26 September 2014

Report on freedom to read among U.S. students and prisoners

On behalf of Freemuse and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) I worked on a submission to theUnited Nation's Universal Periodic Review on the United States. The press release by the NCAC was picked up today by the Guardian.

From the summary:
This Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submission draws attention to the protection of artistic freedom within two particularly vulnerable populations: young persons (under the age of 18) and incarcerated persons. Concerning youth, we concentrate on the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas in the form of art in the context of mandatory public education in the United States. Concerning incarcerated persons, we concentrate on the protection of this freedom within U.S. prisons, jails and detention centers. We find that the U.S. could do more to honor its international commitments and we conclude with several proposals for the implementation of the recommendations accepted by the U.S. during the previous review.

24 March 2014

Human rights org to U.S. Customs: Which instruments are allowed in?

Freemuse has sent a letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expressing its concern about the seizing of Boujemaa Razgui's musical instruments and other property last December (I was grateful to work on the drafting of the letter along with Dr. Julia Banzi of Al Andalus Ensemble, a colleague and devoted friend of Mr. Razgui).

Here's the heart of it:

Two points seem to us indisputable. First, the contents of the Mr. Ragui’s baggage were incorrectly identified by CBP personnel as bamboo. Second, the contents of Mr. Ragui’s baggage did not clearly fall under any of the relevant regulations cited above since they were not unprocessed, protected, or capable of propagation. A reasonable person could have concluded that they were subject to no more restriction than common Western orchestral or popular instruments, which are routinely imported without incident. 
In light of the above, we respectfully request that CBP clarify its position on this case and in doing so clarify its policy regarding the importation of musical instruments consisting of or containing plant products more generally. In particular, we request answers to the following:
  1. If CBP maintains that the seizure of Mr. Razgui’s property was proper, what was the statutory basis for this seizure?
  2. If CBP maintains that the seizure of the property was improper, what steps are being taken to provide compensation or other appropriate rectification of the situation?
  3. Which musical instruments and associated goods specifically are prohibited from importation without a permit, and which permits apply to which instruments?
  4. What concrete measures—such as the dissemination of a detailed policy and/or additional training of staff—will be taken by CBP to assist travelers to the United States in compliance and otherwise to prevent similar incidents in the future?
So far, no answers.

17 March 2014

The state of artistic expression in Egypt, according to new UN report

Freemuse and the Egyptian human rights organization Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) have made a submission to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Egypt, the first UPR submission dedicated to artistic freedom.

The submission is based on Censors of Creativity, an 84-page study of the mechanisms of state censorship and other restrictions on artistic freedom in Egypt. The study was coordinated by my colleague at AFTE, Ahmed Ezzat. Here's my snapshot of Ezzat explaining the preliminary findings in Cairo in December 2013.

Our UPR submission offers several recommendations to the Egyptian government on the need for legislative and institutional reforms. Freemuse and AFTE propose in particular the replacement of the prior censorship apparatus by an age-based classification of artistic works, the reform of the Penal Code to bring it into conformity with international norms that employ the risk of immanent harm as a threshold for the criminalization of expression; and the repeal of Law 35/1978 on the Federation of Artistic Syndicates.

The latter law makes it a crime for filmmakers, dancers, singers, musicians, composers, and many other artists to do their creative work without joining the state-backed professional unions. Forming alternative, less burdensome, unions is also prohibited by law.

07 January 2014

U.S. Customs: Protecting the homeland from deadly flutes

The virtuoso ney player Boujemaa Razgui is claiming that U.S. Customs officials at JFK airport confiscated and destroyed 13 of his priceless and meticulously hand-crafted reed flutes last month as he was returning from Madrid. According to CNN:
For the past 26 years, musician Boujemaa Razgui, a Canadian citizen based in Boston, has traveled around the world and across the United States with his instruments, 11 neys and two kywalas, in tow. Razgui has a green card and grew up in Marrakesh.

Razgui supports himself and his family playing these instruments. Last month, he traveled from Marrakesh, Morocco, to Boston, passing through Madrid and New York, a trip he has made numerous times without incident.

