Musicians, activists, scholars vow to fight music censorship worldwide

Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Participants in the First World Conference on Music and Censorship, held in Copenhagen, Denmark, have called for formation of an international watchdog group to protect the free-expression rights of musicians.

Conference organizers say they hope to create a music-focused group patterned after PEN, the literary organization that defends freedom of expression and promotes contemporary literature.

Held Nov. 20 through 22 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, the conference drew some 90 delegates from around the world to discuss freedom of expression, obscenity and the promotion of hate, racism and drugs in music.

The delegates included musicians, recording professionals, human rights activists and university scholars from 15 countries. Reports on the conference, organized by the Danish Centre of Human Rights, are included in the current issue of the British magazine Index on Censorship.

Among the musicians who attended were South African artists Ray Phiri and Sipho Mabuse, Ray Lema of the Congo and Miguel Angel Estrella, who was jailed and tortured for more than two years by an Argentinean military regime for playing classical music in remote villages.

By the end of the conference, the participants had drafted their own declaration calling for the United Nations, governments, the media, human rights organizations and others to band together to stave off music censorship.

In part, the declaration reiterated the U.N.'s declaration, noting that the freedom of expression “includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”

The declaration says: “We ask for your support to bring violations of (musicians') fundamental rights of freedom of expression to the widest possible international attention and to dedicate yourself, along with us, to the eradication of these forms of human rights abuse.”

Nina Crowley, director of the Massachusetts Music Industry Coalition, said conference participants hit a snag with hate speech and declined to mention the subject in their declaration.

“The right of free expression must be given to all, not only to those that we feel comfortable with,” Crowley told those attending the conference.

Crowley's presentation focused on attempts by religious groups such as the American Family Association and Focus on the Family to prevent shock-rock band Marilyn Manson from performing in several cities in the United States. She said the conference offered her a unique perspective on music censorship in America, compared to censorship elsewhere in the world.

While she met many people who envied the rights enumerated in the First Amendment, Crowley said she told conference participants that the First Amendment “doesn't seem to take all of the censorship away.”

“One of the things that surprised me was that the United States really has a lot of activity in the area of music censorship, more so than many other countries,” Crowley said. “But in other countries, the consequences are more severe.”

Conference panelists said that violations in some countries brought physical and mental abuse, imprisonment and sometimes even death.

Martin Cloonan, a researcher at the University of Stirling in Great Britain, said government broadcasters there regularly censor certain types of music because of “an obligation not to offend public taste and decency.”

Cloonan noted that during the Falkland Island and Persian Gulf wars, broadcasters forbade the airing of music promoting pacifism.

Other conference delegates, particularly those from developing countries, said that music criticizing the efforts of the ruling classes is often forbidden and that those who perform such music are frequently punished.