This article was written by Oiwan Lam and originally published on the Global Voices webpage on the 24th of June 2023. The article is republished here in accordance with the media partnership between Global Voices and Shouts.
After Hong Kong’s High Court postponed the hearing of the Department of Justice’s (DoJ’s) application for injunctions for a complete ban on the protest song “Glory to Hong Kong,” the DoJ set up a counter at the Wan Chai police station, inviting anyone who opposes the injunctions to register and receive copies of the relevant documents by June 21, 2023.
The registered parties will be given another week to prepare for their submission to the court before the hearing reopens on July 21, 2023.
On the last day of the registration, more than 24 overseas human rights and digital rights groups issued an open letter urging international tech firms, including Apple, Google, Meta, Twitter, and Spotify, to “intervene and oppose the injunction,” stressing that it would have a “disastrous effect” on freedom of expression and information access, with global implications.
The injunctions, once passed, would force online platforms to take down the protest songs. While the DoJ stressed that the Hong Kong government was not aiming for a global takedown, human rights and digital rights groups suggested otherwise.
In the open letter, the groups pointed out that Meta was forced to remove content globally for 50 instances between July 2020 and June 2022. Also, evidence suggested that the Hong Kong authorities were monitoring social media content posted from overseas — in March this year, a 23-year-old student who studied in Japan and returned to Hong Kong was arrested for her Facebook posts. She was eventually charged with committing acts with “seditious intention” even though she was not in Hong Kong when she published the posts.
The groups thus stressed the “growing tendency of Hong Kong authorities to apply abusive laws outside Hong Kong’s territory.
Citing Google’s legal action in Canada over a global content removal request (Google v. Equustek Solutions Inc.), the groups urge tech giants to take similar actions to oppose the Hong Kong government’s injunctions:
“It is critical that internet intermediaries take a collective stance against Hong Kong’s censorship.”
In the court case between Google and Equustek Solutions in 2017, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that Google must block certain search results worldwide, but a U.S. court told Google not to comply as the Canadian court order violated the U.S. law to protect free speech.
Official versions of the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” abruptly vanished from major music streaming platforms on June 14, two days after the initial injunction application hearing. This triggered a panic that the song might be taken down across the internet.
The creator later explained that the move was to address some non-platform-related technical problems. One week later, on June 20, the creator uploaded the 2023 edition of the protest song with ten different versions to all platforms and stressed that the creative team opposed any act that curbs freedom of speech and thought.
The DoJ’s injunctions seek to prevent anyone from broadcasting, performing, printing, publishing, selling, offering for sale, distributing, disseminating, displaying, or reproducing the protest song in any media form, including on the internet that might (a) incite secession or sedition intentions, and (b) mislead others into thinking the song is Hong Kong’s national anthem or insult the national anthem. A list of 32 YouTube videos, which are different versions of the protest song, was attached to the writ.
Thus far, none of the big tech companies has responded to their users’ concerns, nor the Hong Kong government’s legal action.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Journalists Association stated that it would consider stepping into the court as an interested party in the injunction hearing on the protest song. The organization stressed its role as an interested party rather than a defendant, as it had no intention of distributing the song. Its bid is to protect press freedom by asking the court to exempt journalistic practice from the injunction orders.
This post is part of Advox, a Global Voices project dedicated to protecting freedom of expression online. All Posts
This article was written by Juliette Verlaque on February 7th, 2022, and originally published on the Artists At Risk Connection webpage. It is re-published here with permission. Juliette is a program assistant at the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) and a graduate of Barnard College. PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.
Amidst a deeply perilous time of insecurity in Afghanistan, when artistic expression itself is under threat, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) is partnering with Art at a Time Like This, a nonprofit arts organization that provides a platform for free expression at times of crisis, to launch Before Silence: Afghan Artists In Exile, an online exhibition featuring nine multidisciplinary artists who have continued to create through the humanitarian crisis. The artists featured in the exhibition have made the difficult decision to leave Afghanistan and go into exile, many leaving their friends, families, dreams, and achievements behind. This article explores the history of persecution of artists in Afghanistan and the current state of artistic freedom of expression in the country following the takeover by the Taliban in August 2021.
