Gagging orders

2010-09-25 11:51

The film, An Independent Mind, opens perhaps ­naively with the ­following extract from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This includes freedom to hold opinions without interference.”

The documentary – made to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – then goes on to chronicle how individuals across the world have been denied this right.

But then again, there has always been a disjoint between the “universalist” aspirations of such ­declarations and reality.

The idea persists in some ­societies that certain human rights are culturally relative, ­particularly freedom of speech.

Recent controversies over the depiction of Islam’s prophet in a cartoon and the restriction of search engine Google’s operations in China, are but two ­cases in point.

The common denominator, ­according to free speech ­advocates, is not the willingness to ­relinquish their right to freedom of opinion on “cultural grounds”, but state repression that serves to control it.

It is the ways in which the state ostracises, restricts, and in some cases punishes those who exercise that right, that Bafta Award-winning director Rex Bloomstein attempts to explore in the film.

The interviewees in the main come from the “usual suspects” – countries whose names feature yearly on the lists of free ­expression watchdogs.

The sexual musings of ­Chinese blogger Mu Zimei was getting up to ten million hits a day. But when she decided to publish her explicit descriptions of sex with 70 men, the Chinese ­government decided it was too risqué and banned the book.

But there are also the ­“surprise” additions like Spain; a country that, like others in Europe, commits to freedom of ­expression and speech in law.

Two years ago, two Spanish cartoonists from El Jueves ­magazine were handed a stiff €3?000 (about R28 300) fine for ­­“vilifying the crown” – a crime that carries the penalty of either a fine or imprisonment.

Members of a Spanish punk rock band, Soziedad Alkoholika, are interviewed in the film.

The musicians have been accused by political parties inside Spain of being sympathetic to Basque terrorist group, the ETA.

Proud as they are of their songs, which the Spanish government claims are seditious, they glance uneasily at the ­camera, telling Bloomstein they’re not too thrilled at the prospect of going to jail for two years.

The band members face an ­upcoming trial in Madrid: a ­lower tribunal that tries ­terrorism cases already having heard the case.

Ivorian reggae singer Tiken Jah Fakoly fled his native Ivory Coast in 1999 when he got wind he was about to be arrested.

It was a cleverly mixed music ­video that got Fakoly on the wrong side of the country’s ­military junta.

Made in 1999, it contained a news clip of the army chief promising to return power to the people, an undertaking he subsequently reneged on.

Fakoly, who now lives in exile in Mali, tells Bloomstein he chose not to pussyfoot around the country’s political excesses but to speak directly to those in power, despite repeated threats to his life.

The director has controversially included an interview with historian David Irving in the film.

This in an attempt to make the point that free speech should be defended – no matter how unpalatable its contents.

Irving’s denial of the extermination of the European Jewry during the Nazi holocaust, and his praise for Adolf Hitler in a 1989 speech earned him a three-year jail sentence in Austria.

The current debates around media freedom make this film particularly relevant.

Perhaps those sounding the death knell for free speech in South Africa should take ­comfort – this country is light years away from the death squads that pick off journalists in South America.

» An Independent Mind will be screened at the Tri Continental Film Festival, which ­opens in Joburg on Friday and in other cities over the next few weeks. Visit

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