IASPM Conference 2007: Speech by Ole Reitov

Music Bans, Torture, Trials and Marginalization

Freemuse programme officer Ole Reitov’s speech at the 14th biennial conference held in Mexico by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, IASPM.

Friday 29 June 2007: Plenary popular and unpopular musics, 9:30 – 11:30
By Ole Reitov, Freemuse

In November last year Freemuse organised the 3rd World Conference on Music & Censorship in Istanbul.

The members of the Turkish Grup Yorum were amongst more than 40 musicians, composers, researchers and journalists testifying and documenting violations of their freedom to express themselves in songs and music.

Unfortunately they are not an exception. All over the world musicians experience marginalization, censorship, trials, torture and even murder.

That is the very reason why Freemuse exists.

We believe the world needs to document and present to the public violations of freedom of expression for musicians, composers and music presenters. We are convinced that it is important advocating the rights of musicians and composers to express themselves.

We promote the idea that it is an essential human right to be able to listen to and make use of music; we therefore advocate these rights through all the means and media we have access to.

When Freemuse was born after the first ever World Conference on Music Censorship in Copenhagen in 1998 we realised that we had to make use of a multifaceted strategy in order to play a role outside music circles.

It was obvious that we needed to incorporate the experiences and networks of researchers, journalists, musicians and human rights advocates in order to analyse, describe and inform about the complexity of music censorship as it is performed today round the world.

In this session we hope to give you a small insight in how we work and what the issue is about.

We work directly with those targeted – the musicians and the composers. And at times we work with the censors in order to understand the mechanisms behind censorship.

If you do not work with those affected, if you do not get their own records and interpretations, you will miss the whole point of music censorship – so Andres Contreras is here today to add his perspective on music censorship.

But it is also extremely important to get violations and incidents documented and put into perspective.

Scholars and journalists from various fields thus play an essential role in the work of Freemuse and I’m proud to share this session with two researchers – Michael Drewett and Elijah Wald – who have contributed a lot to the documentation and understanding of what censorship of music is, and how it affects our societies.

Now, a few words about Freemuse. We are an international organisation. We are based in Denmark. We are – at the moment – funded by SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and we have a very small secretariat with two full time and three part time people employed.

We consider Pen International our closest sister organisation as Pen support and protect writers, and we collaborate with other Human Rights Organisations.

So what do we do?

We produce surveys, seminars, conferences; give advice to media organisations and film companies. We organise campaigns, serve students, provide inputs to policy papers and produce the most substantial and extensive website in the world covering all aspects of music censorship.

Let’s have a look at the website.

The front page features news stories, which we produce in our office, receive from our stringers or pick up from other international sources. We feature special focus stories, campaigns and lots of interviews with artists who have been banned, put on trial or experienced censorship of music in their countries.

Being censored is not a joke.

Let us remind ourselves that during the past 35 years the world has witnessed the gruesome killing of Victor Jara at the National Stadium in Chile, the killing of Berber musician Lounes Matoub in Algeria, the torture of several musicians in Algeria and Turkey and the marginalisation of all women musicians in Afghanistan and Iran.

And let’s not forget the total mind control in North Korea and the Chinese cultural suppressions of minorities.

Political censorship and repression of minorities is – as you already know – not a new phenomenon.

Stalin censored a lot of music, so did Adolf Hitler, so do leaders in China, North Korea, Belarus, Cuba, Tunisia, Iran, Libya, Algeria… Well the list is too long.

Look at the world map and look at countries without a democracy and you can be pretty sure that the political and military leaders are censoring any music that is considered oppositional.

Look at democratic countries and analyze the market and media domination of global conglomerates.

You will find censorship of the so called free-market.

You will find self censorship amongst artists, music producers and music presenters.

This – to many artists in the US – is the biggest threat to music creativity these days.

But what is the situation in this continent? Was the censorship of music during the Military dictatorships in Brazil, Chile and argentine an exception? We don’t think so, but we do not know enough, so our website does not have a lot of records from Latin America. We hope that you may help us improving that documentation.

I will in the rest of my presentation focus on a trend that is making life really difficult for musicians and composers in many countries today: Religious censorship of music; and religious campaigns against music.

When Ayatollah Khomeini started making a lot of noise in the late 1970’s he inspired religious fundamentalists in the whole region and – as we know – it was the Taliban in Afghanistan who in 1990’s introduced the most severe forms of music censorship seen in recent history.

After some years with a total ban on music in Afghanistan, the music slowly returned and there is now a US and NATO supported government in Kabul. That very same government has recently imposed severe music regulations on music in radio and TV in Afghanistan.

Western music and Afghan women musicians are in the focus of these attacks from the Ministry of Culture, and they are imposed as a political concession to the Taliban and their allies.

So on one level music life as such in Afghanistan is recovering slowly, and on another level the diversity of music is still very much limited and threatened.

A couple of yeas ago a democratic elected local government in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan introduced a ban on music in the province and we now see a violent campaign by Taliban inspired groups targeting musicians, music shop owners, broadcasters, wedding ceremonies, music teachers and just anywhere these fanatics may find the slightest glimpse of music.

