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Freedom of expression… How artists can navigate boundaries of an intolerant world

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Members of Park Theatre, led by Toju Ejoh (middle), reading UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights Convention in pidgin at Freedom Park… in Lagos

For many artists and cultural producers around the world, freedom of expression has increasingly become a luxury item going out of reach. Most societies are getting increasingly intolerant and repressive of artists, who use their art to speak out against rogue regimes. Some democratic settings are not immune from such repressive tendencies.

In Nigeria, bloggers have been arrested and even killed. Visual performer, Atiku Jelili spent days in jail for his performance while Nengi Ilagha, a writer, spent months in jail for his artistic work that spoke against his traditional ruler, Amayanabo of Nembe, Dr. Edmund Daukoru. At the international level, three artists immediately come to mind. Aron Atabek of Kazakhstan, Palestinian Ashraf Fayadh sentenced to life imprisonment in Saudi Arabia and Chinese Liu Xiaobo, who died recently in hospital from cancer after six years imprisonment.

These issues were highlighted recently as Nigerian artists gathered at Freedom Park, Lagos, and join other writers and artists around the world to participate in ‘A Global Day of Reflection on Human Rights and Freedom’ under the aegis of ‘Human Rights and The Arts’ in a worldwide reading for human right programme. It held a lively discussion centred on the 30 articles that make up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations General Assembly, assented to on December 10, 1948.

The event was initiated and coordinated by International Literature Festival, Berlin, and supported by The Wole Soyinka Foundation, CORA/Arterial Network, among other groups. Soyinka flagged off the event, when he read a part of the articles on human rights.

Mr. Jahman Anikulapo advised artists of all shades to always belong to an association or body of fellow artists, which could always rise in their defence in case there was trouble, as was the case with Jelili, whom local and foreign advocacy groups rose in defence, when an Oba in Ejigbo, Lagos, felt affronted with his performance and threw him in jail. Anikulapo, therefore, stressed on collaboration, networking and association of like minds as artists and creative people so as to form a block of defence against any infringement that might arise from their creative expressions, which others might felt infringe on their rights.

Nollywood actor, Mr. Bombo Manuel, who moderated the session, argued for the inclusiveness of ordinary Nigerians in marketplaces and the streets for their education and awareness on human rights so the knowledge permeates the entire society. He expressed happiness that the rights could be read in pidgin and many other Nigerian languages and advised people to look them up on the UN’s website.

A criminal law practitioner, Mr. Seun Lari-Williams, said very few people go to court and cite the UN’s Human Rights Convention; rather, it is the federal constitution of Nigeria that is cited. He added that some people have problem with the drafting of the convention, saying they appear too wide and don’t provide for exceptions.

On whether the police recognise these rights, Lari-Williams explained that the police who stop young people on the road and search through their phones were violating the law although many people do not know their right. He said, “Like me, if a policeman stops me, I will look at his tag and call him by his name and tell him, ‘officer, I know you are not allowed to do this and I am going to take it up.’ Most likely, they will let you go, but sometimes they won’t, I know. So, we hear these things and take it more serious. There is a way we might communicate with them.”

He, however, stressed that not all countries have the resources to enforce everything in the law. He cited a part of the articles that say ‘free education for everyone for all, at least, to primary school level’ and not said not all countries have the resources to enforce such provision.

In his words, “Some nations will tell you, ‘we like this very much but we have to add a clause while applying this United Nation declaration in our country, so long as we can afford it; so, that is what is going on.”

He advised that artist should always consult a lawyer to seek advise on whether they are crossing the line in whatever expressive art they are creating. In fact, he submitted that any artists composing anything that has the likelihood of crossing the line, in terms of offending the powers that-be, should first consult a lawyer to ascertain the limits to which his freedom of expression could go and not offend others.

Also read at the event was the poem of Chinese Xiaobo ‘You Wait Me With Dust.’ He was forcibly released from prison when he was diagnosed with cancer; he wrote the poem for his wife, who had to suffer the pain of his absence. Another poem read was that of Fayadh, who lost his mother last year, but was not released. His poem was ‘Tense Time For Me.’ Atabek’s poem read was ‘My Throat Will Die.’



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