On August 15, global news outlets reported that Kabul had fallen to the Taliban, only days after the US government began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan following a twenty-year occupation.
Within hours, our team at the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) began receiving a flood of urgent requests from Afghan artists to help them flee the country or relocate to safety. These messages were full of desperation and fear – from artists of all disciplines who had gone into hiding, seen their houses ransacked by Taliban operatives, and feared for their lives and the lives of their families. Their only crime was to create art, and now they were seeking any possible path to escape the country.
A singer wrote: I really have no idea how to get out of this hell.
A painter wrote: They saw the paintings and said that according to Islamic law, you are not allowed to paint. You have to tear up the paintings and promise that you will not make images from now on, otherwise you will be punished … Now I do not paint and I do not know what the future will hold.
A visual artist wrote: Unfortunately, from the time I got into art, I was threatened so much that I was physically tortured several times and they even wanted to kill me. They said what I do is non-Muslim. They have broken my artwork and threatened me.
The Taliban has a long history of persecuting artists and censoring artistic expression entirely. When the militants ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they enforced a strict version of Islamic law to ban all music (other than religious singing) and moving images. Portraits of living people were considered sacrilegious, as were books that depicted women with their faces uncovered or criticized the Taliban in any way. Taliban fighters looted the famed National Museum in Kabul several times and destroyed thousands of sculptures around the country.
The two decades after the Taliban’s fall saw a flourishing of art throughout the country. Production companies began to churn out movies and TV shows, comedians and singers entertained millions around the country, and graffiti became increasingly prominent in urban spaces. For many women, in particular, these years provided a previously unimaginable opportunity to work as artists without fear of retribution, from the first Afghan female street artist to the country’s first all-women’s orchestra.
Even so, some artists continued to face retaliation for their creative work, especially as the Taliban slowly but surely began to reemerge and take over districts around the country. This new generation of artists emerged during a time of continual insecurity, marked by tensions and conflict between international coalition forces, the Afghan government, the emerging Islamic State, and the remnants of the Taliban. Against this backdrop of insurgency and counterinsurgency, terror attacks and bombings were commonplace, including some that targeted cultural actors, such as the suicide bombing of the French Cultural Centre in 2014. By 2018, reports found that the Taliban was openly active in 263 districts in Afghanistan (70% of the country) and fully controlled 14 districts (4% of the country). At ARC, we began receiving desperate messages from threatened artists as early as 2019, even before the US first announced a date for its withdrawal, and we heard from a group of filmmakers that they were aware of a Taliban watchlist listing many artists and cultural workers.
But when Taliban insurgents took control of city after city across the country in a matter of weeks, and stunned the world with their systematic takeover of Kabul in mid-August, the threats reached a new and terrifying level. The future of countless artists in the country immediately became deeply uncertain – and fraught with danger.
“The Taliban believe art is a path to corruption and vice in society,” said Samiullah Nabipour, the former dean of the fine arts school at Kabul University, who was in hiding for two months before evacuating with his family in October. “The Taliban ideology is against art.”
For many Afghan artists, simply the act of being an artist is enough to cause them to fear for their lives. For those who were critical of the Taliban during the twenty years that they were not in power, the risks were even more immediate. Likewise, for many female artists, an immediate crackdown on women’s rights in Afghanistan – including the dismissal of female workers, moves to push women out of public life, and severe restrictions on education – placed them in a particularly dangerous situation.
“The future of countless artists in the country immediately became deeply uncertain – and fraught with danger.”
“I have deleted all my music and songs from my phone and am trying to stop talking about music,” said Habibullah Shabab, a popular singer from southern Afghanistan who was a contestant on an Afghan singing show. He now runs a vegetable stand to feed his family. “When I am alone listening to my songs, my previous videos and memories, I cry a lot in my heart that where I was before, and where I am now.”