Now is this conflict a religious one within Pakistan? Yes and no.

It is – as in many other countries – a conflict involving ethnicity, cultural practices, economical and tribal control – but the tool being used at the moment is religion.

In Iran certain Ayatollahs continue regularly their attacks on music.

In May this year, the Imam of Mashhad demanded a ban on the practicing of music and ordered a closure of all music institutes in the city, and one of his colleagues the Imam of Bojnoord, was quoted as saying: “Live music and dance is haram (not allowed according to the religion) in Islamic countries. (…) Where instrumental music is played, this place is Satan’s place and you are not allowed to go to this area. Playing,” he said.

These arguments are repeated by mullahs in several other countries in the region – sometimes affecting local police authorities to clamp down on heavy rock musicians as is the case in Lebanon, Malaysia and Morocco, but mostly spreading a feeling of fear and hostility towards music.

We see religious scholars are getting an increasing influence over media and politicians in many countries and when they are not using slogans such as “music is a tool of Satan”, then they are playing the political card that “special consideration should be taken towards their religious belief.”

Let me give an example.

The Muslim Council of Britain recently published recommendations on how music lessons should be taught to Muslims in state schools in the United Kingdom. The Muslim Council consider that music teachers in the state schools in Britain should take care to avoid music which potentially could be “harmful” to Muslims.

Let me quote the Council’s recommendations on how music teachers of the public schools in the United Kingdom should tackle the issue of music prohibition in Islam:

“All forms of music that may include the use of obscene and blasphemous language, encourage or promote immoral behaviour, arouse lustful feelings, encourage the consumption of intoxicants and drugs or contain unethical and un-Islamic lyrics would be considered objectionable. For this reason some Muslim parents may express concerns in the way music is taught in school and the extent to which their children may participate in it. …..In such cases the school can show great understanding by providing alternative musical learning opportunities.” The council says.

So what we now see is a new pattern, where conservative Islamic missionaries have entered the political, cultural and social life of the capitals of Europe and in Africa. Targeted at frustrated young immigrants this includes heavy attacks on music.

We also see a new dawn for Christian fundamentalists who join this ugly choir of cultural cannibalism.

A few recent examples:

In Switzerland religious groups a few months back called for a ban on the Swiss Entry song to the Eurovision Song Contest – which they claimed was a ‘satanic’ song that could encourage suicidal tendencies or occult practices.

Now, Ladies and Gentleman this is Europe in 2007.

A Swiss Christian political party handed in a 49,000-signature petition asking that the song, ‘Vampires Are Alive’, to be banned because of its allegedly satanic content.

And next month the so-called ‘All-Polish Committee for Defence against Sects’ will provide to the Polish Authorities a list of artists supposed to “promote satanism” or encourage murder or animal sacrifice. “The index aims at help the authorities to single out artists with a “dangerous message”, artists that the committee wish the extremely conservative and homophobic government to ban.

And let’s not forget the enormous influence that Christian Coalitions in the US hold over the music policy of media conglomerates and legislation in the US – it was after all the Christians who made record companies impose self censorship with “Parental Advisory stickers”.

And it was patriotic Christians who launched the campaigns against musicians who like the Dixie Chicks criticised the US war on Iraq.

So what do we at Freemuse do about censorship?

We work with the artists – some of them have become unofficial ambassadors for Freemuse.

We organise campaigns and support artists whenever possible.

We work closely with international media. In March this year Freemuse in collaboration with media houses in more than 12 countries launched Music Freedom Day.

BBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio France and many more made special programmes on music censorship creating greater awareness.

We work with the International Music Council, who is now dedicated to integrating freedom of expression issues for musicians in their reports to UNESCO.

We publish in-depth reports.

The latest is a document from our World Conference in Istanbul in November last year. Apart from referring the sessions form Cuba, Belarus, Turkey, Indonesia, West Africa, The Middle East etc.

The report will include more than a dozen video interviews with musicians and researchers plus two songs by artists who have faced censorship.

We work with teachers, and we work with researchers.

At our recent world conference we hosted a special session on research in music censorship and a roundtable where researchers from a dozen countries had the opportunity to exchange views.

The researchers come from various fields – political science, social anthropology, religious science and musicology.

Our first report on Afghanistan during Taliban was written by musicologist, Professor John Baily at London University. He received more media attention to his work after that report than during his whole career.

A well researched report continues to keep the work of Freemuse in focus. For the researchers a Freemuse report creates a lot of international attention.

We hope that some of you are forthcoming report writers or collaborators. We need your knowledge and we offer you a global platform.

Our conference in Istanbul was entitled “Music will not be silenced”. This is also the title of our forthcoming report and it is our motto.

Music censorship will probably never cease to exist, but it will not stop the music as we will also hear from my colleagues here.

Thank you for your attention.

Ole Reitov is the programme officer at Freemuse. 



Emotionally charged religious youth burn a pile of music CDs, cassettes and DVDs in the streets of Pakistan’s capital on 6 April 2007

Read more about the International Accosiation for the Study of Popular Music 14th Biennial Conference:

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