UPDATE: UAE Sentences American Spoof Film Maker to One Year in Jail

Posted December 23rd, 2013 at 3:15 pm (UTC+0)
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ShezWorkIn follow up to an earlier post, an American citizen is among eight youths in Dubai who have been convicted of “defaming the UAE society’s image abroad” and sentenced to jail terms ranging from eight months to one year.

Minnesota resident Shezanne Cassim, along with two Indian co-defendants, received the longest prison sentences — one year — and fined 10,000 AED ($2,700). Two Emirati defendants were sentenced to 8 months and one Emirati was pardoned by the state security court in Abu Dhabi.

Another three defendants were given one-year terms and fined the same amount in absentia. According to the UAE National newspaper reports they are a Canadian woman, a British woman and an American man.

It is expected that Cassim’s sentence will include time already served in jail, and that he will be released in January.

The Emirates Center for Human Rights (ECHR) says that the youths were not allowed to see their lawyers and were forced to sign documents in Arabic–a language they do not understand.

“These young filmmakers are suffering the consequences of authorities who are increasingly sensitive to any form of criticism, no matter how mild. This case has laid bare problems with due legal process and restrictive Internet laws in the UAE,” ECHR director Rori Donaghy said.

The group produced a spoof video of Dubai youth culture called  “Ultimate Combat System: The Deadly Satwa Gs”, making fun of the hip hop craze in a suburb of Dubai called Satwa.

Defense attorneys say the youths did not intend to mock the UAE’s culture or harm its reputation internationally.

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

US: Duck Dynasty Crying Fowl Over Free Speech Rights

Posted December 20th, 2013 at 10:30 pm (UTC+0)
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This 2012 photo released by A&E shows, from left, Phil Robertson, Jase Robertson, Si Robertson and Willie Robertson from the A&E series, "Duck Dynasty."  (AP Photo/A&E, Zach Dilgard)

This 2012 photo released by A&E shows, from left, Phil Robertson, Jase Robertson, Si Robertson and Willie Robertson from the A&E series, “Duck Dynasty.” (AP Photo/A&E, Zach Dilgard)

I’ve hesitated this week to blog about a big free speech debate that’s raging in America, because in the big, global picture, where gays in Uganda risk life in jail and activists in Syria simply disappear, it might seem embarrassingly petty.  But it is about free speech, something we Americans still tangle with.

“Duck Dynasty” is an American reality television series revolving around the lives of the Robertson family of West Monroe, Louisiana, headed by Phil Robertson, 67, whose claim to fame–and fortune—are the duck calls he manufactures, tools hunters use to lure ducks within firing range.

In a recent interview for a magazine, Robertson called homosexuality a sin and compared gays to terrorists.  He also made some disparaging remarks about blacks in the South before Civil Rights, implying that life was just fine for African Americans under segregation.

As a result, the TV network that airs the show suspended Phil indefinitely.

“His personal views in no way reflect those of A&E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely,” A&E statement to Variety Magazine.

His family admits his remarks were “coarse,” but are based on his evangelical Christian values, and they say they won’t continue the show without him.

The Human Rights Campaign and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sent a joint letter to the president of A&E, saying, “These remarks go beyond being outlandishly inaccurate and offensive. They are dangerous and revisionist, appealing to those in our society who wish to repeat patterns of discrimination,” and calling for apologies from Robertson.

But some prominent political figures have jumped to his defense, arguing for his right to free speech—among them, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and possible candidate for 2016 presidential elections.

“In a free society, anyone is free to disagree with him–but the mainstream media should not behave as the thought police censoring the views with which they disagree,” he wrote on his  Facebook page.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal attends a funeral Mass for artist George Rodrigue, at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson - suspended from the series indefinitely after making disparaging remarks about gays - is getting some support from key followers, including Jindal. He lamented the suspension on free speech terms. "It's a messed-up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended," he said in a statement Thursday. The show is filmed in his state. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal attends a funeral Mass for artist George Rodrigue, at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson – suspended from the series indefinitely after making disparaging remarks about gays – is getting some support from key followers, including Jindal. He lamented the suspension on free speech terms. “It’s a messed-up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended,” he said in a statement Thursday. The show is filmed in his state. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, another possible 2016 White House candidate, said, “Phil Robertson and his family are great citizens of the State of Louisiana. The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with.”