At first, some international observers hoped that the Taliban, which has embraced innovations that it previously shunned such as television interviews and social media, would be less restrictive, particularly as it seeks to gain diplomatic recognition from other countries. However, the Taliban was quick to ban music in public, among other measures, and in the face of immediate reports of violence against artists – such as the abduction and ultimate murder of comedian Nazar Mhammed on July 18 and the execution of Afghan folk singer Fawad Andarabi on August 30 – many artists felt that they could take no chances.
Following the takeover, many Afghan artists began to engage in self-censorship or self-destruction of their works, burning books, smashing statues, and destroying paintings that they did not think the Taliban would approve of – as well as scrubbing their social media of any mentions of art and staying home rather than performing in public.
Omaid Sharifi, an Afghan street artist and founder of Art Lords, a grassroots street art initiative, who fled Kabul following the takeover, emphasized the particular feeling of devastation that such acts of self-destruction incur for artists. “The feeling of destroying a piece of art is not very far from losing a child, because it is your own creation. It is something you have memories with, something you’ve dreamed about,” he explained. “Suddenly you are putting fire to it – to all your dreams, your aspirations, your hopes.”
The Afghan artists who have contacted ARC – totaling more than 250 since August – are, more than anything else, desperately seeking ways to leave the country. Some have fled to neighboring countries, such as Pakistan and Iran, but many more remain in limbo in Afghanistan, unable to work as artists, and often unable to leave their homes for fear of being found and killed. An untold number of people lack the international connections often needed to obtain relocation, not to mention fundamental barriers such as lack of internet access or lack of a passport – and the lack of a functioning government that can provide such services. The country faces a looming humanitarian crisis, including famine, the collapse of the health-care system, and plummeting wages.
“The feeling of destroying a piece of art is not very far from losing a child, because it is your own creation. It is something you have memories with, something you’ve dreamed about. Suddenly you are putting fire to it – to all your dreams, your aspirations, your hopes.”
— Omaid Sharifi
Six months into the crisis, the path forward remains uncertain. Many of our partner organizations have been similarly inundated with far more requests than they can handle. ARC has worked to coordinate efforts between arts and human rights organizations and share direct resources with Afghan artists who contact us. For those trying to enter the US, there is a years-long backlog of applicants: the Special Immigrant Visa program, which is reserved for certain Afghans who worked for or were connected with the US government, already had a backlog of 18,000 applicants even before the crisis; more than 30,000 people have applied for humanitarian parole; and the traditional refugee entry process is also notoriously slow. There is a similar backlog in countries around the world, and anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments remain rampant globally.
Although the failures and implications of the US pullout have long faded from the headlines, we must not forget that the entire future of arts and culture in Afghanistan is under peril. We must keep in mind the countless artists who remain in hiding in Afghanistan, as well as those who have been able to flee the country and remain in limbo, waiting for visas, residencies, and funding, their future as humans and as artists uncertain.
PEN America and Art at a Time Like This believe that the right to artistic freedom of expression is a human right. Afghan artists should be allowed to live, work and create freely, without fear for their lives or the lives of their families. We must stand with Afghan artists, today and every day.
BEFORE SILENCE: AFGHAN ARTISTS IN EXILE, an online exhibition featuring the work of nine multi-disciplinary Afghan artists who have continued to create in exile, launches February 8. We welcome you to engage with the exhibit and think about what it means to be both Afghan and an artist at a time like this. Read the full press statement from PEN America and Art at a Time Like This here.
By Juliette Verlaque, February 7, 2022. Juliette is a program assistant at the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) and a graduate of Barnard College.
Mehdi Rajabian once served two years, of a larger sentence, in prison in Tehran, Iran, for making music. The oppression the government shows artists in the country is immense but some people, like Mehdi, continue to create beauty despite the threat of incarceration.
His latest work needs to be shared by the rest of us who are not facing the same hardship. This beautiful album, which can be streamed below, features artists from 12 middle eastern countries and includes songs recorded during war and during an escape on a boat by a refugee.