What Drove Violations


The following section of the Art under Threat in 2016 report explores the issues and tendencies that drove governments and other groups to limit artistic expression.


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It is not only governments violating the right to artistic freedom. 2016 saw a worrying amount of actions by non-state actors, ranging from militant extremists to peaceful community groups, against art and artists. In some incidences, authorities censored artists based on requests or the interference from civil society groups.

Over the past years, militant extremists have attacked music and other art forms in countries such as Afghanistan, France, Iraq, Mali, Pakistan and Somalia, and 2016 was no exception to this trend.

In Pakistan on 22 June, two gunmen on a motorbike shot one of Pakistan’s most famous Qawwali singers, Amjad Sabri, in his car just a kilometre away from his home in Karachi. Two men, both members of an anti-Shia militant group, are currently in custody and have confessed to killing the singer on sectarian grounds.

In Iraq, in the city of Mosul, Islamic State militants publicly executed a 15-year-old boy in February simply for listening to “Western music”.

In Germany, a Syrian asylum seeker blew himself up outside an open-air music festival in the town of Ansbach on 24 July. Before detonating the explosives he left a message pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. The blast killed the man and injured twelve bystanders, three of them seriously.

Not all non-state actors are aligned to militant groups. In 2016, Freemuse documented extensive examples of threats to art and artists from neo-nationalist, religious and minority groups.

In India on 8 December, right-wing activists from two different groups stormed the fourth annual Jaipur Art Summit, damaged paintings, and attacked and injured painter Radha Binod Sharma. They also stole a painting in protest of it featuring semi-nude women.

In Spain, theatre organisers putting together a multi-day event entitled ‘Night of the Dead 2016’ in Águilas, a Spanish coastal town, decided to cancel all scheduled activities after an association that defends mentally ill people and their families filed a complaint to the city’s town hall over one of the play’s representations of mentally ill people.

On 12 October, a group of people painted over a mural just one day after it had been finished and displayed on the façade of the Museo Nacional de Arte (National Art Museum) in La Paz, Bolivia. The group was allegedly offended by the mural’s “negative and graphic portrayal” of two of the country’s core institutions, the Catholic Church and the State.

In USA, the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Centre in North Miami Beach, Florida, chose to cancel the drama ‘Crossing Jerusalem’ after community members protested the anti-Jewish elements and “false paradigm of the Arab-Israeli conflict” they felt the play portrayed.

In Malaysia, a group of 20 NGOs filed reports against musician Namewee’s music video ‘Oh My God!’, claiming it “insulted Islam”, which led police to detain the artist for four days. Namewee was released on bail in Penang on 25 August, but an investigation is still ongoing.

Polish authorities did not let Ukrainian band Ot Vinta cross the border into Poland as local hard- core football fans known as Ultras threatened to stage mass riots and burn down the stage if the band was to play a scheduled concert at a festival on 2 July in the south-eastern town of Przemysl that borders Ukraine.

And in Russia, non-state actors with nationalistic agendas and ties to the Russian Orthodox church continue to be behind a number of attacks on art. Krasnodar city authorities cancelled the concerts of Austrian metal band Belphegor and American metal band Nile on 23 April as they deemed the band members to be “satanists”. The decision came after activists from the “Pravoslavni Soyuz” (Orthodox Unity) group appealed to authorities to have the shows cancelled. Both bands were on a five-date tour in Russia and had concerts cancelled and censored in other Russian cities after Krasnodar. Belphegor lead singer Helmuth Lehner was even attacked by a Russian Orthodox activist at the St. Petersburg airport when the band arrived in Russia.

Not only should governments protect artists and audiences from the direct, often lethal, threat from violent non-state actors; but authorities also have a responsibility to secure an environment favourable for everyone to create and share creative expressions, even when civil society groups try to act as censors directly or through the courts.




Artists have for centuries played significant roles as censors, working actively as directors of censorship boards and as controllers of cultural budgets, while at the same time benefitting from state support – often playing the role of “his master’s voice”.

