Madrid mayor boycotts opening of art fair over censorship row

Manuela Carmena protests at removal of work calling jailed Catalans political prisoners

The Spanish artist at the centre of a censorship row has attacked the lack of freedom of expression in the country, saying the current legal and political climate means you have to choose your words very carefully or end up explaining yourself in court.

Santiago Sierras piece, Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain, consists of 24 pixellated photographs, including images of the deposed Catalan vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, and Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Snchez, leading figures in two influential grassroots Catalan pro-independence groups.

All three are currently in prison and facing possible charges over their role in Catalonias failed bid for independence.

The work was due to be exhibited at the Arco contemporary art fair in Madrid this week, but was taken down after the exhibition centres operator, Ifema, successfully requested it be dropped on the grounds that the attendant controversy was hurting the visibility of the other art on show.

The decision, which was widely condemned, prompted the mayor of Madrid to boycott the fairs launch and has further fuelled the debate over freedom of expression and artistic liberty in Spain.

I dont like this at all, Sierra told the Guardian. I dont exhibit very much if at all in my city and the one time I do, I get censored. Its the law of the jungle; a tyrannical act from other times far worse than these.

The artist said freedom of expression did not exist in Spain, pointing to recent cases in which musicians and artists have found themselves in court.

You have to choose your words very carefully or end up explaining yourself in front of [Spains top criminal court] the Audiencia Nacional, he said. There are cases every day.

Asked about his decision to include the jailed Catalan leaders in the piece, Sierra said the Spanish government was using the old repressive formulas of Grandfather Franco, adding: The logic that led me to create this piece is the same logic thats stopped this exhibition.

Ifema issued a statement on Thursday afternoon apologising for what it termed the controversy but insisted there had been no attempt at censorship.

We regret and sincerely apologise for the controversy that has arisen from our request for a gallery to to remove a piece, which was never intended as an act of censorship, even though it may have been publicly perceived as such, it said.

The statement came after the Madrid mayor, Manuela Carmena, refused to attend the opening to protest against the decision and to show her utmost defence of freedom of creation, expression and exhibition in Madrid.

Carmena will, however, visit the fair before it ends on Sunday. The city council is one of the members of the Ifema consortium and had earlier asked the operator to reverse its decision.

Manuela Carmena became mayor of Madrid in June 2015. Photograph: Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images

The row comes days after a rapper had his three-and-a-half-year prison sentence upheld by the supreme court after being convicted of distributing songs online that threatened a politician with violence, glorified terrorism and insulted the crown.

This week, a judge ordered the seizure of copies of Faria, a book about drug trafficking in Galicia, after a former mayor in the north-western Spanish region brought legal action against its author.

Sierra said he saw clear parallels between those cases and his own experiences.

Its a way of welcoming us back to the medieval era now that we think were an advanced country, he said.

Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the anti-austerity party Podemos, said the three cases were proof that something was badly wrong in Spain. Freedom of expression is suffering its greatest attack since the [Franco] dictatorship and we cant keep quiet about it, he tweeted on Wednesday.

Amnesty International has criticised the use of legislation to stifle freedom of expression in Spain over the past 12 months.

Dozens of people were prosecuted for glorification of terrorism and humiliation of victims on social media networks, the human rights organisation said in its annual report, published on Thursday.

In many instances, authorities pressed criminal charges against people who had expressed opinions that did not constitute incitement to a terrorism-related offence and fell within the permissible forms of expression under international human rights law.

Amnesty singled out the cases of the two puppeteers who were held for five days and investigated for allegedly praising terrorism in a theatre show, and Cassandra Vera, a student who received a suspended sentence last year for making jokes on Twitter about the murder of a Spanish prime minister in 1973.

Its report also noted that the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly of Catalan independence supporters were disproportionally restricted and Spanish police had used excessive force against peaceful protesters attempting to participate in the unilateral independence referendum in October.

Amnesty recently called for the immediate release of Snchez, saying his detention without charge was excessive and disproportionate.

Snchez and Cuixart were arrested as part of an investigation into alleged sedition in the run-up to the referendum and have been accused of using huge demonstrations to try to prevent Spanish police officers from following a judges orders to halt the vote.

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Marissa SafontMadrid mayor boycotts opening of art fair over censorship row

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