter investments is finally shipping me a first gen product. Yes, I know it doesn’t look like much, but I can’t wait to try it out, hopefully somewhere arduous. It’s a “go anywhere, do anything, self-powered, mobile WiFi device” for use where the connections are limited. More at www.brck.com.

    Human rights defenders are the heroes of our time… They inject the life blood into human rights: they are the promoters of change, the people who ring the alarm about abuse, poor legislation and creeping authoritarianism.

    Outgoing UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay in one of her final addresses to the UN Human Rights Council.

    Love, war, tea and sympathy in Moominland

    Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins was born 100 years ago today. The Moomin books were a childhood favourite of mine. She created this amazing world full of weird fussy, angry, optimistic, loving and neurotic creatures who were all wonderfully sympathetic, even the scary ones.

    I re-read them as an adult and I was immediatly taken with the honest way Tove described the lives of innocents, children really, who were threatened by war, displacement or catastrophe. I wish every troubled child facing the same fears in the real world could get to take a copy of Comet in Moominland to bed, and be comforted by Tove’s wonderful characters.

    image

    Not just replying to you, but directed at everyone that’ll say I should’ve leaked it to some organisation and that it’s ‘irresponsible’ to dump the raw data on everyone or something: I’m unconvinced that news stories about government’s surveillance capabilities are actually effective in fighting those systems of control. Listening to stories all day about how we’re all being hacked and spied on just feels disempowering. When everyone can participate it’s more empowering, more fun, and far more effective.

    PhineasFisher explaining why he dumped the Gamma International data on anti-surveillance experts rather tham leaking it to the media

    Exuent, pursued by a bear: The Tricycle loses a wheel

    Nobody knows better than the Tricycle Theatre what to do with funding from war-mongering governments. They earned millions in Arts Council funding during the years of Tony Blair’s war on Iraq and a bit more besides during John Major’s supposedly attrition-lite no-fly version.

    They used those state funds to become the UK arts sector’s most effective critic of the British government’s years of duplicity in Iraq, and the cruelty and wasteful loss of life it engendered.

    The Tricycle is, after all, the theatre that used funding from a Labour government to stage a play titled Called to Account – The Indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the Crime of Aggression against Iraq – A Hearing in 2007, a production that did exactly what it said on the playbill.

    image

    James Baldwin in the Tricycle Theatre bar, as sketched by Fiona Hawthorne in 1987. The long haired arty git on the left is me.

    The Trike has always fiercely defended its political independence – it recently refused the Labour party permission to use their theatre for a fundraiser – so it knows whereof it speaks there too. But it has always recognised, as the UK Jewish Film Festival does today, that a charity that takes funding from a government is not obliged to support it.

    I myself took funding from the Dutch and UK governments - in Index on Censorship’s name – to work in Iraq, trying to help Iraqi journalists protect themselves from the fresh hell we’d just unleashed on them, in succession to the hell they’d endured before that, and the one before that. Etc.

    I once refused funding from a private trust, again in Index’s name, because of the political conditions that were applied to it clearly compromised Index’s independence. And in the end it was easier on my conscience to go to the United Nations for funding to continue my work in Iraq, albeit briefly, before the hell overwhelmed us all, we buried our respective dead and got the fuck out.

    So I understand that dealing with any government with blood on its hands is complicated, regardless of whether or not it’s your own. But at the time I couldn’t help feel that the very fact that a government was willing to spare a miniscule slice of its annual budget to give to its critics suggested that there was something of value buried under the layers of cant and crap.

    And the UK Foreign Office were careful not to take any propaganda advantage from the fact that they were part-funding my team out there, though I never hid the fact when asked. Only once did they try to personally credit my work, and were gracious when I declined the offer.

    I have no idea how much credit the Israeli government expected for their continued funding of the UK Jewish Film Festival. For the festival organisers as British Jews they had a stake in the future of Israel as a democratic state and that engagement was a way to an opportunity for the frank words and constructive criticism needed to achieve it.

    I agree. I’m deeply sceptical of cultural boycotts. Boycott olives if you like, but not competing ideas and challenging visions. During the 1980s the Trike itself drew some opprobrium from the anti-apartheid movement for hosting South African dissident comedian and cultural boycott sceptic Pieter-Dirk Uys.

    So the UKJFF’s stance should have made sense to an arts organisation that had resisted boycotts in the past, picked apart the UK’s corrupt strategy in Iraq win a way that the media never matched, and all the while working to mainstream minority, Black, Asian, Irish and Jewish theatre and cinema in the London arts scene.

