Migrant Lives

Italian Elections: Using 'Guerrilla Art' To Change Immigration Debate

Anti-immigrant rhetoric has become increasingly commonplace as political forces jockey for position ahead of this Sunday's national elections.

The people depicted on the election posters are immigrants
The people depicted on the election posters are immigrants
Nicola Pinna

TURIN — Their faces adorn election posters seen throughout the cities of Italy last week, inviting citizens to "vote for them." But the people depicted — Jasvir, Michael, Anayet, Mamhut, Zhang, Rahaman, Viltus, and Ali — are not candidates in the upcoming national elections, on March 4. They're immigrants, from all walks of life, chosen by Italian artists for a public campaign to protest the anti-immigrant rhetoric so prevalent in this election season.

Italians will go to the polls for the first time since an inconclusive vote in 2013 led to a grand coalition between the center-left Democratic Party (PD) and center-right parties under Enrico Letta. The deal collapsed later that year over a tax hike and Letta himself was ousted by PD leader Matteo Renzi in early 2014. Renzi presided over a slow economic recovery from the eurozone crisis, but his tenure also saw a spike in migrant arrivals on Italian shores.

After losing a constitutional referendum on which he'd staked his political future, Renzi resigned in December 2016, and the PD went on to suffer multiple losses at local elections and a debilitating internal schism. As the economic crisis has receded from view, immigration has become the dominant theme of the election, especially in wake of recent events in the central Italian city of Macerata, where the dismembered body of a young woman — 18-year-old Pamela Mastropietro — was discovered on Jan. 31.

The killing shocked the country and led to the arrests of two Nigerian men the next day. Two days later, on Feb. 3, a man named Luca Trani went on a shooting spree in the city, targeting people of African origin and injuring six. During his arrest, Trani — who stood as a candidate for the far-right Northern League in last year's local elections — made the fascist salute and claimed he was avenging Mastropietro's death.

The attack was widely condemned, and in Macerata, thousands gathered afterwards for an anti-racist march. Still, Trani's actions drew quiet support from many Italians in an increasingly polarized country. The anti-establishment Five-Star Movement has been gaining in the polls at the expense of the PD, but has itself been eclipsed by the rise of the Northern League and Silvio Berlusconi's conservative Forza Italia, which have largely campaigned on curbing immigration.

Election posters like those featuring Jasvir and Michael were once the primary form of advertising for Italy's major political parties, but they now do most of their campaigning on social media. The artists behind the pro-immigration posters co-opted the familiar campaign strategy by plastering city walls with the faces of immigrants from multiple backgrounds: recent arrivals from East Asia and Africa; women wearing head veils; young fathers who risked their lives to escape a warzone.

The posters were put up during nighttime "raids' in major Italian cities. Hooded activists armed with paper and glue fanned out across the streets of Trieste and Cagliari, before proceeding to Milan, Rome, Bologna, and elsewhere.

The project was launched by Gianluca Vassallo, a photographer and activist based in Sardinia. He calls the poster campaign a form of "guerrilla art," and he has traveled the country collecting the stories of migrants who fear for their lives in the current xenophobic climate. Some say they're scared to venture outside in Macerata, others that they're forced to sleep on benches in Milan. Numerous immigrants have died as well — of hunger, on the cold streets of Turin, or by drowning on their way to Lampedusa.

"Through the faces and stories of these migrants, we're trying to center the public debate on immigration on individual human lives and dignity," Vassallo says. "These election posters, abandoned by politicians, can become metaphors that represent something else: the lives of agricultural workers, of factory workers, of the elderly who need assistance. They're a metaphor for the hunger we feel for a different future."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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