And even comedian Jon Stewart, known for testing the limits on the other side of the political spectrum, defends Robertson’s right to say something “ignorant” and not get kicked off television for it.

I’m going to hold back my own opinion, but I will offer a few facts and questions to consider:

  • Free speech is guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution’s First Amendment.  It also means that television networks are free to air what they choose.  And frequently, they choose reality television, which is cheap to produce and gets big ratings.
  • For decades now, TV watchers have peeked into the lives of the rich and poor: Fashion designers, beauty queens, brides-to-be, polygamists and prison guards. Nowadays, we see a lot of “rednecks,” a derisive term Robertson uses himself to describe folks who often don’t have a lot of education (although Robertson was a college football player) and earn a living with their hands. For the sake of TV ratings, the trend seems to be the weirder the better: Bounty hunters, hog trackers, exterminators and alligator wrestlers are all testing not only the limits of “free speech” but good taste as well.
  • Audiences are eating it up.  Duck Dynasty’s recent Christmas show earned 9 million viewers. So why are we stunned that the patriarch of a family well-paid to make outrageous, offensive,  disparaging remarks insulted minority groups?

So what do you think?  Should Robertson be punished for speaking his mind? Please share your thoughts in the comments, below.

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Unconfirmed Reports Saudi Arabia May Monitor, Censor Video Internet Uploads

Posted December 19th, 2013 at 10:29 am (UTC+0)
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Members of the Uturn comedian group work on a Youtube video in Jeddah March 26, 2012. The media is censored and reporters who cross unofficial red lines can face the sack, hefty fines or even prison sentences. But bloggers and contributors to online forums now openly discuss social ills, government inefficiency and corruption, while a Twitter user who ridicules the royal family has attracted 250,000 followers. Picture taken March 26, 2012. To match Feature SAUDI-ONLINE/TABOO REUTERS/Susan Baaghil

Members of the Uturn comedian group work on a YouTube video in Jeddah March 26, 2012. The media is censored and reporters who cross unofficial red lines can face the sack, hefty fines or even prison sentences. But bloggers and contributors to online forums now openly discuss social ills, government inefficiency and corruption, while a Twitter user who ridicules the royal family has attracted 250,000 followers. Picture taken March 26, 2012. To match Feature SAUDI-ONLINE/TABOO REUTERS/Susan Baaghil

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hayat newspaper has reported that the Kingdom is considering setting up a new agency that would monitor and censor video content uploaded onto YouTube and other internet sharing sites.  It quotes the head of the Kingdom’s Commission for Audiovisual Media, Dr. Riadh Najem, who has since criticized the report–though he has not confirmed or denied it.

Saudi Comedian Fahad Albutairi, a stand-up comedian and creator of the wildly popular La Yekthar Show on YouTube, told RePRESSed, “News about censoring YouTube shows in Saudi are just rumors.”

Saudi’s under-30 set accounts for 60% of the total Saudi population of 28 million.  The Kingdom now boasts the highest per-capita use of YouTube on the planet, with more than 90 million hits every day.  Do the math:  That’s 3 YouTube hits per person per day.

Bored by traditional media, which is controlled by the state, youth have begun turning to YouTube sites like UTURN Entertainment or La Yekthar for fresh, humorous content produced outside of the purview of religious censors.

Saudi Arabia now boasts the highest per-capita use of YouTube on the plant, with more than 90 million hits every day.

Saudi Arabia placed #8 on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2012 list of the 10 most censored countries.

 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says the internet has been one of the few areas where Saudis can express themselves and share information.  If this report is confirmed, RSF says it would “yet again show that the Saudi authorities are bent on eliminating all space for freedom and gagging civil society.”