In some countries, artists’ syndicates are government controlled. Some of these syndicates do not only control which artists are being given permission to perform; they even perform pre-censorship and engage in condemnations of fellow artists.

In 2016 this has particularly been significant in Egypt. But syndicates and unions in other countries such as Tunisia, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya also seem to feel called to condemn and expel other artists – the tendency has, in particular, been related to music.

In Egypt no one can practice their art without permission from the syndicates. Since November 2015, both the musicians’ and actors’ trade unions in Egypt have been granted judicial status to police and regulate their members.

Using his new mandate, Musicians Union President Hani Shaker in January issued a decision to suspend six female singers – Karima Gamal Ahmed, Nema Adel (Shahd), Nahed Adel (Lamis), Yasmin Yusri (Farah), Dalia Yusef (Sandy) and Fatma Jaber (Fifi) – from being able to work as artists based on their allegedly sexually suggestive behaviours during performances.

“Union members will not arrest anyone; however, we will be able to write police reports and refer them to the public prosecutor … freedom of expression is what brought Egypt to the bottom and allowed  indecent  art works.” – Hani Shaker, Musicians Union President

Mirroring the actions taken by the Egyptian Musicians Union, the Tunisian Musicians Syndicate in March banned singer Tunisian Naglaa (real name: Hana al Zughlami) from working in the country under accusations she promoted vice and immorality in her video and single ‘La Ykhebbesh Wala Ydebbish’.

In Ghana, the musicians union MUSIGA in June urged musicians to refrain from using profane and obscene lyrics in their songs, asked radio and TV station operators to act as gatekeepers in this regard, and called upon Parliament to step in where the National Media Commission has failed to regulate what music goes on the airwaves.

Union President Bice Osei Kuffour, himself a musician known as Obour, said in a statement released on 26 May that the union is “concerned” at “the rising incidence of profane lyrics” and is “disturbed” that such songs are played on the radio without edits, especially during primetime.

Popular Ghanaian dancehall artist Shatta Wale criticised the union, saying it should rather focus its efforts on improving the welfare of musicians, as discouraging the use of certain lyrics will limit artistic creativity, which in turn will affect the livelihoods of musicians.

Instead of censoring and prohibiting its own members from working as artists, artist unions and syndicates should improve working conditions for its members and defend their rights. Solidarity among artists is a fundamental component in a successful struggle for artistic freedom.




In 2016, two countries especially, Turkey and China, aggressively made attempts to strangle freedom of artistic expression outside their own borders.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his numerous lawyers filed a legal complaint in Germany against German comedian Jan Böhmermann for a satirical and controversial poem criticising the Turkish president, which Böhmermann read on his public broadcaster ZDF TV programme ‘Neo Magazin Royale’ on 31 March.

Erdoğan was able to file a legal complaint in a foreign country due to an infrequently used paragraph of the German criminal code that concerns insulting foreign state representatives and institutions, otherwise known as lèse-majesté.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on 15 April authorised prosecutors to conduct a criminal inquiry into the case, but six months later, in October, German prosecutors decided to drop the investigation. In April, Merkel also announced that her government would move to repeal the paragraph by 2018.

However, a Hamburg court on 17 May banned the re-publication of 18 lines of the 24-line satirical poem as they were deemed to be “abusive and libellous”. The court said it had to strike a balance between artistic freedom and Erdoğan’s personal rights.

Since becoming president in 2014, Erdoğan has exercised his own version of lèse-majesté by charging more than 1,800 people for insults against him, according to The Guardian.

In the spring of 2016, Markus Rindt, the director of the Dresden Symphony, claimed that Turkey had demanded the European Commission (EC) to pull its 200,000 Euros funding from the ‘Aghet’ art project marking the 101-year anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

Turkey complained that it is was offended by the use of the word “genocide” on the EC’s website as the country denies that it conducted genocide against ethnic Armenians in 1915 during the end of the Ottoman Empire. It remains illegal in the country to refer to the events as genocide.