    But to use that term that Nick Cohen invests with such dripping contempt, Tricycle chairman Jonathan Levy is a “progressive Jew”. I don’t know, but I guess that what the Israeli government was doing in his name in Gaza in addition to Kilburn was more than Levy could give an Israeli official civil credit for.

    Perhaps it was the idea of welcoming a representative of the Netanyahu government to the opening night, offering him a drink before engaging on a discussion about the ambassador’s view of how historic anti-Semitism in the UK obstructs a fair picture of Israel’s defensive strategy in Gaza.

    I’m speculating. Officially Levy’s view was that “given the present situation in Israel/Palestine, and the unforeseen and unhappy escalation over the past three weeks, the Tricycle will be pleased to host the UKJFF provided it occurs without support or other endorsement from the Israeli government.”

    The writer and freedom of expression champion Hari Kunzru wrote eloquently over the weekend about the importance of personal gestures of protest and the difference between condemning Israel and Hamas. We have no standing with Hamas. But like many of the governments whose policies we reject, we do have a standing with Israel.

    Israel depends on the goodwill of Europeans and Americans to be able to implement its policies in Gaza. By publicly condemning the actions of the Israeli government, we can play a “(tiny) part in delegitimising those actions,” as he says.

    To me though, public condemnation of Israel is one thing, and a cultural boycott is something else. 

    Anyway, Levy decided that the Tricycle couldn’t be associated with any activity directly funded or supported by any party to the conflict – not that anyone was expecting a grant for the arts cheque from Hamas anytime soon.

    He oversaw a patched up compromise offer to replace the missing money if the festival returned the Israeli government funds. Perhaps he thought the UKJCC’s organisers might understand that it wasn’t personal, merely policy, maybe principle.

    They understood OK, but quite reasonably refused to accept the Tricycle’s sudden decision to make use of the venue conditional on their endorsement of a cultural boycott of Israel. The two parted company. Cue a fantastic shitstorm of abuse blasted through the theatre’s foyer.

    Scores of people of intelligence and creativity cast Levy and the Trike’s gesture as outright anti-Semitism. The Trike may never fully recover from the slander. Certainly it will be hard for it to rebuild its relations with the London Jewish community. One friend, a genuinely sensitive, intelligent writer that I have known for decades made overt equivalences between the Tricycle management and the Nazi party, and Levy’s feeble gesture, to Nazi ordinances banning Jews from public places.

    In a typically intelligent and soothing commentary on the Index blog, Padraig Reidy concluded that the problem is that for many seeking to register their disgust at the actions of foreign governments, boycott seems the only option. “Perhaps,” he said, “it’s time for those of us uncomfortable with the idea of shutting down free speech to figure out new avenues of expression.” Perhaps indeed.

    I love the Trike. I helped produce a play by James Baldwin there in 1986 that went on to transfer to the West End. I met my wife there and held my wedding reception in its gallery. I have always respected its stalwart position as a honest, forensic, raw and sometimes satirical critic of our country at war at home and abroad. Levy was wrong. But it doesn’t make it any less of a tragedy for a wonderful theatre.

    Appeal to release Leyla Yunus & Rasul Jafarov.

    Members and partners of the Human Rights House Network (HRHN) and the South Caucasus Network of Human Rights Defenders, call on the Azerbaijani authorities, in this letter to President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, to immediately and unconditionally release Leyla Yunus, Arif Yunus and Rasul Jafarov, and lift all charges held against them.

    Rasul Jafarov, arrested on Saturday and sentenced to three months pre-trial detention on politically motivated charges of tax evasion, illegal business and abuse of authority, just the latest in a series of trumped up charges against human rights defenders.Thoughts are with his friends and family and hoping for a early release.

    Adumbration: A way to start imposing a two-state settlement between Israel & Palestine

    Everybody has a idea how to win peace for Israel and Palestine. Here’s mine. The two-state solution isn’t totally dead. I think that a key problem is Israel’s aversion to defining the borders of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one.

    My view is that the US & Europe should take a page out of the Sykes-Picot playbook and define the borders for them, solely for the purposes of US & EU decision making, on sanctions, aid, treatment of minorities and general policy. Three zones – one indisputably Israeli, one indisputably Palestine and a third subject to negotiation, possibly based in part on existing municipal borders.

    Attacks by Israel on the Palestinian zone and vice versa would be treated by the US & EU as acts of war and subject to a response based on established law of conflict.

