Uncensored Conversations: Freedom of speech and censorship: How free are we? – Interview with Herd member Traksewt

Ozi Batla, Urthboy and yourself (Traksewt) will be taking part in a Speaker Series forum titled ‘Uncensored Conversations: Boat People, the F-bomb and political power. High profile Australians speak out”. Held by the Museum of Australian Democracy (MOAD) in Canberra, can you tell us a bit about this important event?
A lot of Australian’s might not know MOAD exists, as it was only opened in 2009. The forum of Uncensored Conversations is promoting people to think about what makes a successful democracy and to remind us that it can disappear if no one cares about it. So democracy is like a mythological god that needs people to believe in it to remain all-powerful. Or maybe democracy is like the girlfriend who you didn’t appreciate at the time, and after you break up it’s too late as she is now dating some dictator. In anycase, the forum has attracted some interesting and diverse voices, such as Les Murray, Tim Costello, Stephen Kenny and others.

“Freedom of speech and censorship: How free are we?” is the name of the topic you will be speaking on? What are going to be some of the main talking points raised in this arena?
We will be talking about censorship and politics, the mandatory internet filter, media ownership as a form of censorship and our personal experiences as artists with censorship. Before we sound too whiney, we’ll also be mentioning how lucky we are to exist in a functioning democracy where due to the respect for dissent or maybe just bureaucratic inertia, they let us get away with saying the things we say.

What does it means for you firstly as an Australian and then as an artist to be able to contribute your thoughts and opinions at such an event?
In the lucky country, we’ve had a relatively placid political history. No military takeovers (unless you were in the NT Intervention), no civil war (though the mining tax will probably make the Western Australians secessionists bring up the 1933 referendum results), free press (except SBS reporters who can’t say Palestinian land is occupied land), no locking up people indefinitely without trial (cough cough asylum seekers), and we have the right to protest (except for Sir Joe Bjelke-Peterson constituents, for whom the protest gathering should be no larger than 2 people). These minor distractions do not take away from the great freedom we do enjoy to have these discussions and the ability to continuously identity the flaws with hope to improve. As a stable democracy needs dissent. Without dissent, you will end up with a 1 party system and probably the firewall that goes with it.

The Herd have obviously used hip hop music as an outlet to express opinions and thoughts quite effectively. Do you think that’s an important part of your music?
The politics in our music comes out of stories that we are interested in, and would discuss ourselves. For some, politics has become a dirty word (thanks to the games politicians play to win votes) but I find that most people usually have some opinion, they just don’t want their thoughts to be classified as politics. Since the topics are what we care about, the music would be contrived if we avoided any political statements.

On the Australian Department of Immigration website it states: “Australians are free, within the bounds of the law, to say or write what we think privately or publicly, about the government, or about any topic”. Do you believe that this statement translates in to reality?
Well in general we are quite free. Just because we are free to say or write what we think, doesn’t mean that people will hear us. The media ownership monopoly is a form of indirect censorship. You can speak your mind, as long as it conforms to the stereotypes of what the conglomerate media perpetrate. To flog a dead horse, how did a perfect score of 175 out of 175 editorials of Murdoch papers support the Iraq war? And you can correlate that to the opinion letters selected. Even in some interviews I’ve done about this forum, this topic of media ownership I’ve raised has not made it to press. Media ownership is the elephant in the room that only gets discussed in academia.

Also government institutions have had their hand in stifling dissent. Australian music clips have been barred from Rage for being deemed too political. Granted one was called, ‘John Howard is a filthy slut’ (funny clip) but others have been as tame a political message as ending credits saying ‘free the refugees’.

Although the Australian Constitution does not have any express provision relating to freedom of speech. In theory, therefore, the Commonwealth Parliament may restrict or censor speech through censorship legislation or other laws, as long as they are otherwise within constitutional power. Do you think it’s time for Australia to catch up with other countries and introduce a Bill Of Rights?
I’m not an expert on this, but I’m not too excited by a Bill Of Rights to make a better government. I think we need something but a problem I see with the Bill Of Rights is it focuses too much on the individual. They have a bunch of rights to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t infringe on others rights. Everything is me me me (except when they ask you to go to war to defend your rights, or oil). I think the end outcome is if people listen too much to what lawyers tell us they will end up selfish. For example there is nothing in these bills that mentions a personal responsibility to look after those less fortunate then you. That gets delegated to the government (through welfare tax), NGO’s and religious groups so you maintain the right to be a bastard if you chose.

I would rather something that acknowledges people living in a community and the sacrifices that are needed. Maybe its a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. I like the idea that this was more akin to the social contract concept. I don’t know if that is true, I’ll have to read it up on Wikipedia. If everyone chooses to be a bastard, we’d all get lonely and build gated communities.

You will be speaking alongside Dr. Julianne Schultz, who has an active interest in the way civil society works and is created – both through the arts and the media.What’s it like speaking with someone who has most likely critiqued your creative work?
I will have to read her critiques of us first so we can censor them. For national security reasons of course. Maybe she can give us some good pointers on verses we could have done better. But seriously, it is exciting to have someone passionate about democracy, the arts and media that I can hear talk for free. Having a real academic makes me want to use big words in my talk – I’ll work in using ‘Marmalade’ in a sentence.

What can the average Australian do, to learn more about this or become a bit more active with the issue?
Question what you are told. Keep the bastards honest.

‘Freedom of speech and censorship: How free are we?’ to be held at 6pm in King’s Hall at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, Canberra, 15 June 2010, will see three members of Sydney hip hop group, The Herd, share their thoughts alongside Professor Dr Julianne Schultz.
A podcast of the event will be available from the MOAD webpage.

Image credit: Robin Sellick

Robin Sellick’s wonderful photographs will feature in an exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy along songs by The Herd. The exhibition will run until 30 June 2010.

Museum of Australian Democracy webpage