The European Union (EU) seemingly bowed to the pressure and temporarily removed the pages from the website, but did not pull its funding from the project.

Erdoğan’s case against Böhmermann made several Europeans aware of old-fashioned laws, such as lèse-majesté – the crime of violating majesty, an offence against the dignity of a reigning sovereign or against a state. These laws are still in existence in Germany, as well in several monarchies in Europe, such as Denmark and Norway (although not used), as well as in countries outside Europe, such as Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

Lèse majesté is particularly rigorously applied in Thailand, where in August two actors – Patiwat Saraiyaem and Pornthip Munkong – who were serving a two-and-a-half year prison sentence under the controversial law, were released early in a royal pardon.

The actors, arrested in August 2014, were sentenced in February 2015 for staging the play ‘The Wolf’s Bride’ (Jao Sao Ma Pa) in October 2013. The play, deemed to be insulting to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, centred on a fictional monarchy.

It is not a new phenomenon that China uses its reach and economic heft beyond its borders to stop any activities overseas that highlight or put focus on the repression of Tibetan culture or challenges Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy.

In Bangladesh, Chinese Ambassador Ma Mingqiang in February found the ‘Last Words’ exhibit at the Dhaka Art Summit “offensive” and called for its removal as it featured copies of handwritten letters by five Tibetans before they self-immolated in protest against the Chinese government.

Organisers of the summit felt “intimidated” and “frightened” by the ambassador and presented the exhibit’s creators, filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, with the choice to either have their exhibit taken down or covered up. The filmmakers decided the works should remain, but covered with white sheets to expose the censorship.

In May, New York-based dance troupe Shen Yun also felt China’s long reach in South Korea when they found their scheduled performances cancelled by court order “explicitly citing threats by the Chinese embassy”.

The trouble between the dance troupe, the Korean Broadcasting Service (KBS) which runs the theatre venue KBS Hall, and China started in January when the Chinese embassy sent a letter to KBS warning that allowing Shen Yun’s show to go on would result in a “a huge loss” if China were to revoke KBS’ broadcasting rights. KBS is one of the few companies allowed to air foreign television in China. KBS Hall capitulated and cancelled the show. This led local organisers New Cosmos Media to take the matter to court.

In proceedings, KBS Hall stated they were not “properly notified” of the troupe’s association with Falun Gong, which gave them grounds for cancellation. Falun Gong is a Chinese spiritualpractice that gained prominence in China in the 1990s, but was later banned and labelled as a “cult” by Chinese authorities.

According to Shen Yun, the group has experienced 59 events since 2007 of Chinese authorities “interfering” with the group’s performances worldwide.

China also makes use of trade and tourist restrictions and pressure as part of the country’s foreign and security policy.

When the South Korean government decided to deploy the US missile defence system called THAAD, the Chinese government strongly opposed the deployment.

While the Chinese government has never explicitly admitted to banning Korean cultural products, Geng Shuang, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on 21 November said: “Human exchanges between the two countries need to be based on public opinion”, adding that the Chinese public was not happy with the deployment of THAAD.

China is the largest export market for South Korea’s cultural products, but after the deployment of THAAD, South Korean export of cultural products dropped by 21.7% in the third quarter of 2016, according to The Korea Herald.

Since October 2016 no South Korean artists were given permission to perform in China and officials from China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television have allegedly passed down “verbal orders” to TV stations that approvals for South Korean programmes or those featuring South Korean stars would not be granted “for the time being”.

2016 also saw China banning and blacklisting a number of artists from performing live, on radio and TV, and from having their music available on online streaming services because of their actions or statements related to Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

In a globalized world, information and art is constantly shared across borders. When foreign governments use legal, political or economic pressure to silence artists, the national and international response in defence of artistic freedom must be loud and clear. Antiquated national legislation, even when not used, does not help; rather, it creates an excuse for repressive regimes and thin-skinned heads of states to use similar laws to continue crackdowns on artists at home.