When he arrived in New York on December 22, his suitcase with the instruments and materials he purchased in Morocco to make new instruments was not there. He was told the bag would be in Boston, but when he arrived, he obtained an empty suitcase without his prized instruments inside.
He contacted John F. Kennedy International Airport on December 23 to inquire about the missing instruments, and he said a customs employee told him that his instruments were "destroyed safely" because they were considered agricultural products.
However, Customs and Border Protection has denied destroying any instruments but instead has referred to the destruction "fresh green bamboo canes." CBP Public Affairs Specialist Anthony L. Bucci's statement (in response to an inquiry by a member of the public) was printed at Slipped Disk, the blog of Norman Lebrecht, who originally broke Razgui's story:
CBP is responsible for detecting and preventing the entry into the country of plant pests and exotic foreign animal diseases that could harm America’s agricultural resources. CBP Agriculture Specialists at John F. Kennedy International Airport discovered fresh green bamboo canes approximately three to four feet long inside of unclaimed baggage arriving on a flight from Madrid, Spain on Sunday, December 22, 2013. Fresh bamboo is prohibited from entering the United States to prevent the introduction of exotic plant pathogens. The fresh bamboo canes were seized and destroyed in accordance with established protocols to prevent the introduction of plant pathogens into the United States.
This statement is curious on a number of counts. Razgui's finished flutes were not made of bamboo but rather of a wild reed, Arundo Donax, or Giant Reed. As Daily Kos reports, this is the same reed used in common orchestral instruments. Further, even if, as seems to be the case, there were also some unfinished cane reeds in his luggage, they would not have been fresh and green but already cut and dried.

So far, CBP has offered no clarification or admission of wrongdoing, let alone an apology or proposed compensation.

27 December 2013

Granted amnesty, Pussy Riot leave prison unbowed

In what was seen by many as an effort by the Kremlin to blunt criticism of the Russia in advance of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the two Pussy Riot members remaining in prison, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were granted an early Amnesty and released on the 23rd of December. Yekaterina Samutsevich, who had been released on a suspended sentence in October 2012, participated in a June 2013 Impossible Music Session in Stockholm.

The Guardian reported that the pair emerged from their ordeal appearing unabashed and defiant, speaking of a plan for "cultural revolution" within Russia's prisons. At a press conference, Tolokonnikova had this to say about the release:
It was not an act of humanism. The authorities have simply backed off under pressure coming from inside Russia and from the west. It is not Putin and his parliament we are grateful to, but people who supported us. It was like a miracle. My prison guards were freaking out when letters started pouring in from everywhere – America, Turkey, Bulgaria, even China. I was carrying three huge sacks of letters when they transferred me to another prison.

20 December 2013

Weld El 15 released after acquittal

Freemuse reported today:
The case against Weld El 15 (real name: Ala Yaacoubi) goes back to August 2013, when Weld El 15 and fellow rapper Klay BBJ were briefly detained after a concert they performed in Hammamet, south of Tunis.

A few days later they were sentenced to 21 months in jail without even being notified of a trial.

Klay BBJ turned himself in a few weeks later and was retried and sentenced to six months in jail, but then acquitted in mid-October and freed.

Weld El 15 remained on the run until 5 December 2013 when he turned himself in. In a retrial the same day, he was sentenced to four months imprisonment.

Since then, he had been held in La Mornaguia prison in a Tunis suburb until we was freed on 19 December 2013.

13 December 2013

Requiem for The Mozart Effect?

Thanks in large part to media trumpeting of a small 1993 study by Frances Rauscher and Katherine Ky, who coined the term "Mozart Effect," it has become a truism among many parents that exposing their children to classical music would make them more intelligent.

However, as a new study out of Harvard points out, this research tradition has suffered from a lack of randomized controlled trials and rigorous replication. The study, published in early December 2013 by PLOS ONE, is entitled "Two Randomized Trials Provide No Consistent Evidence for Nonmusical Cognitive Benefits of Brief Preschool Music Enrichment." The abstract reads in part:
We conducted two [randomized controlled trials] with preschool children investigating the cognitive effects of a brief series of music classes, as compared to a similar but non-musical form of arts instruction (visual arts classes, Experiment 1) or to a no-treatment control (Experiment 2). Consistent with typical preschool arts enrichment programs, parents attended classes with their children, participating in a variety of developmentally appropriate arts activities. After six weeks of class, we assessed children's skills in four distinct cognitive areas in which older arts-trained students have been reported to excel: spatial-navigational reasoning, visual form analysis, numerical discrimination, and receptive vocabulary. . . overall, children provided with music classes performed no better than those with visual arts or no classes on any assessment. Our findings underscore the need for replication in RCTs, and suggest caution in interpreting the positive findings from past studies of cognitive effects of music instruction.
At BBC's Science in Action, the study's lead author Samuel Mehr explains the need for more research while also reminding us of the important truth that encouraging serious engagement with music can be a great good for children even if it does them no extramusical good.