Behzti is no longer taboo

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While everyone else has been banging on about the election, I’ve been banging on about free speech.  Here’s a review that was commissioned for Index on Censorship and cross-posted at Comment is Free, so choose your forum for comments.  As before, I’ll post a selection of CiF comments on this blog in due course.


Last Friday, British theatre took a small step in the direction of free speech. At the Soho Theatre, in the heart of London’s west end, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti was performed in the UK for the first time since it was controversially cancelled in 2004.

Let us be clear: this was no great stride for freedom, more an anxious shuffle. The performance was a rehearsed reading, not a full production, and received no publicity whatsoever. It was completely absent from the theatre’s website, and was only advertised to those who had been to see Behud, Bhatti’s most recent play. Buying a ticket felt a little like purchasing bootleg liquor from under the counter, and the atmosphere in the auditorium was, I imagine, how dissidents must have felt in the 1640s, when religious puritans closed the theatres and drama was performed illegally. Proper free speech has to be more open than this.

However, at the start of the performance, it became clear just how necessary and important this toddler’s step was to those who lived through the panicked, abrupt cancellation of 2004. I was surprised to hear Janet Steel, the director of the original production, say that she “thought this day would never come.” To an outsider, this modest reading was hardly radical. But to those who were threatened, who witnessed the picket lines first-hand, it is as if the cancellation happened yesterday. The first impressive thing about Friday’s reading was how many of the original cast had turned out to revive the script.

The performance revealed just how essential it is to the piece that it is set in a gurdwara. The rapist, Mr Sandhu, has built the temple, and is responsible for extending it. His office is his lair, and he derives his power over the other characters when he is in it. Choose any other setting (as some have suggested) and the key dynamic simply doesn’t work.

Behzti is often referred to as “that Sikh play”, a phrase which suggests a comparison with “The Scottish Play” (indeed, it has a lot in common with Macbeth, including a heightened realism and off-stage murders). This label suggests that it is for the Sikh community alone to determine its worth and relevance. This is a mistake – sexual abuse is, sadly, universal. For example, scenes from Behzti were mirrored in Two Women, which has just finished a run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In that play, too, we see the complicity of women in the perpetuation of the abuse cycle. And we all know that child abuse and even murder within a church setting is a long established theme for drama. Behzti is a visceral play that the British public, all of us, deserves to see.

Six years after its abortive first production, Behzti still feels current and relevant. The actors turned in a robust delivery with very little time to rehearse, as if they were picking up where they left off. They have reinforced the artistic case for a proper revival.

Over the past five and half years, all other barriers to a remount have also crumbled. The blasphemy argument is as incoherent now as it was then. Even in 2004, there was no consensus among Sikh commentators as to whether the play was an insult to the religion. Since then, the very idea that blasphemy is a reason for censorship has been discredited. After Behzti, controversies over the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and the protests surrounding Jerry Springer the Opera have tested the public’s patience on the issue of “offence”. Public opinion is now firmly against censoring art for religious reasons, and it is now broadly accepted that faith remains strong even when religion is criticised. Even the hotheads who might disagree in principle know that, in practice, peaceful protest and counter-speech are more effective than threats. The violent demonstrations outside the Birmingham Rep are a thing of the past.

Moreover, the police have shown unequivocally that they are prepared to guarantee the safety of the theatregoers at controversial performances. For Behud in Coventry, the West Midlands police force took this issue extremely seriously, and allocated their staff accordingly, at no charge to the theatre. They have offered to do the same for future controversial productions.

Most importantly, Bhatti herself is positive about a revival of Behzti. In past years, she was (understandably) reticent about new productions. But on Friday evening she said to me that she “would love to see a new production”.

For too long, the British theatre community has been embarrassed by the Behzti affair. Its response to the crisis was positive but far too slow. Half a decade later, theatre directors can no longer wish the play into obscurity – its continued censorship is a boil that must now be lanced. The only barrier that now remains is the British theatre community itself, which needs to purge itself of the cowardly and ignorant assumption that the play is still “off limits”.

No more of this apathy. Let it be known that, as of last Friday, this excuse of last resort has been demolished. Behzti is no longer taboo. It can be performed, properly and publicly. What are we waiting for?

Behzti, a play about sex abuse and murder in a Sikh temple, was cancelled in 2004 after the Sikh community stormed the theatre. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

A Jeremiad on UK Visas

Goldsmiths
The view from the panel

Last Monday night I spoke on behalf of English PEN alongside Tony Benn at a meeting a Goldsmiths College Student Union, on the problem of the UK’s new points-based visa system.  The system has caused hundreds of writers and artists to be refused entry to the UK, even for short-term visits such as a one-off gig or book launch.  Academics and university support staff are particularly concerned with how the system affects relationships with their students:  The system places new monitoring requirements on professors to log attendance at individual lectures and inform the UK Border Agency of any ‘suspicious behaviour’.