When women artists are targeted it is often specifically related to their gender. In several countries, women artists are prohibited from performing solo or for mixed audiences. Iran and Saudi Arabia are leading the league of religiously motivated states that ban and censor women artists from performing in public space.

Such bans have had devastating effects on the diversity of cultural expressions. Though many brave women artists are challenging these hardline bans, they face serious consequences.

“The omission of female players in Isfahan has led to the deterioration of the music scene in the province. Women make up half of the active and creative population and they have been paralyzed.” – Nasim Ahmadian, head of the all-women music group Nasim

In the Iranian province of Isfahan, women musicians are not allowed on stage at all. Mohammad Qotbi, head of the Isfahan Culture and Guidance administration and member of the clergy, compared music bands to the national football team, saying that just as there are substitutes for players on a football team, music groups should also have substitutes for their female players.

It was also in Isfahan that Fatemeh Motamed- Aria, one of Iran’s most famous actresses, was attacked by religious hardliners at a screening of her movie ‘Yahya Did Not Stay Silent’ on 29 January in the city of Kashan. Outside the movie theatre, the actress, director and cast of the movie were met by a crowd of about 50 people shouting at the group and calling on Motamed-Aria to leave the city.

“They insulted Ms. Motamed-Aria with things I had never heard before,” director Kaveh Ebrahimpour said.

The attack was condemned by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, who granted permission for the screening, and by the Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Shahindokht Mowlaverdi, also a member of President Rouhani’s administration.

Motamed-Aria first drew negative attention from religious conservatives in 2010 when she attended France’s Cannes film festival without wearing a head scarf. She also acted in the 2012 film ‘Parinaaz’, which was banned until Hassan Rouhani became president. Despite the lifting of the ban, at the time, the film had yet to screen to the public.

Although music has slowly returned to Afghanistan after the all-out ban imposed by the Taliban during their rule has lifted, women’s voices are still considered undesirable in many regions.

In May, local Ministry of Information and Culture authorities in the southern Kandahar province of Afghanistan banned women’s songs from being broadcast across local media, directly affecting the 11 radio stations in operation in the area. Kandahar’s Information and Culture Director Hazrat Wali Hotak said that “programmes on many of the province’s radio stations are unacceptable and have warned the stations to change their programming or else they will be faced with legal action”.

In several countries, women singers and artists were specifically targeted as “indecent” in 2016.

The six Egyptian female singers, who were banned from performing by the Egyptian Musicians Union in January, were persecuted because their behaviour according to the syndicate was not in line with public morals as they wore “body revealing clothes”, acted “racy” and “sexually suggestive” on stage, including dancing while singing, to “deliberately stir instincts and desires”. The same reasoning was behind the Tunisian Musicians Syndicate’s banning of female singer Tunisian Naglaa in March.

In Tanzania, female musician Snura Mushi’s hit ‘Chura’ not only led Tanzanian authorities to ban her music video, which shows scenes of women in dresses “twerking” on a beach, and ban its distribution on 4 May; they also banned the artist from performing until the video was edited. Further, authorities stated that any individual who shared or distributed the video would also face legal action.

The incongruity of initiatives against artists acting indecent, often hitting women artists harder than men, was clearly seen in Nigeria when the Motion Pictures Practitioners Association of Nigeria (MOPPAN) expelled Nigerian actress Rahama Sadau on 2 October for what it considered “immoral” actions. The actress played a character in male musician ClassiQ’s music video ‘I Love You’ where she hugged, cuddled and held hands with the male musician. While the actress was expelled and banned, no actions were taken against the male artist.

In Japan, a Tokyo district court on 9 May found Japanese artist Rokudenashiko (real name: Megumi Igarashi) guilty of breaking the country’s obscenity laws because of her artwork ‘Pussy Kajak’, and was fined 400,000 yen (approx. $3,700 USD). In court, Igarashi insisted her artworks were not obscene.

