Sakset/Fra hofta

Last month the Norwegian newspaper Adresseavisen based in Trondheim, stirred up attention by destructing 90.000 inserts because they contained a drawing by Jan O. Henriksen portraying the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and his Muhammad caricature. Editor in chief, Arne Blix, who would not even describe the provoking drawing in words, explains in the magazine Journalisten:

– As I said I do not wish to describe the drawing. But it could be misunderstood and be perceived as a provocation. Adresseavisen does not publish material to demonstrate that we can or dare, or just to provoke.

Henriksen says to NRK Trøndelag that he portrayed the controversial Dane holding one of his Muhammad-caricatures. He calls the drawing harmless, and explains that the editorial board approved it, but accepts the decision with no argument. He assumes security was a key factor, but Blix denies this:

– Security was not part of the assessment, since we had already decided that the drawing could be perceived or made to look like a provocation, something Adresseavisen does not want.

In other words: move along, nothing to see here folks.

Unless it is the French embassy which does not want to be associated with things that may be perceived or made to look as a provocation, like for example the Palestine art by the Norwegian painter Håkon Gullvåg. On the embassy’s request, the French Cultural Institute removed two of Gullvåg’s paintings, including one of the Israeli flag covered in blood.

The Norwegian Palestine Committee is appalled by such censorship, and Adresseavisen immediately turns to the barricades for the right to make provocative statements, in other words for freedom of speech. In Damascus, Syria:

The removal of the two paintings is an attack on the freedom of speech which the French authorities must investigate.

The reports of the removal by employees of the French embassy of two of Håkon Gullvåg’s paintings on exhibit in Damascus, is sensational primarily because this is an attack on the artist’s freedom of expression. France, like other western democracies, is usually flying the flag of freedom of expression. Already in 1789, the country’s national assembly stated that freedom of expression is one of the basic human rights.

Trygve Lundemo, permanent commentator for Adresseavisen, is righteously angered, because the removal of Gullvåg’s paintings by the French Cultural Institute might be about the French embassy not wanting to offend Israel. Have you ever heard anything like it? That`s certainly no reason for censorship?

Leader of the Norwegian Palestine Committee, Venche Aaretun, organizer of the exhibition in Damascus, also speaks her mind. She believes the censorship is connected to the role France wants to play in the Middle East. It is not clear whether the embassy’s actions are approved by the high political level.

Until now the French embassy in Damascus has not made a statement explaining what they are doing. They should do this as soon as possible. The explanation might be as simple as overeager employees having intervened fearing unrest around the exhibition venue. But it
might also be about the embassy not wanting to offend Israel.

Aaretun is definitely as shaken as Adresseavisen’s Trygve Lundemo. The Oslo newspaper Aftenposten – whose editor Harald Stanghelle have written about the very same Gullvåg in his exhibition booklet – happens to be as shaken as the other two, and Aftenposten introduces the appalled leader of the Palestine Committee only as «Project Leader for the Damascus exhibition»:

– I did not think it was true. We did this exhibition in Beirut where Palestinians, Lebanese, ministers, refugees, and ordinary people attended without getting a single reaction to the way the Israeli flag was used. So this is obviously about politics where France wishes to position itself into playing a role in the Middle East.

The removal actually happened after negative reactions from Arabic students, who interpreted Gullvåg’s bloodstained flag as a campaign in favor of Israel: – The majority understands the meaning of these paintings, but since we received reactions to the contrary, the embassy will not take any risks, says Patrick Perez at the French Cultural Institute, and continues: – If only one single person believes this is a pro-Israeli exhibition it is one too many. We want to be careful; there has been a lot of tension and unrest around here lately.

The «Sacred Ground» exhibition of Håkon Gullvåg has according to Trygve Lundemo made a profound impression on himself and many others. But because of the artist’s critical attitude towards Israel the security around the Trondheim museum had to be tightened, says Lundemo dramatically, «because there was a fear that Gullvåg’s opponents» – Mossad or IDF, maybe? – «could go to action».

But no, nothing more happened than that those who saw the exhibition that made such a profound impression on Lundemo himself, left the venue with more on their minds than they had when they entered, partially because of the original sight of the Israeli flag covered in blood, we must assume.

Now Gullvåg feels hurt in his freedom of expressions in Damascus Syria – where as everybody knows everyone are gloriously free to speak their minds about anything. Except for poor Gullvåg, who is the victim of state censorship, an otherwise unknown phenomenon in the countries Gullvåg prefers to exhibit his art.

And why would the French embassy really intervene here? Nobody in the well known circuit of Israel-friendly places like Beirut, Lebanon, Damascus, Syria, and Amman, Jordan, and ex Prime Minister Kåre Willoch and UNESCO found the exhibition too controversial, Lundemo points out. Besides, none of them perceived the exhibition as slightly provocative, but then again, these are people who are not easily provoked. Everybody remembers the Islam-critical exhibition which toured the same countries last year, where everybody laughed heartily about the Muhammad caricatures that some western newspapers – Adresseavisen excluded – had printed in an attempt to appear provocative.

If only everybody could react to provocations this way, then Lundemo, Gullvåg, and Adresseavisen would not have to turn to the barricades for the threatened right to make provocative and insulting statements. Imagine what a wonderful world that would be!

Adresseavisen: Assault on the Freedom of Expression