8 January 2015

The Right to Freedom of Expression

In the light of the atrocities having taken place at the offices of political cartoon Charlie Hebdo in Paris yesterday, it immediately brought to mind the words of former-producer of the most popular French weekly television series on Canal Plus ‘Les Guignols de L’info’, Bruno Gaccio, whom I interviewed recently in his Paris office:

“Good taste is not legally definable. I can be very bad taste, making terrible jokes, if they are not defamatory, insulting or do not incite racial hatred, I have the right to make them. I have every right. The law authorizes me so I have to use it. And all the subtlety is that. Is that some of our leaders - because we had a lot, we saw in the past twenty-five years said "Negotiate".

"Negotiate what, sir,I replied? "" Well, your freedom! You cannot do everything you want, finally! "" Uh ... yes! We do not do anything we want, sir. There is the law in France. The common law.
"Then we ran into things ... such as ... Benedict XVI is a pope who was in the Hitler Youth. That is a man who said "Heil Hitler" in his lifetime. And was chosen as Pope. When we talked about it, we put his puppet and instead of calling him Benedict XVI we called him Adolf II.

We received a call from our management at Canal Plus, who said  "We can not put on Adolf II, as it is defamatory. Not at all! He was in the Hitler Youth. There were seventy-five cardinals, but you choose the one that said "Heil Hitler". You could have done differently! You chose him!

Redemption is very Christian ... So we, in our role as cartoonists, and in the specific context of a program, we have the right to do so. "" Yes ... but the CSA screamed ... "" But who cares CSA! They will blame you. I do not care. Why do they will blame us? Because Christian lobbies do not stop calling them and this bothers them.

Aaah, but that, sir, doesn’t affect us. A lobby, us, we do not care. "" Yes, but they are pushing, it's hard ... "" Well, you have your work to do -Administration. That is to resist this pressure to leave your creators free. "But I've always recognized my leadership has the right to censor me. I said "You have the right. You are at home. It's your business. So you have the right to censor. But it will be called “censorship”- not negotiation, and I will never agree to that. Now if you censor me once a year.. so good. Because that means that 300 other times, I am free. If you censor me three times a week, we have a big problem! So we will stop doing our work. That's it. "And this negotiation and this balance between freedom, responsibility, good taste, bad taste, held in France since - at least for this puppet show - for twenty-five years, because we won our freedom and we've fought for it. “

For the past twelve months I have been travelling around the globe interviewing political puppeteers, satirists, cartoonists and politicians about their right of freedom of expression to criticise and challenge the power of authority

Having recently returned from a symposium on puppetry and politics in Charleville-Mezieres, France, where I discussed my latest film 'The Puppet and The Power', I am now back in Australia beginning the long process of compiling the footage from the twenty countries where I've  been shooting in recent months.

The Puppet and The Power – plays witness to the world’s most anarchic puppets and their masters, who address puppetry as an art of defiance and socio-political change. With a history spanning centuries, this naïve art has a complex duty: In places where injustice and social controls stifle citizens, puppets reflect what is wrong, often with impunity, but at other times with grave personal danger. The puppet’s power has ongoing relevance, in the face of degraded democracy, corporation control and under regimes with suppressed rights of expression.

As world politics shift again towards the right, we see ‘democracy’ losing it’s true meaning in many OECD countries. The mainstream media in many countries remain silent and are no longer criticising or standing up to the power of the day. It is being left to activists in social media and puppeteers to take local action where they can.

Around the world puppeteers are once again getting their puppets out onto the streets to speak out for their rights and regain their voice. But more and more, this action is being stopped.

A group of Syrian artists Masasit Mati produced a web series from 2011, ‘Top Goon - Diaries of a Little Dictator’ which used puppets and satire to lampoon President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian regime’s response to the popular uprising in the country. But Assad is not the only target: All aspects of the revolution are examined and satirised, including the political and armed opposition. The group were forced into exile in Lebanon and other neighbouring countries.

The Czech theatre group Divadlo Líšeň was inspired by the work of Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, to bring the events from Putin’s Russia and the injustices and human rights abuses under his rule onto the world stage. ‘Putin is Skiing’ examines how Putin came to power and the methods he uses to control his people. All of Europe depend on Russia for gas and oil - and this affects the behaviour of the countries towards Russia. When terrible things happen around him, Putin simply leaves to go skiing, showing the authority’s indifference and the powerlessness of the Russian people. The show is also a tribute to Politkovskaya, who was shot and killed outside her Moscow apartment in 2006. The show will probably never get performed in Russia, but in the Czech Republic, it’s putting these concerns into the spotlight.

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