Educational “gag orders”, harsh prison sentences on artists and failed attempts to silence LGBTQI+ pop artists
April 2022 in the Americas: A free expression round up produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Laura Vidal, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
This month, we are shining a spotlight on a dangerous increase in attempts to censor cultural voices and artistic expression in the region. In Brazil, an electoral judge attempted to censor artists who were critical of President Bolsonaro onstage; and in the United States, new legislation aims to influence classrooms and pull books from public library shelves. Meanwhile, in Cuba, the government is using the trials of protesters to punish artists they have been targeting for years; and a report from PEN International and UNESCO highlights inequalities in the literary world, as well as what women are doing to take over spaces and put their stories forward.
United States: “A political effort to silence conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion”
Efforts in the United States to silence discussions around race, gender, and critical analysis of US history spiked in 2021 and have continued strong into this year. These debates are not new, but the scale and level of pressure is, as they translate into bills — and some into laws — that take certain books off the shelves of public libraries and prevent teachers from discussing topics like gender or sexuality, as well as race and its role in the history of the country.
PEN America refers to these bills as “educational “gag orders” and has expressed alarm as it indexes the number of books banned in the last months (in the nine-month period represented in the index there are 1,586 instances of individual books being banned). The organization has also counted 155 bills introduced in 38 states that would censor what teachers can say or teach in classrooms. Along with limiting discussions around gender and sexual diversity, a great part of the debate centers around confronting the complexities of US history in classrooms and foster a very particular, and very compulsory, form of patriotism.
The bans are numerous and creative, but also unclear, contradictory, and sometimes contain factual errors. They target artistic and cultural work that could “make someone feel bad to belong to a certain race.” They are intended for schools (kindergarten to grade 12), but their aim is to expand into college lecture halls and other academic spaces. This is very worrisome for the rest of the region, given the influence academia in the United States tends to carry beyond its borders. According to Jonathan Friedman, from PEN America: “the laws are hypocritical, they’re incredibly contradictory, and they’re an obvious political effort to silence conversations that have been growing around diversity, equity and inclusion in schools.”
Cuba: Harsh prison sentences for artists who are against the government
The trials taking place in Cuba in response to the protests of July 2021 have been a tool for the government to imprison writers and musicians who have been making them uncomfortable for years. With the protests as background, police and security forces targeted and attacked over 1,120 artists and other creatives through arbitrary arrests and physical attacks. In April this year, prosecutors requested harsh sentences for well-known artists like Maykel “El Osorbo” Castillo Pérez and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. Meanwhile, musicians Randy Arteaga and Aybel Lescay were given five-year and six-year sentences, respectively.
Some of the charges mention “insults to symbols of the homeland”, “contempt”, “public disorder”, and even “defamation” in the context of the protests. However, the work of these artists has made them a target of the Cuban regime before. Maykel Castillo’s song Patria y Vida (“Homeland and Life”, a clear pun on one of the best-known slogans of the Cuban Revolution: Homeland or Death) premiered in February 2021, became the signature song of the protests both in Cuba and Miami, and won two Latin Grammys. That same year, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was included in American magazine Time as one of the most influential people of 2021 and his work was described by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei as an “unignorable fight for freedom of expression and his uncompromising stance against autocracy reveal the power of resistance.”
In a public statement, PEN International joined 66 organizations and 79 artists to express solidarity with these artists and highlighted how “Castillo Pérez and Otero Alcántara have faced a sustained campaign of harassment and persecution since 2016,” as members of the San Isidro Movement. The San Isidro Movement is a collective created in response to Decree 349, which aims, among other things, to force artists to require authorization by the Cuban culture ministry for any artistic activity. The decree itself was not implemented the way the government had hoped, but the targeting of artists continued, and even intensified.
Brazil: LGBTQI+ pop artists denounce censorship
Late March saw the popular music stage of the Lollapalooza festival in Brazil become the scene of fierce political statements against President Jair Bolsonaro. The statements were quickly responded to with legal attempts to censor “propaganda” on stage, as an electoral judge ordered the festival to ban ‘political demonstrations’ by performers. The petition was made by representatives of Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party, after certain artists chanted “Get out Bolsonaro!”, among them rapper Emicida and pop sensation Pabllo Vittar, who also ran through the crowd carrying a towel showing the image of the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Artists in Brazil quickly protested the measure — which defined their voiced opinions on stage as “political-electoral propaganda” and determined that any further electioneering of this sort would receive a 50,000 reais fine (around 10,000 USD) — on social media. The legal measure backfired, in terms of the government’s public image, but the incident (as well as the festival itself) also revealed the powerful presence of LGBTQI+ artists in the Brazilian pop scene. This cultural influence is remarkable, even crucial, for the community, as violence against LGBTQI+ folks in Brazil is fierce and deadly, especially for transgender people.
Many Brazilian LGBTQI+artists have been censored and attacked, particularly since Bolsonaro’s rise to power. According to Freemuse’s 2020 report, his arrival came with regulations governing cultural expressions and “government interference in the rights of LGBTI artists”, while “creative expressions featuring LGBTI content are continuously challenged” and “artistic performances face backlash after being perceived as insulting and disrespecting to religion”, according to religious authorities.
Women, seize the wor(l)d!
PEN International published, with support from UNESCO, the report Women Seizing the Word: The Participation of Women Writers in Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua. The report puts together an analysis of the experiences of women writers in these five countries and the challenges they face in the editorial and literary world, revealing a difference in representations of writers of 30% to 70%, in favour of men.
The case of Guatemala includes other complexities. The enormous diversity of ethnicities and languages in a country with Spanish as its official and main language further limits the expression of women — especially indigenous women — in written media. Not surprisingly, the report found that men make up 71% of representation in awards, publications, and the press. Similar results were found for Mexico, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
It’s not all bad news. The report and their participants highlight the fact that new spaces seem to be opening for women, thanks to regional efforts led by feminist groups pushing for more intersectional perspectives and bringing forward literature written by women from a wider diversity of backgrounds.
Cartoonists Rights Network International and the Freedom Cartoonists Foundation announced the creation of an unified international cartoonists’ awards-giving partnership: “Through these awards both organizations shall honor extraordinary contributions to freedom of expression made by editorial and political cartoonists, often despite the most difficult of circumstances.”
Tensions continue to rise in Peru. Reports and alerts from IPYS Peru continue to multiply, signalling an increasingly precarious situation for the press in the country, further complicated by a political crisis. In April, among a variety of other incidents, the government introduced a bill that is seen as an attempt to punish critical media, and far-right groups threatened and then broke into the offices of investigative media IDL Reporteros.
Stigmatizing discourse and intimidation on the rise ahead of elections in Colombia. Electoral contexts have typically complicated the work of the press in Colombia, and this year is no exception. In late March Gustavo Petro called a columnist from Noticias RCN “neonazi” in response to a text criticizing his proposal to reform the retirement system. Days later, presidential hopeful Enrique Gomez suggested on Twitter a supposed attachment between certain media outlets and drug trafficking organizations, blatantly ignoring how the press has been one of the main victims of organized crime in the country.