Art Under Threat: Attacks on artistic freedom in 2015

Freemuse Annual Statistics on Censorship and Attacks on Artistic Freedom in 2015


Statistics2015_Cover200pixelArtistic freedom is under extreme pressure in far too many countries. The Freemuse annual report summarises censorship and threats on artistic freedom in 2015 in over 70 countries.

In total, Freemuse registered 469 cases of censorship and attacks on artists and violations of their rights in 2015, making it our worst recorded year yet, nearly doubling the number of cases from 2014 with a 98% increase from the year previous, wherein 237 cases were registered.

While at the UN level there have been positive signs of larger attention being paid to the importance of protecting artistic freedom in 2015, sadly the year was dominated by a 20% increase in registered killings, attacks, abductions, imprisonments and threats, and a staggering 224% increase in acts of censorship.

2015 case break down

The disturbing increase can partially be explained by the fact that Freemuse and its collaborating partners have improved their documentation methods and strengthened their networks, as well as the fact that artistic freedom is an issue that is slowly gaining larger attention. However, that change is slow and artistic freedom violations continue to be under-reported in many countries due to lack of awareness, registration, political will and reporting capacity.

In 2015, China had 146 overall violations of artistic freedom. In the censorship category, China accounts for 126 cases. This large number of cases is explained by the fact that its government released a “blacklist” of 120 songs in August 2015. Freemuse considers each of those censored songs to be individual instances of censorship.

Excluding censorship, Freemuse notes that China tops the list with 20 registered serious violations, followed by Iran with 16, Russia with 15, and three countries tied in fourth place with 10 violations each: Burundi, Syria and Turkey.

Top 10 Serious Violators
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Freemuse focuses on music, visual arts, cinema/films (fictional), theatre (including performance art), literature (fiction) and dance. The statistics cover artists who were attacked, persecuted, killed, abducted, detained, prosecuted, imprisoned and censored within a calendar year. The statistics even cover attacks and censorship of artistic productions, venues and events. This is Freemuse’s fourth consecutive report on violations of artistic freedom.

The Freemuse statistics represent a cautious estimate as most violations are never reported. As an example there are no real statistics available on film censorship. The global film industry ignores its responsibility to register and report on films either being stopped by censors before production or films being censored for screenings. Further, it is virtually impossible to document cases of self-censorship when artists feel social or political pressures to either not artistically express themselves or compromise their expression by creating something they did not intend to avoid controversy or personal attack.

Behind the numbers of the statistics are real people being censored or attacked. We recommend you to look further at specific cases and countries on our two platforms: and

Click on the image below to download the full report where you can also go further in-depth in country reports on China, Cuba, Egypt, Mali, Russia, Turkey and more.

» Download full report here (pdf, 4.5MB, 46 pages)


Section overview

Click on the following links to be taken to the various sections of this page




Politically motivated attacks on artistic freedom dominated in many countries, but 2015 also saw an increase in religiously motivated attacks on artistic freedom.

Paris experienced the worst single attack on artistic freedom as heavily armed gunmen on 13 November attacked the Bataclan venue during a rock concert killing 89 people and critically injuring 99 others. The attack sent shock waves all over the world and had the immediate effect of many concerts and artistic events being cancelled. Artistic freedom includes the right to access cultural events free of fear or repression, but many refrained from visiting museums, attending concerts and theatres in the months following the attacks. The brutal, religiously motivated attack took place a few hours after artistic expression was addressed at a widely attended meeting at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, and illustrated that although artistic freedom is now being addressed in the UN, declarations alone cannot adequately and fully protect artistic freedom. According to Freemuse research, too many countries are violating international conventions and, in countries with good human rights records, artists are being attacked by militants or civil society groups linked to political or religious movements.

Religious fundamentalism is increasingly behind attacks and threats on artistic freedom in India and Bangladesh, whereas religious orthodoxy combined with political agendas motivates attacks on artistic freedom in Russia.

It is impossible to estimate how many artists and acts of artistic expression are affected by this, but in reality millions of people are prevented from having access to a free flow of cultural and artistic expressions due to threats from militants.


Art Forms by Violation Type 2015 FINAL
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Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to violate international human rights conventions protecting freedom of expression. This has been addressed by the UN Human Rights Council UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR). These violations are damaging creativity and the countries seem to “compete” in discrimination against female artists and in combining illegal verdicts of torture in the form of lashes with long prison sentences.

Most notably, Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death on 17 November 2015 by a Saudi Arabian court for renouncing Islam.

Although another Saudi court overturned the death sentence in January 2016, imposing an eight-year prison term and 800 lashes instead, it shows that Saudi Arabia disrespects the rights to free thinking, freedom of/from religion and freedom from torture.

In Iran three artists were sentenced to six years in prison for the production and promotion of underground music. One of the artists was tortured in custody.