It was clear that, at Goldsmiths at least, neither staff nor students support the new measures.  The general mood is that staff should boycott any extra tasks that the UKBA demands they perform.  Many were frustrated that such a boycott is not already in operation.  However, co-ordinating such action – which really amounts to a simple work-to-rule action, because there is nothing about surveillance of students in any staff contract – nevertheless requires organisation and a sense of momentum.

From the floor, we heard the story of a student who has been harassed and harried at every turn in her bid to stay and study at the college.  She has spend over £2,600 in legal costs and ‘fees’ for processing various immigration applications.  The university cannot give her much help, since they do not want to “act as solicitors”, and she even had to represent herself and an immigration tribunal.  The ‘helpline’ she has been given to assist with her problems costs £1.20 per minute to call… and she is frequently put on hold whenver she calls.

Belle Ribeiro, the NUS Black Students officer, said that in general, international students do not get enough support when they come to study in the UK, despite contributing a huge amount in fees.  The new rules that insist that foreign student carry an ID card will mean that BME students are likely to be disproportionately hassled to identify and justify themselves.  And when ID card fraud inevitably occurs, it will be the overseas students who suffer.

My own speech was a jeremiad (hat-tip James Fallows for that word) on how this country was sending itself into a horrible cultural decline.  The approximate text, corrected for grammar and general semantic sense, is reproduced below.   You can check it against an recording.  The Rt. Hon. Tony Benn was also on the panel:  I’ve put an MP3 of his remarks online too. Continue reading “A Jeremiad on UK Visas”

Arguing Libel Reform in the Solictiors Journal

I have an article in this week’s Solictiors Journal, calling for whole-scale reform of libel law.  In making my case, I find common ground with Nigel Tait of Carter Ruck:

Speaking at an English PEN event on libel, he [Tait] admitted that some proposals for change filled him with “fear and dread”, but he welcomed the idea of a libel tribunal as an alternative to full trial.

“I actually like the idea of the tribunal, the fast track scheme,” said Tait. “If you’ve got it wrong, then… at least you can go to a tribunal and test it. And we would have lots and lots of cases going through our system, instead of the five or six a year which we have at present.” Tait’s firm is often criticised by free speech campaigners, but here we are in agreement: it is surely better to fight libel cases based on truth and meaning, rather than on which side has the most money.

Mine is the first half of a point-counterpoint editoral feature.  Rod Dadak of Lewis Silkin LLP provides the alternative argument, saying that effective case management is a more effective route to reform.

The proposals made in the Index/PEN report, which include a radical change of our libel laws, are inappropriate and wholly unnecessary. They would seriously impact on the rights of a libel victim to seek vindication and compensation. Freedom of expression has to be balanced with their rights to have their reputation protected: a responsible media have nothing to fear from our existing libel laws. That said, there is iniquity and abuse in respect of costs and also jurisdiction shopping. It must be addressed. Neither the media nor the claimant should hold all the cards, but Index/PEN are over-egging the argument for reform.

Wholesale change is not the solution, effective case management is.

What is encouraging about this, is that at least Mr Dadak acknowledges the problem.  ‘Jurisdiction shopping’ is what is also known as ‘Libel Tourism’, and the issue of spiralling costs is a major obstacle to journalists defending themselves, as the BBC proved earlier this week when it conceded defeat in its legal tussle with Trafigura, over a report on Newsnight about the company’s toxic waste dumping in the Ivory Coast.

I think my reponse to Mr Dadak would be:  If effective case management is the answer, then why isn’t it being done already?  It is not as if the problem with UK libel laws is a new one:  I know Geoffrey Robertson and Anthony Lester, two human rights QC’s who work closely with PEN, have been complaining about the iniquities of libel for literally decades.  I would say that it is precisely the failure of the courts to acknowledge the extent of the problem, that has inspired free speech campaigners are now turning to the politicians to sort out the problem.

Free Speech is Not For Sale

Geoffrey Robertson QC and Alan Rusbridger

Now then: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has resigned from the PCC code committee.  Last week he said that the PCC report into the allegations that the News of the World had been hacking people’s phones was “dangerous to the press” and that it was behaving “uselessly” as a self-regulator.

That was last Monday, 9th November.  But I wonder if Rusbridger’s mind was finally nudged in favour of resignation the following day, by the Human Rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC?  Robertson was speaking at the launch of English PEN and Index on Censorship’s Campaign for Libel Reform, at the Free Word Centre.  He had this to say on the subject of the media and the PCC:

The media … have for years committed a fraud on the public and on their readers by presenting this confidence trick of the Press Complaints Commission, as though it were a real court, as though it were significant.  The Press Complaints Commission has been funded by the press, in order firstly to provide a poor person’s libel court (which has now gone by the board because now everyone who sues uses CFAs); it has been funded secondly to prevent the encroachment of the law of privacy – and its too late now, because we have a law of privacy: ill-designed, vaugely worded, European Gobbledegook for the most part, which is being implemented in a ham-fisted way by the judiciary.

