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World: Conference Agrees To Establish Music Censorship Watchdog

Copenhagen, 24 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A conference was held in Copenhagen over the weekend with the aim of drawing attention to the global censorship of music and musicians.

Organizers, including the Danish Center for Human Rights, said that unlike censorship facing writers and poets, restrictions on music have attracted relatively little attention from international media and research institutions.

One of the organizers, Danish journalist Ole Reitov, told RFE/RL shortly after the conference ended on Sunday that "writers have their international PEN club (a watchdog group monitoring censorship issues), but musicians don't" have an equivalent group. Reitov said a determination to change that was one of the decisions made at the gathering.

Reitov said participants agreed to establish a permanent international body to monitor the infringement of musicians' rights and to protect them against political pressure or aggression. The body is expected to be based in Denmark.

Among the many instances of censorship of music and violence against artists, Reitov pointed to the murder this summer of Lounes Mabout, Algeria's most prominent singer. His killing has been blamed on Muslim fundamentalists.

Reitov said the worst conditions for musicians appear to be in Afghanistan, where the Islamist Taliban militia has placed sweeping bans on music.

Historically, music has been restricted even in countries generally considered to be free of censorship. Conference organizers noted that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) once banned Paul McCartney's song "Give Ireland back to the Irish," and the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen."

In the 1980s, some American radio stations refused to play Olivia Newton John's "Let's Get Physical," saying its text contravened commonly-accepted moral standards.

More recently Wal-Mart, a large American retail chain, refused to sell Sheryl Crow's "Love is a Good Thing" because of a verse it found objectionable. The lyric goes: "Watch our children as they kill each other with a gun they bought at Wal-Mart."

It is not only contemporary musicians who run into restrictions. Reitov cites a situation in Israel where the music of the 19th century composer Richard Wagner, which was admired by Adolph Hitler, is still considered objectionable.

A major issue at the Copenhagen conference was whether all music should be protected from censorship or whether there should be certain limits which not even artists should be allowed to cross.

Nina Crowley of the Massachusetts Music Information Center in the United States argued against any restrictions, saying "the music belongs first to the artist and then to the public." In her opinion, therefore, anything is acceptable. But the Israeli musicologist and writer Noam Ben Zeev disagreed when it came to the question of what is often called hate music: tunes whose lyrics promote racial hatred and ethnic animosity. Zeev said such music should be banned.

Zeev noted that as a journalist, he has the "freedom to write whatever (he) wants in (his) newspaper, but...not the right to write lies." He said there are also understood limitations on freedom of movement, saying he has the right to go nearly everywhere he wants, but not into his neighbor's house. He said some restrictions on music are also justified.

Helene Loeoew, a Swedish expert on hate music, said it has become far more common in recent years. She said that while in the 1980s there were only a handful of rock bands encouraging racism and neo-Nazi values, today there are over 200. Still, Loeoew acknowledged that it is difficult to ban neo-Nazi music outright as it is not the only form of music that at least some listeners would consider intolerant.