Freemuse statistics are based on verified cases of attacks and censorship, thus a country like North Korea, with its total control over any expression and all media outlets, does not figure in our research as one of the world’s largest violators of artistic freedom. In December 2015, 119 countries voted to pass a UN resolution condemning “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights” in North Korea. Undoubtedly the country is the most censored and controlled on earth with no artistic freedom at all. But the amounts of violations are simply not registered and cannot therefore by verified.

China, Iran, Russia, Turkey and Syria belong to a special league of countries that systematically repress freedom of expression, accounting for 236 cases (50%) of violations on artistic freedom of expression of the total 469 Freemuse documented in 2015.

Serious Violations Treemap with logo
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Political nationalism and religious orthodoxy were the main motivations behind attacks on artistic freedom in Russia in 2015. Throughout the year a number of cultural institutions came under pressure for being associated with the opposition. Russia is now ranked no. 152 of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index and Russian associations are not allowed to receive funding from foreign sister organisations as Russian legislation considers such support as resources given by “foreign agents”. In 2015 Freemuse registered 32 attacks on artistic freedom in the country. Add to this that state-controlled media and cultural institutions do not feature artistic dissent.

Turkey continues to prosecute, imprison and censor oppositional artistic voices; sometimes for purely political reasons, and sometimes combining such political motivations with “religious” or “cultural” references. President Erdoğan particularly seems to be thin-skinned, with him and his apparatus of lawyers and supporters being in the centre of several “insult” cases. The country also continues to repress artists addressing Kurdish issues. One particularly disturbing case is that of Nûdem Durak, a young Kurdish singer, who is serving a 10.5-year sentence for “promoting Kurdish propaganda” — one of the heaviest sentences passed against an artist in recent years. Further, many artists — like many other civilians — were arrested during demonstrations throughout the year. Freemuse does not register such arrests unless it is obvious and verified that the artists arrested were specifically targeted in their role as artists, rather than being arrested for their political actions. However, it has been an oft-used tactic to use political reasons to imprison and stifle artists in Turkey. Freemuse registered 15 violations on artistic freedom of expression in the country.

China ranked no. 176 in the World Press Freedom index and continues to have a dark record of imprisoning and detaining its citizens, as well as employing tactics for causing the disappearances of people and silencing dissent. The country continues to hold a firm grip on artistic freedom and continues to keep at least 10 Tibetan musicians imprisoned or detained. In 2015 the Ministry of Culture published an official “blacklist” of 120 censored songs, having huge financial and personal ramifications on not only the artists themselves, but on the venues that book talent and the media outlets that play and distribute such songs. In 2015 Freemuse registered a total number of 146 incidents against artistic freedom of expression in China, continuing to show its repressive trend since 2014’s recording of 38 incidents, a year in which it was the top violator as it is again in 2015. An official list of banned songs is the main reason for the large increase. Unfortunately, China does not reveal lists of banned films, books, performances, etc., but undoubtedly the real numbers are much larger.

Censorship Treemap 2015 with logo
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Five years after the 2011 mass uprising in Egypt calling for “freedom”, among other key demands, state censorship of the arts in the name of “protecting public morals and state interests” continues to stifle free artistic expression. In the wake of a security clampdown on free expression since the military takeover of the country two years ago, rights advocates and artists lament that the space for free artistic expression and creativity has diminished in Egypt as restrictions on art and literary works that address politics, sex and religion, remain firmly in place. Freemuse documented 17 attacks on artistic freedom of expression in 2015, a rise from 2014 where Freemuse documented 11 attacks.

The brief “fresh air” of the Arab uprisings five years ago has now been “exhaled”, and particularly Morocco and Tunisia are systematically violating artists’ freedoms by imprisoning or charging young political rappers who are addressing issues of police violence and social injustice in their music. Behind the democratic façades of the two countries a tight mind control over state institutions, festivals and cultural operators remain in place.

Political repression is also severe in Burundi and Ethiopia. Three Oromo speaking protest singers were reportedly arrested, abducted and tortured in Ethiopia in December and several others have been banned from radio waves.

In Burundi many artists have fled the country out of fear of retaliation in the country’s deepening crisis and 2016 had hardly begun when Burundian singer and musician Pascal Treasury Nshimirimana was reported arrested and shot by police on 3 January.

In 2014, Freemuse did not register any cases of violations against artistic freedom of expression in Burundi, but that story drastically changed in 2015 as we registered 10 cases of threats, attacks and prosecutions, which catapulted the country from not being on the list at all in 2014 to being tied for fourth place with Turkey and Syria in 2015, when taking into account all types of violations other than censorship.

Freemuse in the past year has also noted an increase in civil society pressure on artistic freedom in several countries.

In Sweden several artists in 2015 revealed how they were continuously threatened by neo-Nazi and religious groups, whereas right-wing Hindu groups in India claiming “their religious sentiments were hurt” were behind several attacks on artistic productions.

