The Goethe-Institut and the Censors: “We Don’t Have a Global Formula”
Goethe president Lehmann: “With the arts, we can do much that politics are unable to do.” (Photo: Mirko Krizanovic)
17 June 2010
China, Vietnam, Nigeria: The Goethe-Institut is active in many countries where freedom of speech is restricted. Nonetheless, its work is practically never impeded. Institute president Klaus-Dieter Lehmann explains why in a conversation about censorship, following a straight line and Obama’s blank page.
Mr. Lehmann, we’d like to talk with you about censorship. You’ve just returned from China...
Lehmann: Yes, it was a very exciting trip. China is a nation of contradictions and it’s very interesting for me to experience this balance of contradictions. On the one hand, you find the ranks of functionaries, who continue to be visibly capable of action, yet on the other hand artists who are very politically active or initiatives such as PASCH, which the Foreign Office initiated there with the Goethe-Institut’s support.
We are all aware that the Chinese government has a different attitude towards freedom of the press and of speech than, say, Germany’s. Was that also a topic during your visit?
Of course, it’s unavoidable. I spoke with representatives of large media companies to find out what conditions they work under and what kind of pressure is put on them. They are real professionals when it comes to dealing with the censorship authorities. For example, one of the major newspapers was supposed to print an interview with U.S. President Barack Obama, but it was censored. Rather than cut it completely, the newspaper was issued with a blank, unprinted page where the interview was supposed to appear. That’s a huge step.
That’s right. But, it’s not atypical. I have the impression that critical voices can be heard quite well in China – especially in the arts and media. In China, more than here, art has the character of a social antenna. Right now, people are dealing for the first time with politically taboo subject matter such as Mao, the consequences of the earthquakes, pollution or the educational system.
To what extent is the work of the Goethe-Institut impaired in China?
Hardly at all. I think they are aware that the Goethe-Institut is not an institution that deliberately seeks to provoke. On the other hand, though, we follow a straight line and that is perceptible. Our approach is to create a space for changes that have occurred or are occurring in society.
How does this work in practice?
We have created a new platform for discussion with the Goethe-Institut and with the language learning centres in China. We introduced a new educational approach: moving away from purely studying under the immediate control of the teacher and towards offering a space for discourse in which all reciprocally support one another. Another acute example: every film that is shown in China has to go through the censorship office. It’s easier for us, though, since the Goethe-Institut is accepted as an independent space. When we show films on our own premises we usually do not have to submit them to the censors. This gives us opportunities that others outside the walls of the Goethe-Institut do not have. For instance, this week we are showing Shanghai Fiction. The German film very clearly reveals the disruptions in present Chinese society; mega-cities like Shanghai, which are getting richer and richer, compared with the rural population, which ultimately is getting ever poorer. The fact that the Goethe-Institut can show this film without being censored is quite remarkable.
This privilege, would you say it’s a kind of jester’s licence that the Goethe-Institut has?
I wouldn’t call it a jester’s licence. But, because we work in a small magnitude and are not subversive, we are no danger to society. Perhaps the Goethe-Institut is even considered a sort of experiment by the government – for it is obvious that we are under observation during our film screenings.
What’s it like in other countries?
We are present in two thirds of the countries on Reporters Without Borders’ list of countries with restricted freedom of speech. We are able to work freely in all of these countries. This means we choose our own guests and choose the media we offer in our libraries.
Are there cases in which the Goethe-Institut has been denied this freedom?
I can only recall one single case in the recent past – that was in Pyongyang. We opened a German reading room there. The people were supposed to be allowed free access to the reading room and we were supposed to be responsible for the choice of media offered there. But, the North Korean government did not adhere to the agreement. Only functionaries who were loyal to the government got in and the German press media were removed from the reading room.
How did you react?
Due to these restrictions, we had to set a limit and close the reading room. We could not let this become a precedent, otherwise word would have gotten around in other countries that the Goethe-Institut throws in the towel in certain cases and denies its own principles.
Where do you draw the line?
Where our work on our own premises is impeded. Yet, we don’t necessarily make use of our presence in a difficult country to carry out demonstrative actions. For instance, I was asked about the Tibet issue whether we wouldn’t set an example and close the Goethe-Institut in China. If we did that, we would be surrendering our base there. The community that had grown up around us would no longer have had a reference point and would not have been able to develop further. By retreating in protest, we would lose a platform for cultural contact and social development.
Do you ever prescribe restraint when it comes to specific issues?
We are very reserved when it comes to religion and sexuality; those are taboo subjects. If they are addressed, it often becomes fundamentalist.
Is the Goethe-Institut sometimes able to continue a dialogue that has been put on ice by politicians?
There are plenty of examples of this. We clearly supported political change in Portugal – that was a long time ago now – and we also had good relations with Latin America while political relations were on ice. With the arts, we can do much that politics and business are unable to do. Foreign policy works with a canon and protocol of diplomatic relations that the Goethe-Institut does not possess.
So, what are your alternative methods?
We don’t have a global formula in each of these countries, but always start with the respective circumstances. That’s where our strength lies. Dealing with a country over a long period of time is what creates the freedom for our work.
What messages would you like to convey this way? Who do you wish to reach ?
The parts of the population that we reach are chiefly the intellectuals and the young people. Both of these groups are willing to take risks, both want change. Yet, we don’t present ourselves like in some advert for washing powder; we engage with our host countries, initiate processes, and demonstrate alternatives. At the same time, we do not present our culture as a political line, but tell of our living environments; we use theatre, film, literature and music as examples, but not as ideals. Then, thinking and questioning come on their own accord.
You spoke of “freedoms.” Would you say that the actual rooms of the Goethe-Institut take on the significance of shelters?
By all means. Real rooms are irreplaceable for maintaining a dialogue. Here, you can feel part of an intellectual community. I repeatedly become aware of this when I experience the openness of discussion rounds and forums with artists, writers or bloggers. This private character of a public institution is perceptible and beneficial for social thought.
Are there also examples of the Goethe-Institut functioning as a real shelter for its staff?
Unfortunately. I used to always say that the difference between a Goethe-Institut and an embassy is that the embassy has to barricade itself to be able to continue to work in difficult situations, while a Goethe-Institut is always open. I’ve learned better. There are situations in which we had to give up this openness to protect our own staff. Kabul is an example. Our institute there is guarded. The director takes an armoured vehicle from the Goethe-Institut to her home and back, otherwise she would not be able to move about at all.
Is it possible to perform at all under such conditions?
In Kabul in particular we do a great deal. For example, we offer women the chance to further educate themselves on our premises. In countries where women have no other opportunity to learn anything it is particularly important that the Goethe-Institut fills the gap. In this way, it also contributes to emancipation.