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

China Clamps Down on Foreign Journalists – A Conversation With Paul J. Mooney

Posted December 16th, 2013 at 9:14 am (UTC+0)
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Currently some two dozen journalists from the New York Times and Bloomberg are waiting to receive their visas from the Chinese government, as a year-end deadline approaches.  Meanwhile, web sites of both media outlets have been blocked in China after they published articles detailing the wealth of the families of China’s top leaders. Last month, China rejected the visa application of a freelance journalist who has been reporting from Beijing for the past 18 years.  RePRESSed spoke with Paul J. Mooney, who told his story.

Mooney:  Reuters offered me a job earlier this year to come to Beijing to work and they applied for a visa for me in March.  I waited about eight months, but my visa never came.  Then finally, the Chinese government told Reuters that they had refused me the visa.  They didn’t give any reason for this, but in April, I had to go to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco for a visa interview, and for 90 minutes I was grilled about my views on human rights, on Tibet, the Dalai Lama, things like that.  It was clear to me that my reporting in the past on issues like that might be a problem for me.

RePRESSed:  You were in China for 18 years.  How has China’s treatment of foreign journalists changed in the past decade, and how do you account for that change?

Mooney:  Certainly in the last four years it’s gotten worse.  China made some concessions and relaxed the system a bit on journalists when they were applying for the Olympics, but immediately after that, they started to crack down again.  They began to make people wait for their visas an abnormal length of time, and in each case it was clear to the people involved why they had not been given their visas yet.  It was obvious that they had done certain reporting during the year that displeased the Communist government.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this.  Number one, the Arab Spring made them quite worried, and so they decided to crack down and make sure the media did not play a role in reporting about this.  In China, there was a brief movement they called the ‘Jasmine Revolution, and the police were quite strong in cracking down on reporters who went there.  One reporter from Bloomberg was beaten up.  They called up reporters and told them not to go.  They threatened not to reissue visas to reporters who covered this event.  And so they really were trying to keep this from being reported.

An overturned jeep is seen at the entrance of Shangpu village in China's southern Guangdong province March 5, 2013. Torched vehicles and violent clashes in the Chinese village of Shangpu as farmers protest the loss of land to developers is an uncomfortable reminder to Beijing's incoming leadership that, for many, pledges of reform to prevent land grabs ring hollow. Picture taken March 5, 2013.      REUTERS/James Pomfret

An overturned jeep is seen at the entrance of Shangpu village in China’s southern Guangdong province March 5, 2013. Torched vehicles and violent clashes in the Chinese village of Shangpu as farmers protest the loss of land to developers is an uncomfortable reminder to Beijing’s incoming leadership that, for many, pledges of reform to prevent land grabs ring hollow. Picture taken March 5, 2013. REUTERS/James Pomfret

Also, there is a rising number of protests in China.  There’s a lot of dissatisfaction.  You have some 127 people setting fire to themselves in Tibet.  You have a rising number of incidents in Xinjiang, the Muslim area in northwest China.  You have hundreds of thousands of AIDS victims who haven’t been able to get compensation.  You have unhappy farmers who have lost their land and factory workers who are unhappy.  Social media has meant that these stories get out all over China.  A lot of Chinese people hear about it and foreign people hear about it on social media.  The government has lost its ability to control the truth and dialogue on these issues…so they are lashing out by stepped-up controls in the internet and in Chinese media and in foreign media in order to try and stop this kind of reporting and to stop news from spreading.

RePRESSed:  This must have put you under considerable stress.  Were you ever afraid?

Mooney:  Oh, yes.  I was frequently afraid.   I went and visited AIDS villages where there are hundreds of thousands of people who got AIDS through government-run but illegal blood collection centers, and they try to cover this up.  And there’s plenty of police presence around the villages that were hit the hardest with the HIV-AIDS virus.

I did stories on kidnapped kids [forced to work] in brick kilns hooked up with local government.  I went to cancer villages where the local government was involved in factories that were pouring heavy metal waste into their land.

It’s seldom for a foreign journalist to be beaten or anything, but it’s very common for a foreign journalist to be detained by police who try to erase their photos off your camera or try to confiscate your notes.  Sometimes they’d detain you for hours.  And so there’s always a risk when you go out and do this kind of reporting.  So I was always worried.  My family was worried about me.