“I am innocent because neither the data for female genitals nor my artworks shaped like female genitals are obscene,” she told the court.

The artist has explained that she started the art project as a response to the fact that female genitals were “overly hidden” in Japanese society, whereas the male sexual organ – the penis – is regarded as “part of pop culture” and has its own annual festival in Kawasaki, a festival which has been around for 39 years.

Art is for everyone. Women artists should be able to express themselves artistically anywhere, without fear of reprisal or bans. Societies have a responsibility to combat social and cultural biases that prevent women and girls from becoming artists in the first place. It is equally important that women’s right to access culture is respected worldwide.




When two countries are in conflict cultural life and cultural industries are often heavily affected. Some artists feel pressure to support their national governments irrespective of their political views; others may even use nationalistic sentiments to promote their careers; while some suddenly see their potential markets shrinking. Artists attempting to be neutral, or who even take upon themselves a role as mediator, risk being accused of supporting the “other side”.

In 2016, local artists and cultural producers in Russia and Ukraine, as well as in India and Pakistan, were particularly affected by conflicts between countries.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict began in 2014 after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. The conflict left artists caught in the middle of a political struggle. Artists who have performed, or plan to perform, in Crimea, or who are considered sympathetic to either side’s position have seen their works and performances banned from being heard, screened or attended in either country. The conflict has even affected artists from other countries when they planned to perform in Crimea.

After the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture announced on 18 January that it would cancel Italian opera singer Alessandro Safina’s concerts in the country since he was also scheduled to hold performances in Crimea, the singer announced on 22 January that he would cancel his two dates in the contested region.

In April, Ukraine outright banned all Russian films and TV series released since 2014 from being screened in the country, as an amendment to its 2015 Law on Cinematography that already banned Russian military genre films. And Ukraine’s National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting removed 15 Russian TV channels from its broadcasting providers.

In September, the Ukrainian government said it would deny entry to blacklisted Russian singers competing for the 62nd Eurovision song contest set to take place in capital Kiev in May 2017 if they are found to support the separatist cause.

A month later, in a positive move against the tendency of victimizing artistic productions due to the conflict, lawmakers in Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, voted against the bill.

In Russia, outright bans related to the conflict were rare, but more subtle mechanisms of censorship and marginalization affected artists and cultural organisers considered not being “patriotic enough” in relation to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. As an example, famed “founding father of rock” in Russia Boris Grebenshchikov’s long-time band Aquarium had concerts cancelled in Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur and Blagoveshchensk officially due to an inability to find suitable sites.

However, many fans of the band took to social media reporting that the regional Ministry of Culture put Grebenshchikov, and other “insufficiently patriotic artists”, on an unofficial blacklist. Tour organisers confirmed that political reasons were behind the cancellations, specifically concerning the musician’s attitude toward the “Ukrainian question”.

The almost 70-year old conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has several times led to almost suspended diplomatic relations and a number of “cultural conflicts” between the two countries. This was also the case during the final part of 2016 when an attack by militants allegedly coming from Pakistan in September killed several Indian soldiers at an Indian army base and sparked off heated debates, bans and boycotts by state and non-state actors in both countries, affecting artists, cultural life and the cultural economy.

Long history of bans between India and Pakistan
Even before the current tension over attacks in Kashmir and the subsequent sweeping censorship, India and Pakistan have instituted bans over each other’s films and actors on an individual basis; though Pakistan more regularly bans Indian film. The longest and most serious ban came after the second war the two countries fought over Kashmir in 1965, wherein Pakistan banned Indian films for 43 years until the ban was lifted in 2008.

The Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association (IMPPA) decided at an annual general meeting on 30 September to ban Pakistani film workers in the film industry. Producer and IMPPA member Ashoke Pandit stated that the organisation “paid homage to the martyrs who were killed” and thus felt a “responsibility towards the nation”. On 1 October, media mogul and chairman of Zee Entertainment, Subhash Chandra Goel, announced that his network would be pulling all Pakistani TV shows from its Zindagi channel, known for airing popular Pakistani TV serials.

India’s lucrative film industry – though divided on the question of art versus patriotism – saw an association of more than 400 cinema theatre owners in Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Gujarat states announce they would stop screening movies featuring Pakistani actors, who in the past years have gained increased popularity amongst Bollywood producers.

Pakistan’s Film Exhibitors and Distributors group, in response to the Indian boycotts, suspended the screening of all Indian films until “normalcy returns” and many major cinemas filled in their movie schedule gaps by screening classic Pakistani films. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) announced an immediate ban on all Indian TV channels, effective as of 21 October, and stated that the federal government had authorised it to enact the ban.

However, as tensions “cooled down” by the end of the year, Film Exhibitors Association chairman Zoraiz Lashari confirmed that cinema owners would begin screening Indian films across Pakistan from 19 December, saying: “Cinema business has been hit immensely and all stakeholders felt it was the right time to begin screening Indian films. It was always a self-imposed suspension, not a ban.”

Pakistani cinema chains rely heavily on Bollywood. Experts estimate Indian movies account for 60-70% of their revenues.

Banning cultural products is always a bad idea. Any lasting solution to a conflict is built on mutual understanding. Art and artists help bring humanizing stories and ideas across borders. Encouraging, rather than banning, such cultural exchanges should be in the interest of all sides of a conflict.




Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) artists and art portraying LGBT-related content continue to be seen as controversial around the world. In many countries it is outright illegal. As a consequence, a number of cases of LGBT artists and LGBT-themed art have been censored in 2016.

In Russia, with its laws on homosexuality making headlines since the adoption of the federal anti-LGBT “propaganda” law in June 2013, orthodox activists in February attempted to stop the performance of the ‘All Shades of Blue’ play in St. Petersburg due to its plotline of a boy who decides to come out as gay to his family. The group attempted to dissuade people from watching the play and performances were interrupted two days in a row due to bomb threats called in to the theatre leading to the evacuation of audiences.

Also in Russia, the ‘I Want to Fly’ exhibition by Alexandra Kim was shut down just four days after its opening at the regional art gallery on Sakhalin Island following a collective complaint signed by eight members of the local Union of Artists, stating the exhibition was “promoting gay relations”.

India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) in July refused to certify ‘Ka Bodyscapes’, the latest film by New York-based director Jayan K Cherian, because the censors deemed it “vulgar” and obscene” for “highlighting gay” themes.

Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and UnitedArab Emirates in the beginning of 2016 all banned screenings of Tom Hooper’s transgender film, ‘The Danish Girl’, which failed to pass local censor requirements over “moral depravity”, saying it “promoted homosexuality and gender transformation”.

In USA, Christian band Everyday Sunday was dropped from the northern California Christian music festival Joshua Fest as 11 production staff threatened to walk out if gay lead singer of the band, Trey Pearson, took the stage.

A number of music videos were also censored for showing homosexual content in 2016.

The Kenyan Film and Classification Board banned Art Attack’s video for its remix of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ gay rights song ‘Same Love’ on the grounds that “it does not adhere to the morals of the country”.

And in Russia a video by British electronic band Years and Years for its single ‘Desire’ was censored by blurring out a scene wherein the lead singer kisses another man.

Public response to LGBT performers, art and issues also continues to be controversial in Singapore. A brief peck between two male actors in musical ‘Les Miserables’, staged at Singapore’s Esplanade Theatre, was cut from the production after the state’s Media Development Authority said it violated the show’s ratings and had received public complaints.

Eighty countries currently criminalise same-sex relations or the discussion of LGBT rights, according to Human Rights Watch. Instead of censoring LGBT artists and artworks, governments should repeal laws that openly discriminate against LGBT people and protect artists from being persecuted because of their sexual identity. Anything less is a violation of international law.




