Artsfreedom Newsletter no. 2: Reflections over the statistics

4 March 2014



Artsfreedom statistics 2013:
19 artists killed, 27 newly imprisonedFor the second time Freemuse presents annual statistics on global violations on artistic freedom. They are a reflection of stories we have collated and published during the past year. But although our statistics include almost 20 killed artists, several abductions and many cases of imprisonments, they do not give a fair and full picture of the situation for artists globally. They only represent the tip of the iceberg.Many incidents are never made publicly known – whether they include the thousands of artists – not least musicians – who experience daily threats from fundamentalists in northern Mali, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, or are victimized by the internal conflicts of Syria or Sudan.

2013 saw numerous violations on artistic freedom. However, it was also a year when increased national and international attention to violations on artistic freedom was generated at different platforms.

No doubt the first ever UN report on freedom on artistic expression and creativity was a landmark many had waited for. The report raised many crucial questions and recommended governments to look over their legislation and CSO’s and institutes of human rights to document violations.

Unfortunately international reports on violations of human rights present a hierarchical view on freedom of expression. Chapters dealing with freedom of expression from most international human rights organisations and governments focus entirely on media freedom.

This must change. The vitality of artistic creativity is necessary for the development of vibrant cultures. Artists – in the words of the special rapporteur – “have proven their ability to bring counterweights to existing power centres in many developing countries and inspire millions of people to discuss, reflect and mobilise” and subsequently are persecuted, censored and attacked.
Verification is Alfa and Omega to the credibility of statistics. Unfortunately it is not always possible to get cases verified. Take the example of the single most brutal incident incorporated in our statistics – the case of the 12 musicians reportedly executed by firing squad in October in North Korea. Reported by several respected media houses, Freemuse did neither succeed getting the story verified by diplomats living in the country nor by the UN system. We nevertheless decided to include it in the statistics hoping that sources within North Korea one day may verify the story. The country no doubt continues to be the world’s most controlled and artists continue to be tools of the country’s propaganda machine

Open sources

The statistics represent what we have been able to collect from open sources, stringers and network partners. Unfortunately systematic documentation and monitoring of artistic freedom of expression violations is still marginal – the most significant exception being the very well documented attacks on writers by our colleagues at Pen International.

In the USA, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), tracks and responds to censorship issues as they occur in real time across the United States. Article 19 based in United Kingdom present a monthly artist alert newsletter, and Index on Censorship in 2013 continued to present case stories and conducted a workshop on artistic freedom in Myanmar.

Index noted: “In Myanmar the new openness is in contrast to the legal framework which continues to be highly restrictive. Exhibitions, performances and all non-print expression have to be licensed and are subject to pre-censorship by the authorities prior to the granting of a license for their public display”.

The organisations all joined in 2011 setting up the global network in support of artistic freedom of expression, artsfex, and in 2013 there were positive signs of increased focus on documenting artistic freedom by some of artsfex’s partners.

Arterial Network presented a grim picture of the conditions for artistic creativity in 47 African countries in the report “Artwatch Africa”. The 132 page report concluded that “in too many cases, regulations are implemented without consistency by non-transparent mechanisms with no possibility of appeal. Cinema and music are at particular risk here.”

Two reports were published by the Turkish organisation Siyah Bant on artistic freedom in Turkey. The organisation concluded that ”stipulations with regard to ‘national security,’ Turkey’s anti-terror legislation as well as provisions concerning the public order are frequently employed to legitimize censorship and limitations of the freedom in the arts.”

Freemuse published two reports and article collections from ‘All that is banned is desired’ – the first ever world conference on artistic freedom; and the book ‘Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali’,” written by Andy Morgan. “It is this strength that makes artists so dangerous – and why there are so many attempts to suppress the arts by those desperate to hold on to power, using political ideology or religion as a means to maintain control and impose their views of the world,” wrote report writer Robin Denselow.

Freemuse also went on a fact finding mission to Egypt and will soon co-publish with our partner, AFTE, a legal study on censorship legislation in Egypt.

Europe is no exception

We would like to offer a few reflections on the realities behind the statistics. If anyone had hoped that democratic countries in Europe would be the exception to attacks on artistic freedom of expression the statistics from 2013 show a different reality. This was the year when the Greek rapper, Pavlos Fyssas, was brutally killed and the 18-year young poet Yahya Hassan in Denmark received several death threats and was attacked.

Artistic expressions have become a focal point for clashes within societies. They frequently undress and reflect internal conflicts between different groups of societies; whether these are religious, cultural or political conflicts or a combination of these.

In the case of Pavlos Fyssas, aka Killah P, he openly and effectively criticized and addressed the rise of neo Nazism, in the country frequently described as the cradle of democracy. He paid a very high prize for this being fatally stabbed – allegedly by a member of Greece’s extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party.

In Denmark, poet Yahya Hassan voiced the frustrations of a young generation. His rap-poetic harsh criticism of double standards and abuse of the welfare society of his parents’ generation of immigrant Muslims provoked death threats and a physical assault.

Pussy Riot: The hierarchy of freedom of expression and the power of media

Although several of Mali’s world famous musicians joined forces in creating awareness of the cultural disaster of the country, the prime artistic freedom of expression focus of international media and major human rights organisations was on Pussy Riot and Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, who is not allowed to leave his home country.