No doubt “multicultural” and “blackness” issues have also been the focus of several controversies between institutions and pressure groups leading to cancellations or alterations of exhibitions and performances.

Self-censorship out of fear of financial, cultural, religious or political retaliation is creeping into many corners of artistic creations worldwide. Although the scope of freedom of expression has always been “negotiated” — and there may be several good reasons for taking political, religious or cultural considerations — no doubt the fear of political, religious and cultural pressure that censorship generates in artists and art institutions often leads to self-censorship.

» Download the full report including in-depth country reports on countries such as China, Cuba, Egypt, Mali, Russia, Turkey and more:
Art Under Threat — Freemuse Annual Statistics on Censorship and Attacks on Artistic Freedom in 2015


Violation Types by Art Form 2015 FINAL
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Our statistics show that music continues to be the most affected and violated art form, accounting for 309 cases (66%) in 2015, yet another staggering increase from 2014 where music was the most affected art form with 90 cases (38%). Attacks on music affect entire societies. Musicians and songwriters are being killed, persecuted and imprisoned more than other artists. Audiences who want to experience live music are also more at risk. The horrible attacks in Paris remind us that groups inspired by religious fundamentalism are willing to make use of the most brutal violence to stop the music. The Taleban made a total ban on music in Afghanistan in the 1990’s, the jihadist group MUJAO copied this in Mali in 2012 and several websites promote ideas of music being “haram” or the “tool of the devil”.

The attack on Bataclan is registered as one attack, but behind this simple number the fate of hundreds of families tells a story of mostly young people, who looked forward to a musical experience, a celebration of life and taking part in an important communal act of artistic expression, but ended up instead as part of a terrified crowd filled with screams, fear, blood and death.

The attackers represent the darkest sides of mankind. They are in principle “proxies” of those regimes or communities that continue to financially and ideologically sponsor extremism from a perverted perspective of interpretation of religion.

Although religiously motivated attacks on music seem to have increased in several countries, the reality is that states in general are the greatest violators and that their motives are political — shutting down voices of dissent in countries such as China, Ethiopia, Morocco, Burundi, Belarus and Cuba.




Those who suppress artistic expression fear its transformative effect. This was one of the messages delivered when 53 states at the 30th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on 18 September 2015 reaffirmed the right to creative and artistic expression. Speaking on behalf of the states, the ambassador of Latvia, Janis Karklins, told the council:

“We stand firm in our commitment to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression, including artistic and creative expression. In addition to being an integral part of the protected human right to freedom of expression, artistic and creative expression is critical to the human spirit, the development of vibrant cultures, and the functioning of democratic societies. Artistic expression connects us all, transcending borders and barriers. Artistic expression can challenge us and change the way we view the world.”

Freemuse started addressing artistic freedom at the level of the Human Rights Council in 2013 and the statement is a welcomed step on the way to securing that states around the world will stand by their obligation to protect artists from threats, persecution and violence.

However, it also shows that not all states wholeheartedly support freedom of artistic expression as only 53 of the United Nations’ 193 member states supported the statement.




Two high profile meetings at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris put focus on artistic freedom.

A new global report ‘RE | SHAPING CULTURAL POLICIES’ included a chapter on artistic freedom written by the undersigned. The chapter points out that:

  • Fundamental freedoms are an essential ingredient of the wellbeing of citizens and societies, in the dynamics of social development and for the stability of the arts and cultural and creative industries sectors.
  • Restrictions to artistic freedom and access to artistic expressions generate important cultural, social and economic losses, deprive artists of their means of expression and livelihood, and create an unsafe environment for all those engaged in the arts and their audiences.
  • Threats to artistic freedom are under-reported in comparison to threats to journalists and other media professionals. This leads to a limited picture of the true scale of the challenge to creative free expression, in particular the physical threat to socially engaged artists and practitioners.

The global report is aimed at guiding governments on how to implement the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

All chapters include an indicator framework and means of verification. It is the hope of UNESCO that the 140 ratifying state parties in the future will make use of this. For artistic freedom this will be the first time in history that states are particularly requested to report on the protection and promotion of artistic expression.




Freemuse submits reports on violations of artistic freedom in specific countries to the UN Human Rights Council. We do so in collaboration with local and international partners in what are called Universal Periodic Reviews (UPRs). The UPR process is the only global process that involves a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States. Freemuse, having UN Special Consultative status, makes use of this status to report on violations on artistic freedom and gives voice to artists in Geneva.


Country chart

Country Chart 2015 with logo
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» Compare to 2014 statistics:
Violations on artistic freedom of expression in 2014

» The full report including in-depth country reports on countries such as China, Cuba, Egypt, Mali, Russia, Turkey and more, is available here:
Download full 2015 report (pdf, 4.5MB, 46 pages)


How Voice of America used these statistics:

» Voice of America – 1 April 2016:
Play Pamphlet Sparks Censorship Debate in Hong Kong

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