Lack of, or placing bans on, funding of oppositional and critical artists constitutes a severe threat to artistic freedom of expression and the protection of the diversity of cultural expression. In 2016, the suspension and banning of funding were particularly significant in South Korea, Israel and Russia.

South Korea, during the second half of 2016, plunged into a political scandal, which included a vote in December to impeach President Park Geun-hye. Artists and cultural workers had for a long time protested against the government’s abuse of power and corruption. In an attempt to silence critics, the South Korean government in October blacklisted 9,473 artists from receiving state support, including financial support, due to their political activity of either being critical of the current government or backing opposition politicians. The blacklist is one element in the corruption and power abuse case against President Park.

On 12 January 2017, three of Ms. Park’s former aides, including one of her former culture ministers, Kim Jong-deok, were arrested on charges of blacklisting cultural figures deemed unfriendly and barring them from government-controlled support programmes.

In Israel, the Netanyahu government and its cultural minister Miri Regev have started confronting artists and cultural institutions critical of the government and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. At the end of January 2016, Regev proposed an amendment – dubbed the “loyalty in culture” bill – that would slash government funding for any arts organisation not “loyal to the state”.

The proposal prompted accusations of censorship and sparked a fierce debate about racism, free speech and the future of Israeli democracy.

Numerous artists, writers and political leaders, came out against the bill, which was eventually turned down by Parliament.

In June, Regev cut funding to the Arabic-language al-Midan theatre, which had been staging ‘Parallel Time’, a controversial play about the prison life of a Palestinian who killed an Israeli soldier. She also announced a plan to cut funding by 33 percent to organisations that refuse to perform in the settlements and boost funding to those organisations who do by 10 percent.

Reacting to Regev’s policy, a group of Israeli artists, museum directors and art educators filed a lawsuit against the minister. Threats to funding based on policies that limit freedom of expression could be a “death blow to culture institutions that rely heavily on public funding”, said one of the petitioners in the lawsuit.

In Russia, cultural institutions are well aware that crossing “red lines” will result in persecution, withdrawal of funding, marginalization and the risk of being expelled from their art premises. An open controversy between Russia’s artistic community and the Kremlin broke out in the autumn of 2016 when leading Moscow theatre directors accused the government of censorship and attaching informal conditions when giving funding.

If the state funds theatre it is entitled to make some recommendations as to content. – Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin

At a meeting with artists in December, President Vladimir Putin called any effort to interfere with theatre performances or exhibits “absolutely inadmissible”, but said artistic expression carried responsibility to avoid offending religious believers.

The censorship mechanism of expelling critical art companies and cultural institutions from state-owned buildings is often used by Russian authorities. In 2016, the government-critical Teatr.doc company moved into their third location after authorities very suddenly came up with technicalities invalidating their occupation of the last two locations.

In the words of Farida Shaheed, the first UN Special Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights: “State cultural policies need to take artistic freedoms into consideration, in particular when establishing criteria for selecting artists or institutions for State support. The pivotal factor is ensuring that the system as a whole is neutral.”

Governments should refrain from using funding as a tool to suppress critical artistic voices.




Two arguments run as a current below a majority of the tendencies that drove artistic freedom violations in 2016 – the “protection of the state” and “protection of traditional values and religion”. Both arguments are not new, and both are widely used.

State protection was an argument extensively used by countries such as China, Turkey and Israel in 2016.

Tibetan artists prosecuted by China and serving time in 2016 were often sentenced on charges of “seditiously splitting the state” or “inciting separatism”.

A new film law passed by Chinese lawmakers in 2016 now directs filmmakers to produce films that “serve the people and socialism”, “prioritise social benefits”, and preserve “national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Authorities said the purpose of the law was to promote “socialist core values” and “enrich the spiritual and cultural life of the masses”.