Freemuse engaged on several levels in the international campaigns for the release of the Pussy Riot members and has documented the case against Ai Weiwei.

However it is essential not distinguishing between famous and non famous artists. A semi-illiterate Afghan wedding musician threatened by the Taliban deserves the same support and the same attention as globally known artists. This is however not an easy task as massive media attention frequently decides whether politicians and large human rights organisations consider it worthwhile to engage in individual cases.

India controversies and political intolerance

2013 also saw an increase in violations of artistic freedom of expression in India. Booker-prize winner Kiran Desai noted in a speech that, “The past years have been so bad for writers and for freedom of speech in India… they’re failing on two levels; there are the threats from various groups aimed at writers and then there is a complete failure of government and local politicians and police to protect writers.”

Also the film censorship was tightened and Paresh Rawal, one of India’s best-known cinema and theatre actors, talked about censorship of his play ‘Dear Father’ and the growing political intolerance against cultural expression. In India – as in so many other countries attacks on artistic freedom stem from political, religious or “moral” groups. Uttar Pradesh-based gay artist Balbir Krishan’s art exhibition ‘My Bed of Roses’ was cancelled and pulled from the Muse Gallery in the city of Hyderabad after organizers received threats from ‘moral police’ – a group claiming to belong to a political party.

Nudity and sexuality no thanks

The Indian “moral police” could join hands with several groups in other countries “protecting the public”. One of the main female characters in a Turkish tv serial touched her husband in an episode while saying, “We will have dessert after dinner.” This disturbed the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), which fined the hosting station 115,000 Turkish Liras (around $60,000).

In the USA the ACLU Foundation of Southern California filed a lawsuit against the county of San Bernardino for allegedly violating the free speech rights of a Rialto artist after pulling two of his paintings from public display “simply because some viewers had complained about the paintings” and in Australia the “moral police” succeeded sending Police to the Linden Centre for Contemporary Art in St Kilda, Melbourne, and seize allegedly “inappropriate” art work by Australian artist Paul Yore. As is the case frequently in the USA complaints came from local residents who were offended that a public funded gallery was “supporting dirty, offensive art.”

Chinese oppression and Iranian slalom

Unfortunately it is no surprise that the Chinese government continues to keep Ai Weiwei in “country arrest” and harass, prosecute and imprison Tibetan artists, who voice their anger over Chinese cultural and political dominance. Nor is it a surprise that Turkey continues systematically to harass and prosecute artists questioning the deep state.

And although the Iranian President Hassan Rohani in the beginning of 2014 was quoted saying ”that creativity is developed in the light of freedom and that art without freedom is nonsense,” 2013 witnessed several serious incidents of a “one step forward two steps back” policy on artistic freedom in Iran.

Concerts were stopped, writers were imprisoned, artists’ passports were confiscated and films heavily censored. “Iran’s literature is wounded, but it still has blood, and in its blood lies a secret” wrote Shahriar Mandanipour one of the most accomplished writers of contemporary Iranian literature. The Iranian Minister of Culture, Ali Jannati, stated that book censorship was too strict under the country’s former government, and the Iranian Writers’ Association urged further resistance against censorship, saying that despite continued protests, the practice remains in force, stifling the voices of writers and artists and all forms of expression.

The beginning of 2014 illustrated that there is no real Iranian spring of culture as the regime brutally executed the 32-year-old poet Hashem Shaabani Nejad convicted of “enmity against God”, “corruption on earth”, “gathering and colluding against state security” and “spreading propaganda against the system” by Branch Two of the Ahvaz Revolutionary Court.

Religious motivated censorship and threats

Religious motivated censorship is not only guiding the Iranian censors, religion and religious pressure groups are active in many other parts of the world and 2013 witnessed several conflicts over artistic freedom related to religious issues. The Artwatch report noted that in Rwanda and DR Congo the Christian revival of “churches are growing and… they play a major role in restrictions of freedom of creative expression.”

India experienced a growing number of attacks on artistic expression from religious groups, and religious controversies have since long moved into the European and North American realities with dubious arguments such as “considerations of minorities“, “respect of religion”, etc. The real power struggle here deals with who is defining religion and how art is considered. It is easy to believe that this is all about Islamic extremism, but stories from the statistics illustrate that the conflict of religion and art is more complex.

One story deals with the death threats from hard core heavy metal fans in Brazil directed at the Norwegian heavy metal band Antestor, which openly declare their faith in the Christian religion. Some heavy metal fans consider themselves “anti-Christ” and “anti-Church” and therefore detest the whole idea of a Christian metal band.

Another story reveals how Diyanet, the Turkish state agency for religious affairs, started investigating whether the imam of a Mediterranean mosque, Ahmet Muhsin Tuzer, can continue his rock band, or whether the genre is incompatible with Islam.

The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of culture in her report reminded the UN member nations that: “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with [ICCPR], …(and)… blasphemy laws have a stifling impact on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief and impede a healthy dialogue and debate about religion.”

Ole Reitov
Executive director

Artistic freedom of
expression violations

Graphic display

A total number of 199 cases of attacks on artists and violations of their rights have been registered.The cases include 19 artists being killed, 27 newly imprisoned, 9 imprisoned in previous years but still serving time, 8 abducted, 3 attacked, 13 threatened or persecuted, 28 prosecuted, 19 detained, as well as 73 cases of censorship.



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