Artists on the frontline

Artistic freedom under threat

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Emma Wadsworth-Jones, Koordinatorin des weltweiten Schutzprogramms Humanists at Risk
Emma Wadsworth-Jones, Koordinatorin des weltweiten Schutzprogramms Humanists at Risk

Beitragsbild: Humanists International

Artists around the world are increasingly affected by censorship, the banning of their works, and even violent attacks. In the past year, Humanists International has received more than 200 requests for help, including from writers, journalists, musicians and visual artists who want to live their lives according to their values. Emma Wadsworth-Jones is Humanists At Risk coordinator at Humanists International and handles the cases. A guest post.

Für die dies­seits-Aus­ga­be 132 wur­de die­ser eng­li­sche Ori­gi­nal­text über­ar­bei­tet und ins Deut­sche über­setzt.

Crea­ti­ve expres­si­on is cen­tral to human civi­liza­ti­on: allo­wing us to hold up a mir­ror to the world and the ways in which we live; offe­ring an oppor­tu­ni­ty for con­nec­tion and under­stan­ding. From parie­tal art, to oral tra­di­ti­ons of sto­rytel­ling, to lite­ra­tu­re, music, theat­re and film, art plays a pro­found role in our lives.

It is pre­cis­e­ly becau­se of its role in socie­ty that artis­tic free­dom is enshri­ned in inter­na­tio­nal law under Artic­le 27 of the Uni­ver­sal Decla­ra­ti­on of Human Rights, Artic­le 15 of the Inter­na­tio­nal Coven­ant on Eco­no­mic, Social and Cul­tu­ral Rights, and Artic­le 19 of the Inter­na­tio­nal Coven­ant on Civil and Poli­ti­cal Rights.

As huma­nists, we ack­now­ledge the value that artis­tic and cul­tu­ral expres­si­on brings to our lives, and the important role it plays in pro­mo­ting mutu­al under­stan­ding, as well as hol­ding tho­se in power to account.

As my col­le­ague, Eliza­beth O’Casey, told the UN Human Rights Coun­cil, “Cul­tu­ral diver­si­ty brings color to our lives and a grea­ter awa­re­ness that we all, regard­less of ori­gin, share a com­mon huma­ni­ty. Artis­tic and sci­en­ti­fic free­dom is one of the hall­marks of a free and flou­ris­hing socie­ty.”

Tho­se who oppo­se artis­tic free­dom must under­stand that too, or else why should they seek to silence others? Inde­ed, reports indi­ca­te that artists across the glo­be are facing incre­asing pres­su­re.

In Octo­ber, we lear­ned of the full ext­ent of the life-alte­ring inju­ries sus­tained by Sal­man Rush­die, when an assai­lant rus­hed the stage stab­bing him some 10 times in the face, neck and abdo­men in August this year. Rushdie’s is not an iso­la­ted case. Nor is the attempt to silence limi­t­ed to wri­ters. The­re are innu­me­ra­ble cases of attempts to silence artists, car­too­nists, film­ma­kers, actors and sin­gers across the glo­be. For some, the risks out­weigh the rewards, and they find them­sel­ves self-cen­so­ring to ensu­re their own safe­ty.

Repres­si­on comes in many forms, and from both sta­te and non-sta­te actors: it could be through the use of dra­co­ni­an laws – par­ti­cu­lar­ly rela­ted to natio­nal secu­ri­ty; or by see­king to under­mi­ne the uni­ver­sa­li­ty of human rights through argu­ments of cul­tu­ral rela­ti­vism; it might be by venues, gal­le­ries and exhi­bi­ti­on spaces refu­sing to host cer­tain artists, or mem­bers of the public that exert their influence to curtail artis­tic free­dom.

Ever crea­ti­ve, artists often find inge­nious ways to get around the cen­sor. I once work­ed on the case of a wri­ter who published their book with blanks to replace words that would-be cen­sors would have objec­ted to; once appr­oval was obtai­ned and the books prin­ted, they fil­led in the blanks by hand.

Some artists use pseud­onyms to avo­id direct asso­cia­ti­on with their work and thus eva­de repri­sals. Howe­ver, tho­se who­se work focu­ses on the screen or stage do not have this luxu­ry; they are iden­ti­fia­ble figu­res in socie­ty and may face hig­her risks as a result.

In Bra­zil, pro­duc­tions of The Gos­pel Accor­ding to Jesus, Queen of Hea­ven, which tells the sto­ry of a trans­gen­der Jesus Christ – writ­ten by Scot­tish play­w­right Jo Clif­ford and per­for­med by trans­gen­der actress and acti­vist Rena­ta Car­val­ho – faced unpre­ce­den­ted oppo­si­ti­on from both the Evan­ge­li­cal and Catho­lic Church who sought to have per­for­man­ces can­cel­led throug­hout the cour­se of 2018. The play’s oppon­ents resor­ted to both legal and extra­le­gal mea­su­res to pre­vent per­for­man­ces from taking place.

Art can tran­s­cend the con­fi­nes of lin­gu­i­stic divi­des; it can con­vey con­cepts and ide­as, cap­tu­re the ima­gi­na­ti­on, and evo­ke emo­tio­nal reac­tions, tou­ch­ing far more peo­p­le more quick­ly than more tra­di­tio­nal media.