RePRESSed:  So self-censorship goes along with the territory, then?

Mooney:  I was actually surprised by the Bloomberg that alleged that Bloomberg had self-censored because I didn’t think this would happen, especially with big news organizations.  But I’m confident that most of my colleagues in Beijing didn’t self-censor.  But the pressure is always there and you are always looking over your shoulder.  You’re worried.  I did a story on the asbestos problem in China and approached 12 government agencies, and they all turned me down.  They said it was too sensitive. And frankly, if I reported on the asbestos issue, then I might get kicked out. It’s a huge problem.  Tens of thousands of people are dying every year, but nobody knows about it in China.  There’s no doubt in my mind that some journalists decide not to do a story because it just may cost them too much.

Recently, one journalist called me up and wanted to speak about the media issue and then said, “Well, I’ll interview you in a few weeks after I get my visa.  So obviously he was worried that, if he wrote about this, he wouldn’t be able to stay in China.   How many reporters over the next year, after seeing about what happened to me or Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera, who was kicked out a year ago or some two dozen Bloomberg and New York Times reporters having [?] 5:43 visas, how many more journalists are now going to be even more inclined to be careful about what stories they choose?

RePRESSed:  What do you believe China is doing with respect to the New York Times and Bloomberg?  Is this a game of chicken or do you think they really intend not to give these reporters their visas?

Mooney:  I think it’s a game of chicken.  I suspect that they’ll give them these visas, but they will wait until the final day or the day before the visas expire.  They’ll feel that they’ve shown journalists that they’re in control, that they can hold the visa over you, and they will feel that people were intimidated by this.  It’s a warning.

 

 

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

New French Law Gives Government Massive Internet, Phone Snooping Powers

Posted December 12th, 2013 at 6:38 pm (UTC+0)
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General view of the hemicycle during a debate about the right to vote in local elections for foreigners at the French Senate in ParisIn spite of fierce opposition from rights activists, the French Senate has passed a controversial new law which allows government agencies to monitor citizens’ phone and internet communications. According to the Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the French internet freedom advocacy group La Quadrature Du Net, the new law:

  • Authorizes real time, live capturing of a wide range of data and documents (“that on request may be captured and transmitted in real time by operators and agents mentioned”) by host websites and service providers.
  • Allows the harvesting and capturing of “data and documents treated or stored by their networks or services,” not just connection data.
  • Extends the list of government agencies that may request surveillance from intelligence agencies alone to defense, interior, and even finance and budget ministries.
  • Extends the reasons for which surveillance may be requested to include information related to “the scientific and economic potential of France” and the prevention of “organized crime and delinquency”

The law allows government agencies to demand the information without getting a judge’s prior approval, as was previously the case.  The law states that the goal of obtaining personal data and carrying out surveillance must be “intelligence that concerns national security, the protection of the essential elements of France’s economic potential, or the prevention of terrorism, criminality and organized crime and the reconstitution or maintenance of disbanded groups” – a very broad definition that allows plenty of room for interpretation.

French entrepreneur Gilles Babinet, who works with Nellie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission for digital technologies, points out the law goes far beyond what is allowed by U.S. law.

“In the United States, it would be unconstitutional because the U.S. Constitution is enshrined the principle of private property and hence correspondence.” Gilles Babinet, quoted in Les Echos, December 8, 2013

London’s Financial Times reports that Asic, an association of internet businesses including Google, Yahoo and Facebook, along with French equivalents, says the law “raises numerous questions in terms of the protection of liberty” and has “weakened the French position in the European and international debate over the protection of personal data.”

The Times also reports that France’s minister for digital affairs, Fleur Pellerin, tweeted that the law “reinforces democratic control on intelligence” and will be complemented by a “big digital law” next year that will include assurances on citizens’ personal liberties.

RSF says it regards the law as a “grave violation of fundamental civil rights, including the rights to privacy, freedom of information and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources” and repeats earlier calls for an international treaty based on the “International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.”

