Freedom of artistic expression in Europe… Which Europe?

3 October 2014

Artsfreedom Newsletter no. 5


As the new Commissioners of the European Union are soon entering their offices and appointing key staff members, we are reminded that Europe is not a clearly defined entity.

In fact there are several different “Europes” in which, depending on which one we talk about, the conditions for artistic freedom of expression differ widely.


Politically and geographically there is no widely agreed upon definition of Europe. There is the Europe of the “European Union,” consisting of 28 member states. This “Europe” includes neither Norway, Switzerland, Albania nor several other “European countries.”

Then we have a Europe defined by participation in the Eurovision Song Contest which over the years has had 50 countries participating, including Israel. A “European” contest which does not allow political songs.

But the “legally binding Europe” is a rather different entity. This is the Europe defined by membership of the Council of Europe which, again, should not be confused with the European Council of the EU member states.

As stated on its website, “The Council of Europe is the continent’s leading human rights organisation. It includes 47 member states, 28 of which are members of the European Union. All Council of Europe member states have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty designed to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law.” Members include Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Countries that systematically violate human rights.

Chairing country violates artistic freedom
Currently the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is chaired by Azerbaijan, a country which violates several articles of the European Convention. Freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are areas which the country needs to improve.

In May, we linked to a 33-page report by Art for Democracy that documented cases of violations of the right to artistic freedom of expression over the past three years in Azerbaijan. Those cases have not been discussed in detail at the Council.

Individuals can bring complaints of human rights violations to the Council’s Court in Strasbourg once all possibilities of appeal have been exhausted in the member state concerned. But few artists are aware of this or have the resources to fight bureaucratic, and often corrupt, systems in their home countries and few freedom of artistic expression organisations, if any, have the resources to be present in Strasbourg and support the preparation of such cases.

Compared to media organisations, we – those defending artistic freedom – do not have enough strength and financial muscle to follow up on all violations of artistic freedom of expression at European Court level, or even through lobbying or advocacy at UN level.

Advocacy at UN level
At Freemuse our advocacy currently prioritizes the promotion of freedom of artistic expression at the level of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Freemuse is the first organisation to have ever submitted so called Universal Periodic reviews that entirely focus on violations of artists’ rights to freedom of expression. We have, when possible, made these submissions in collaboration with artsfex network partners.

In the past weeks two reports have been submitted to the UN. One focusing on Belarus, the other on the USA.

Regarding the latter, Freemuse, and the USA based National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), argue that the US must do more to protect the rights of youths, in public primary and secondary schools, to access literature as well as the rights of inmates in jails, prisons, and detention centres to access artistic productions.

The submission on Belarus describes how the country is failing to abide by its international commitment to protect fully the fundamental artistic freedoms of its citizens. It recommends the government “adopt a policy of transparency regarding its communications with media broadcasters” and “ensure that restrictions on freedom of expression are clearly and narrowly defined.” The report describes how a “blacklist” continues to censor several musicians who perform in Belarus.

Freemuse submitted its first ever UPR in January 2014. Based on an extensive study of censorship legislation and practices in Egypt, we follow up with a series of meetings in Geneva next week. Egypt is soon being examined by the UN Human Rights Council. Freemuse, with our Egyptian partners AFTE and CIHRS, will, next week, present our documentation of violations of artistic freedom in Egypt in front of diplomats and NGOs from several countries and pay a visit to the office of the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of Culture.

Brussels next
When the new EU Commission is in place Freemuse, with network partners, will assess how best we can promote artistic freedom at EU level. The EU should address issues of artistic freedom in partnership negotiations with countries outside of the union. EU missions abroad should monitor and report violations on artistic freedom, as they would normally do in cases of attacks on media.

The EU should also continue to address issues of artists’ mobility and the preferential treatment of “developing world” artists’ access to the European market. The EU has ratified the UNESCO Convention on the protection and promotion of diversity of cultural expressions and has thus committed itself to do so. We still need to see action!

Ole Reitov
Executive Director

» Freemuse UPR’s

» Creativity Under Pressure: Artistic Freedom of Expression in Azerbaijan:

» Violations by article and by member states of the Council of Europe 2013:

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