And as shown by this report, China has repeatedly censored artists at home and abroad who were seen as challenging Beijing’s “One China” policy.

In Turkey, the immense amount of detentions, firings, prosecutions and persecutions of artists, media and academia after the attempted coup in July 2016 have been justified by authorities who claim the attacks are related to the Gülen movement. According to President Erdoğan and his administration, the movement was behind the coup attempt and thus is a threat to national security.

Additionally, the continued arrests and harassments of Kurdish artists, such as Grup Yorum, in Turkey, are also justified by authorities as a fight against terrorism and protecting the unity of the Turkish state.

In Israel, when Minister of Culture Miri Regev campaigned for the cancellation of a performance by Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar at the Haifa Film Festival, she argued that “public funds should not be used to support activists who seek to undermine the state, its values and its symbols in the name of art and free speech”.

Alongside the rationale of “protecting the state” to justify violations of artists’ rights, the discourse of “traditional values” has gathered renewed energy from recent efforts in the international community led by the Russian Federation and supported by China along with numerous “Islamic” states and members of the African Group.

Since 2009, Russia has introduced several resolutions to the United Nations Human Rights Council “promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind”.

While framed as an attempt to enlist local religious and cultural practices in the service of universal human rights norms, this discourse of traditional values, much like the language of U.S. Christian conservatives of the 1990s, is organized around notions of the family and child development that are hostile to sexual and gender equality.

In national contexts, the same rhetoric has been associated with a wave of anti-LGBT actions beginning with Russia’s June 2013 nationwide ban on “propaganda” for “non-traditional sexual relationships”, legislation emulated by states throughout Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa. According to Human Rights Watch, 80 countries currently criminalise same-sex relations or the discussion of LGBT rights.

As shown in this report, artistic expression has been affected by LGBT repression in Russia, as when a video by the British electronic band Years and Years was censored for its depiction of a same-sex kiss. Such incidents, however, are part of a broader constriction of cultural and artistic freedom under President Putin, who has publicly portrayed Russia as a global guardian against Western-style liberalism and tolerance that would erase national and cultural differences and undermine the very distinction between good and evil.

In Uzbekistan, the discourse of traditional values can be heard in an ongoing project to “restore” an authentic Uzbek national identity in the post-Soviet era. In the words of an embassy statement, the period of Soviet domination “destroyed the spiritual bases, values, ideals, traditions, and social orientations of the individual person and the whole nation”. The government must now work to “restore spiritual and cultural values as a basis of sustainable development and powerful impetus to the national identity”. The push for traditional cultural values has been behind the banning of over 700 films in 2016, the revocation of musicians’ licenses to perform and a ban on broadcasting images of the tar, a musical instrument deemed “non-Uzbek”.

In some national contexts, the appeal to traditional and national values finds a more explicitly religious expression.

In Pakistan, recent film bans have cited “anti-Pakistan as well as anti-Muslim” content and in Nigeria the film ‘Ana Wata Ga Wata’ was banned by the Kano State Censorship Board because it went “against the religious and cultural values of the people of the state”. Kano state is one of the 12 Northern Nigerian states that has introduced Sharia law.

In March 2016, the state council for the Islamisation of universities and educational centres in Iran disallowed musical performances except those of “fine and valuable Iranian music” that “strengthens national identity” and remains within “Islamic norms”.

In November, Iranian singer Amir Tataloo (real name: Amirhossein Maghsoodloo) was sentenced to five years in prison and 74 lashes after being found guilty of “spreading Western immorality”.

Also the censorship of female musicians in Iran is excused by the argument of defending religious and traditional norms, as is the banning of women singers from performing in Egypt and Tunisia.

This report shows the variety of ways artists representing all art forms are hit by different violators using the same kind of excuses for curtailing artistic freedom. When governments or others in a position of power forcefully try to secure a single dominant narrative, artists are at increased risk. Artistic expressions do not and should not fit into one frame. A healthy society needs alternative creative expressions.






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