 

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Lebanon: Journalist Covering Weapons Smuggling Stands Accused Himself

Posted December 9th, 2013 at 7:08 pm (UTC+0)
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Rami Aysha. Courtesy photo

Rami Aysha. Courtesy photo

A small group of friends and supporters were waiting at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri airport Sunday evening for the arrival of Lebanese journalist Rami Aysha.  But they weren’t the only ones.  Lebanese immigration and security were also there.  They took him into custody and on Monday, for the second time this year, Aysha appeared before a military judge, charged with purchasing firearms.

As it turned out, there’s good news and not-so-good news.  Aysha had been sentenced to six months in prison and fully expected to serve the sentence in full.

Monday, a military judge changed his sentence to two weeks in prison and released him for time served.  But that’s not enough for Aysha, who tweeted me:  “I didn’t get innocence I got two weeks in prison (which I already served) tomorrow we go back court to rise my case to supreme court.” Tuesday, he’ll appeal his case in Lebanon’s supreme court.

Aysha, a Lebanese journalist, has worked for some well-known media outlets, including TIME, Australia’s ABC and Der Spiegel.  Last August, while investigating arms trafficking from Lebanon to Syria, he believed he had found the source of the weapons in a southern suburb of Beirut.

On August 30, 2013, men Aysha says were Hezbollah agents stopped Aysha at gunpoint after he tried to film a transaction between weapons suppliers and traffickers. Aysha says they tortured him for three hours, then turned him over to Lebanese intelligence, who also interrogated and tortured him.

“Torture means torture,” he said when I asked. “But what I have faced in the first three hours of my kidnapping was more than torture. I had two broken ribs, broken finger and nose, and bruises all over my body. After I was transferred to the Intelligence Department, I was tortured as well, and they broke my nose, and I was bleeding without getting any treatment.”

He was released from jail September 27 on bail of 1 million Lebanese pounds ($663) pending trial before a military court on a charge of purchasing firearms.

Aysha's last tweets before heading back to Lebanon from Thailand, Friday, December 6. Screen Grab.

Aysha’s last tweets before heading back to Lebanon from Thailand, Friday, December 6. Screen Grab.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On November 20, he flew to Thailand, where he would be working for two weeks with Australian Broadcasting on “Trading Misery,” a documentary about human smuggling.

“Before I left, I made an appeal for the judge to postpone my trial until I returned back,” Aysha said. “And I was surprised when he refused and I was shocked when I knew I was sentenced in absentia for six months.”

Reporters Without Borders has called for Lebanon to be withdraw the charges and overturn his conviction. “As a journalist, Aysha was doing a story on arms trafficking when arrested. It is crucial that the Lebanese judicial authorities distinguish between journalistic investigation and illicit trafficking,” the rights group said.

The Switzerland-based rights group Alkarama says, “Trials of civilians before military courts such as Aysha’s trial cannot be regarded as fair. Under article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal.”

Just hours before he left Thailand Friday, Rami said he was flying home, even if he knew what was waiting for him. “I will return back because I know I am innocent,” he said.

“It will be much easier to fight for my case in the country, rather than fighting it from a distance,” he said.  “I don’t want to be a fugitive for the rest of my life and I want everyone to know I am innocent of all charges against me.”

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Malaysia: When Censorship Backfires

Posted December 9th, 2013 at 9:24 am (UTC+0)
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Johor Bahru mural. Courtesy: Ernest Zacharevic

Johor Bahru mural. Courtesy: Ernest Zacharevic

Sometimes when you try to censor something, you end up drawing even more attention to it.

That’s what the town of Johor Bahru recently discovered when it whitewashed over a street mural town officials believed cast the city in a bad light.

You see, Johor Bahru famous for two things:  Asia’s only Legoland amusement park and the dubious reputation of being Malaysia’s “crime capital.”

Looking to spruce up the town’s image a little, Johor Bahru officials recently called on the well-known Lithuanian-born street artist Ernest Zacharevic to paint a mural.  On the night of November 7th, Zacharevic brought out his paints and got to work.

The result showcased both Legoland and the town’s high crime rate.  It featured two Lego figures –  a masked thief with a knife and an obviously wealthy woman carrying a Chanel handbag about to turn the corner and be robbed.