So, there’s no point in the PCC.  If the editors of Fleet Street had any real integrity they would withdraw.  As Ian Hislop said, as the editor of the only organ that refuses to accept PCC judgements, he wouldn’t want to live up to the ethics of the newspaper editors who are on the PCC’s ethics committee!

Alan Rusbridger, crouched in the aisles and listening with a wry smile, duly reported some this criticism via Twitter.

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Geoffrey Robertson QC

Free Expression in Oslo

Its been a bit quiet on the blog this week.  That’s because I’ve been at the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression in Oslo.  I’ve been using Twitter to log noteworthy nuggets from the seminars and speeches, and may add some more substantial thoughts later.

In the meantime, here’s a compelling cartoon from the artist Magnus Bard.  It features in the International Cartoon Exhibition, currently on show until 26th July at the Oscarsborg fortress in Oslo fjord.

magnusbard-because

Free Alaa – Egyptian blogger detained

While MK posts on the benefits of the small-web (more on that another time), we find a good example of the ‘large web’ we have all come to know. Demoblogger posts G-B4A as a Test Case in Web 2.0 Activism, highlighting the 21st century methods being employed to hasten the release of Alaa Abd El-Fatah, who has been imprisoned for his part in a peaceful, pro-democracy protest.

The web can raise awareness of these issues, but we must still focus on more traditional channels in order to effect change in this particular issue. Pickled Politics suggests that Google-bombing might not be successful, and in any case should not be an end itself.

[The] free-Alaa campaign needs to become more prominent with mentions in the national papers. But surprise surprise the press has largely ignored the story … My suggestion is: organise or join a demonstration outside the Egyptian embassy or send emails to your newspaper or broadcaster of choice and ask why haven’t they yet written about this story.

Or, of course, TheyWorkForYou.com can allow you to make your MP aware of the issue. The new Foreign Secretary might be prompted to take up the issue of free speech with the Egyptian government.

Journalists Harassed in Israel

One group of people who get very little attention in the Middle-East are the Arab citizens of Israel. One in five Israelis are Arabs, but as either Muslims or Christians they are effectively second-class citizens in what is, after all, a Jewish State. Even if a utopian reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians were to take place, a two-state solution would still leave discrimmination of Arab Israelis unaddressed.

Israel claims to be an open democracy, but certain recent events remind us of an authoritarian streak that must be tempered if the country wishes all its citizens to live in peace. On Christmas Day, the renowned writer Antwan Shalhat received a travel ban issued by Israel’s Department of Interior. No explanation for why the ban was placed has been given, no time-scale is specified, and the reasons given are “secret”. Furthermore, according to Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, a travel ban violates Mr Shalhat’s constitutional right to leave the country under Article 6 of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

Antwan Shalhat has translated many texts between Hebrew and Arabic, including the work of Yeshayahou Leibowitz. What is most bizarre is that he has no plans to go overseas at present, for speaking engagements or otherwise. The ban seems arbitrary, unjust, and does nothing to engender confidence in the government.

The treatment of Mr Shalhat is not an isolated case. Last autumn, a string of Arab Israeli journalists were detained and interrogated by the Israeli General Security Services (GSS/Shabak). Those detained included Hassan Muwasi, correspondent for Lebanese newspaper, al-Mustaqbal, and Ahmad Abu Hussein, head of www.arabs48.com. The men are not suspected of any illegal activity, but were questioned about their relationships to journalistic contacts, who are in turn suspected to have links with Hezbollah. In addition, the journalists were asked questions unrelated to state security, regarding details of their professional work and political affiliations.

I’lam, the Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel, believes these ‘security interrogations’ constitute a breach of Israeli Penal Code Section 114D which specifies that persons in contact with ‘outside agents’ cannot be charged if their intentions do not threaten state security. The journalists have not been secretive regarding their activities, and assert that any contact they have had with people who have, in turn, had links to Hezbollah, are purely professional. I’lam’s press statement says:

[the interrogation] subsumes the professional and cultural rights of Arab journalists to the assumed security needs of the Israeli state. There is no consideration of the crucial role relationships between Arab journalists in Israel and the wider Arab world play in the professional, informational and cultural life of Arab citizens of Israel, nor is there any consideration of the rights of Arabs in Israel to freedom of expression, association and information.

Hamas looks set to win a large proportion of the vote in the imminent Palestinian elections. To ensure that the organisation chooses politics over violence, the freedom of movement for Arab journalists in Israel and Palestine is of vital importance.