Art and censorship
Iran and Egypt – where making music means torture and exile

Musical freedom of expression is under fire, but artists like Iran's Farzane Zamen and Egypt's Ramy Essam refuse to be silenced. Cristina Burak has the details

Ramy Essam (above right) processed the events of 9 March 2011 a long time ago. Yet they remain seared in his memory. His arrest by Egyptian army officers. The beatings with wood and metal sticks. The military boots kicking his bare body, stomping on his head. The electric shocks from tasers. And his torturers calling him by his name, "Ramy", making it clear they knew exactly who he was: the musician whose song "Irhal", or "Leave", became the anthem of the Tahrir square protests that toppled long-term President Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian Revolution.

Essam faced brutal retaliation from the Egyptian authorities for his politically critical music. And though he's been living in exile in Sweden since 2014, he has not been silenced. In 2018, during the Egyptian presidential campaign, Essam released his single "Balaha". In Arabic, the word means date fruit and in Egypt it's also used generally to describe a person in an unflattering manner. The song criticised the previous four years of government and was aimed at sparking debate among Egyptians before the vote, said Essam.

Music rebels face persecution as dissidents

After the video's publication, the government arrested the lyricist and poet, Galal El-Behairy, as well as music video director Shady Habash and Essam's former social media manager, Mustafa Gamal, even though the latter two were not involved in the song's creation. All three remain in prison on terror-related charges, among others.

For Essam, seeing his artistic collaborators imprisoned was more painful than the torture he experienced. "They hurt other people because of something that I did," he said. He launched the Balaha Case campaign to draw international attention to what he argues is wrongful imprisonment, highlighting his colleagues' plight while addressing a session on freedom of expression at the World Forum on Music (WFM) in Paris on 1 October.

The right to freedom of expression, one of the five music rights outlined by the International Music Council, is increasingly under fire globally. Restrictions on musical expression are being talked about more today than ten years ago.

2019 Freedom House report noted a sharp decline in overall freedom of expression since 2012; while the State of Artistic Freedom 2019 report from Freemuse documented 270 cases of repression in music in 2018, 68 more than the previous year.

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