Within no time, the mural went viral across Malaysia, even earning its own Facebook page, 我们反对新山政府除去Ernest Zacharevic的壁画 – translation:  “We are opposed to government removing the Johor Bahru mural by Ernest Zacharevic.”

But town officials were not pleased.

“The robber gives an image that is not good for our country, investment and tourism,” one official said. “Everybody will be scared.”

Town mayor Ismail Karim announced his intention to remove the offending artwork.

Anonymous artist altering original mural.

Anonymous artist altering original mural.

In an effort to soothe officials’ feelings–or perhaps save the town’s reputation–an anonymous artist made an addition to the mural:  A policeman with handcuffs standing behind the thief, to cast local police in a gentler light.

And a group of locals created an online petition calling on the town to allow the mural to stay:  “We see these murals as works of art that has brought life to our city and we want to see more of such street art works by international and local artists,” read the petition.  “Truth and art does not tarnish our city’s image but crime and lack of cleanliness does.”

But the town wasn’t placated, and now we learn from the Global Post online  that the mural has been covered with whitewash.

Senior Malaysian parliamentarian Kit Siang calls this case of artistic censorship “sad and tragic ” and wonders why the “City Council, the Police and Johore State Government haven’t turned their attention, instead, to the town’s  “unacceptably high crime rate.”

As for the artist, as  Malaysian Insider’s Chris Perry reports, Zacharevic says he has no problem with  authorities destroying his work– “it’s the very nature of graffiti art to be ephemeral.”  Apparently, since the mural was whitewashed, Zacharevic is more famous than ever.

And, oh, by the way, as this set of photos from the “We are opposed to government removing the Johor Bahru mural by Ernest Zacharevic”  Facebook page shows, enterprising artists have now recreated the mural all over the town.

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Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

UPDATE: Elton John Plays Moscow, Criticizes Russian Anti-Gay Laws

Posted December 7th, 2013 at 3:48 pm (UTC+0)
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Sir Elton John performs at the Allstate Arena on Saturday, Nov 30, 2013, in Rosemont, IL. (Photo by Barry Brecheisen/Invision for Invision/AP)

Sir Elton John performs at the Allstate Arena on Saturday, Nov 30, 2013, in Rosemont, IL. (Photo by Barry Brecheisen/Invision for Invision/AP)

Sir Elton John went ahead and played at Crocus City Hall in Moscow Friday night, December 6, pausing to explain why he decided to perform.  This full transcript of his remarks is provided on the Elton John Facebook page:

“I have something to say.

I have always loved coming here, coming to this country, ever since I first played here in 1979. I love Russia – I love its art and its culture. But most of all, I love you, the people. You took me to your hearts all those years ago, and you have always welcomed me with warmth and open arms every time I have visited. You have always embraced me, and you have never judged me.

So I am deeply saddened and shocked over the current legislation that is now in place against the LGBT community here in Russia. In my opinion, it is inhumane and it is isolating.

Some people demanded that because of this legislation I must not come here to Russia….

But many, many more people asked me to come. I listened to them. I love this country. I want to show them and the world that I care, and that I don’t believe in isolating people.

Music is a very powerful thing. It brings people together, irrespective of their age, their race, their sexuality or their religion. It does not discriminate.

Look around you tonight. You see men, women…young and old…gay and straight. Thousands of happy Russian people enjoying music. We are all here together in harmony.

And harmony is what makes a happy family…. and a strong society. The spirit we share tonight is what builds a future of equality, love and compassion….. for my children and for your children.

Please don’t leave it behind when you leave tonight….each and every one of you… please keep this spirit in your life and in your heart.I wish you love, peace and health and happiness.

And this show is dedicated to the memory of Vladislav Tornovoi [the young man murdered in the Russian city of Volgograd in May 2013, targeted for being gay].”

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

Russian Court’s Anti-Gay Ruling Could Threaten Elton John’s Concert Plans

Posted December 7th, 2013 at 8:53 am (UTC+0)
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Musician Elton John speaks during the question and answer period with students after performing songs off his new album "The Diving Board" at the USC Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles, California September 16, 2013.