    The third zone, mainly Jerusalem and some (very much not all) settlements, would be the focal point of US & EU diplomatic intervention. It would also serve as a buffer in places and for a while, probably be subject to a lot of violence, even as the violence in the other two zones declined.

    Neither warring side will care for this very much, as its arbitrariness and arrogance is glaring, but the purpose of it would be to unblock US & EU diplomatic efforts for peace in the region, not win allies there.

    The truth is that the US & EU will never have friends there, but they are the only parties who can lever an end to this savage stalemate. They have to impose diplomatic terms that they can work from - and bring the two state principle back to life, like it or not.

    A bloody writer writes: My patience is at an end

    A really interesting discussion on wrier Hari Kunzru’s Facebook page over the weekend, with contributions from Salil Tripathi, Manick Govinda, William Dalrymple and others on Hari’s changing view of cultural sanctions on Israel since the start of the assault on Gaza.

    Hari wrote how he had been tipped over the edge by a few hideous commentaries in Israeli mainstream discourse effectively calling for some kind of Israeli final ‘solution’, if I can use that agonising reference (Hari didn’t), to the Palestinian ‘problem’.

    Drawing parallels between Israel’s attacks on Gaza and Nazi Europe, pogroms, ghettos and genocide used to be, well, beyond the pale, or at the very least, historically disproportionate. But we are running out of historical examples powerful enough to help us contextualise what is happening there.

    I still think that despite some of the sentiments voiced in mainstream Israeli media we are nowhere near Holocaust equivalence and never will be; but we are closer to the savagery of the Sri Lankan assault on the LTTE or the first US attack on Fallujah, or more relevantly, the Nazi assault on the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.

    Not to be dismissive of the terrible human price paid by the civilians caught up in these battles, but these analogies are really only tools only for personal understanding, to help you decide how and why you morally respond to today’s horrors. They are no practical help in bringing the misery to an end. Nobody can truly honestly think that they can be, and Hari doesn’t. (Anyway: Those who forget the past lack an excuse to repeat it, that’s what I learnt from seven conflicts.)

    We are all making personal decisions on the basis that what we do will have very little real effect, without belittling the importance of making a moral stand. Here Hari articulates it perfectly. Like him, I have no standing with Hamas, but I do with Israel. Israel depends on the goodwill of Europeans and Americans to be able to implement its policies in Gaza. By publicly condemning the actions of the Israeli government, we can play a “(tiny) part in delegitimising those actions,” as he says.

    To me though, public condemnation of Israel is one thing, and a cultural boycott of Israel is something else. Hari’s well within his rights not to give a damn whether Israeli artists get to play the Edinburgh Festival. It does seem like a horribly callous dismissal of the horrors of Gaza to allow their performances to pass without protest or comment, but we are, at least in part, talking about Israeli hip-hoppers here.

    Drawing easy connections between soldiers and artists, like most efforts at drawing moral equivalence, is too easily reduced to mutually degrading ranting to be of any lasting value. (That said, I can be occasionally selective about which victims of censorship deserve honour, protection or public support - and which don’t – which has got me into deserved trouble before.)

    Basically, I’m not fundamentally opposed to boycotts or people who boycott, only those who do it in a blanket, uninformed way, which I know Hari would never do anyway. Israeli artists deserve freedom of expression, even to offend, as do any other artists. But audiences and cultural practitioners also need the freedom to decide whether they are going to be party to that offence or how they respond to it.

    Adumbration: The BBC in Gaza

    I know, as a Bosnia vet, there’s a case for the ‘journalism of attachment’ in Gaza. But I think that the BBC by and large get it right in trying circumstances. If they were pressured/encouraged/tempted to push it further the Palestinians’ way (whatever way that might be). I think they’d be doing them an injustice in the long run. The BBC have it hard enough dealing with UK-Israeli information operations. And in any case, you’re not supposed to approve of a message from the independent media… Annoyed, encouraged, qualified, yes. Satisfied, no.

    Adumbration: Impotent spooks & nationalist kooks with big missiles

    Russia’s intelligence community is simply pandering to killer thugs in Eastern Ukraine in the dumb hope that engagement will pass for real influence. (Ref: Pakistani ISS spooks and the Taliban) Meanwhile Putin persists with the dumb hope that daily FSB reports on violent neighbourhood chaos that keeps other powers at bay will pass as a geopolitical strategy. (Ref: Pakistan and Afghanistan). Moscow thinks that managing the fallout from a long war is a desirable alternative to a long march to a lasting peace settlement (Ref: Israel). But unlike Israel, Russia is simply finding ways to manage its own impotence.

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