Musician Elton John speaks during the question and answer period with students after performing songs off his new album “The Diving Board” at the USC Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles, California September 16, 2013.

Sir Elton John is reconsidering an upcoming performance in Russia, says Britain’s Independent, because of a controversial new law that bans “gay propaganda.”  A  ruling by Russia’s highest court that was revealed this week may help him make up his mind:  The Constitutional Court has ruled that the “propaganda” is not a breach of the constitution.

The  Court also dismissed a complaint from Nikolai Alexeyev, founder of the Moscow Gay Pride Movement, that the St. Petersburg city council had acted unconstitutionally by passing a law banning the “promotion of homosexuality among minors.”  Alexeyev had asked the court to rule that the law was unconstitutional because it discriminated against people based on their sexual orientation.

Not only did Alexeyev lose his case–but as the Moscow Times reports, in a separate court case in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, Alexeyev and a fellow activist  became the first Russians to be convicted and fined under the new law. It seems that Alexeyev and  fellow activist Yevtushenko tempted fate by picketing in front of a children’s library in the northern city of Arkhangelsk on Monday. They carried signs reading: “Gay propaganda does not exist. People do not become gay, people are born gay.”

Alexey Kiselev protesting next to Children's Library in Arkhangelsk. Photo GayRussia.Ru

Alexey Kiselev protesting next to Children’s Library in Arkhangelsk. Photo GayRussia.Ru

The Arkhangelsk court Tuesday found them both guilty of promoting “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors and fined each of them 4,000 rubles ($120).

As for Sir Elton, he’s scheduled to give concerts in Moscow December 6 and Kazan December 7.  He has said previously that he wants to go, as an expression of solidarity with Russian LGBTs.  He told London’s Guardian newspaper in September, “There’s two avenues of thought: Do you stop everyone going, ban all the artists coming in from Russia?  But then you’re really leaving the men and women who are gay and suffering under the anti-gay laws in an isolated situation. As a gay man, I can’t leave those people on their own without going over there and supporting them. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ve got to go.”

The PolicyMic website explains that the new law defines “propaganda” as the act of distributing information among minors that 1) is aimed at the creating nontraditional sexual attitudes, 2) makes nontraditional sexual relations attractive, 3) equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, or 4) creates an interest in nontraditional sexual relations.

And it isn’t just Russians who can be prosecuted under the new law.

Foreign citizens or stateless persons engaging in propaganda are subject to a fine of 4,000 to 5,000 rubles, or they can be deported from the Russian Federation and/or serve 15 days in jail. If a foreigner uses the media or the internet to engage in propaganda, the fines increase to 50,000-100,000 rubles or a 15-day detention with subsequent deportation from Russia. -Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses

The Independent notes that earlier this year, a committee of concerned Russian parents called on President Vladimir Putin to cancel the Elton John concerts, worried that the openly gay singer might violate the “gay propaganda” ban just by appearing.  “The singer intends to come out in support of local sodomites and break the current Russian law, directed at protecting children,” the parents complained.

Human Rights Watch says the law is discriminatory because it degrades LGBT people.  And the rights group says it also violates the right to freedom of expression, the right to respect for the personal, private, and family lives of individuals, the right to equality, and the ban on discrimination in the enjoyment of those rights.

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

UPDATE: US Ambassador to UAE Says Shezanne Cassim “Highest Priority”

Posted December 4th, 2013 at 11:37 pm (UTC+0)
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Shezanne Cassim. Courtesy Shervon Cassim

Shezanne Cassim. Courtesy Shervon Cassim

The Minnesota Star Tribune website reports that U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Michael Corbin told U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar the case of Shezanne Cassim, a former Minnesota resident imprisoned in Abu Dhabi, is his “highest priority.”

In a phone call late Monday night, Senator Klobuchar also said she plans to discuss Cassim’s case again with Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States.

As I blogged earlier this week, Cassim has been in prison since April 2013 for posting a parody video on YouTube.

 

Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

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About rePRESSEDed

VOA reporter Cecily Hilleary monitors the state of free expression and free speech around the world.

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