A simp­le image pain­ted on a wall can beco­me a powerful sym­bol of revo­lu­ti­on. In 2011, Suda­ne­se poli­ti­cal car­too­nist Kha­lid Albaih’s work chro­nicling the ‘Arab Spring’ sprung up, sten­ci­led on walls across the Midd­le East regi­on. Albaih has regu­lar­ly faced cen­sor­ship and thre­ats due to his work and curr­ent­ly lives in exi­le.

Cuba, as we know, is no stran­ger to cen­sor­ship and hea­vy-han­ded attempts to stif­le dis­sent. In Decem­ber 2018, the Cuban govern­ment brought in Decree 349, which regu­la­tes inde­pen­dent artis­tic pro­duc­tion by requi­ring the regis­tra­ti­on and pri­or appr­oval of all artis­tic acti­vi­ty through a govern­ment-affi­lia­ted cul­tu­ral insti­tu­ti­on, and estab­lishes rest­ric­tions on the dis­se­mi­na­ti­on of cul­tu­ral or audio-visu­al con­tent. Unsur­pri­sin­gly, the move led to wide­spread pro­tests, and a sub­se­quent crack­down. Among tho­se detai­ned for pro­test­ing the decree is world-renow­ned artist Tania Bru­ge­ra.

More recent­ly, in Febru­ary this year, the United Nati­ons Working Group on Arbi­tra­ry Detenti­on ruled that the Cuban Sta­te had arbi­tra­ri­ly detai­ned rap­per May­kel Osor­bo. Despi­te this, May­kel Osor­bo, was sen­ten­ced to nine years in pri­son on 24 June 2022. On the same day, per­for­mance artist, Luis Manu­el Ote­ro Alcán­ta­ra, was also con­vic­ted and sen­ten­ced to five years in pri­son. Both used their art as a means to draw atten­ti­on to their con­cerns regar­ding the social, poli­ti­cal and eco­no­mic situa­ti­on in Cuba.

Art that gives voice to the mar­gi­na­li­sed or calls for the rea­li­sa­ti­on of human rights, is seen as all the more dan­ge­rous still.

In Pol­and, LGBTI+ rights acti­vists Elż­bieta Pod­leś­na, Joan­na Gzy­ra-Iskan­dar, Anna Prus faced char­ges of “offen­ding reli­gious fee­lings through public defa­ma­ti­on of an object or place of wor­ship,” in con­nec­tion with the use of pos­ters of the Vir­gin Mary with a rain­bow halo sym­bo­lic of the LGBTI+ flag. The acti­vists were even­tual­ly acquit­ted in 2021

In India, film­ma­kers must sub­mit their work to a cen­sor­ship board (CFBC) for pri­or appr­oval. Film­ma­kers regu­lar­ly face the choice bet­ween their film not being scree­ned or sur­ren­de­ring to the CBFC’s edi­to­ri­al cuts. For the past five months, I have been working on the case of Lee­na Manime­ka­lai, an award-win­ning film­ma­ker and poet, who has been recei­ving death thre­ats and facing cen­sor­ship due to her most recent short film ‘Kaa­li,’ which por­trays the god­dess Kali wal­king the streets of Toron­to, Cana­da, during pri­de. She is unable to return to home for fear of her imme­dia­te arrest as a result of nine sepa­ra­te inves­ti­ga­ti­ons into the alle­ged “harm” cau­sed by her film to “reli­gious sen­ti­ments”.

In Cyprus, artist Geor­ge Gavri­el faced the pro­s­pect of losing his job as a tea­cher after the Minis­try of Edu­ca­ti­on pla­ced him under inves­ti­ga­ti­on fol­lo­wing com­plaints that his pain­tings were dero­ga­to­ry of reli­gi­on. The pain­tings in ques­ti­on, which Gavri­el descri­bes as “anti-estab­lish­ment,” are reli­gi­on-the­med: among them, one depic­ting a naked Jesus and ano­ther a dog uri­na­ting on the arch­bi­shop. Arch­bi­shop Chry­sosto­mos is repor­ted to be among the com­plainants. The case was even­tual­ly drop­ped after a year of inves­ti­ga­ti­on.

At the most extre­me end of the spec­trum of repri­sals that artists can face are phy­si­cal attacks and even kil­lings. Today, Afgha­ni­stan is under the de fac­to rule of the Tali­ban, who have re-estab­lished the Isla­mic Emi­ra­te and re-impo­sed their strict inter­pre­ta­ti­on of Sha­ria law.

Bans on tech­no­lo­gy and the play­ing of music have been in place in Tali­ban-con­trol­led are­as, such as Helm­and or Kun­duz pro­vin­ces, for years; enforced by civi­li­an “poli­ce.” Access to tech­no­lo­gy is tight­ly con­trol­led in order to pre­vent indi­vi­du­als wat­ching vide­os or lis­tening to music. Enforce­ment has been gra­du­al, buil­ding from war­nings for infrac­tions towards bea­tings for repea­ted rule-brea­k­ers.

On 26 August 2021, the Tali­ban rein­sta­ted a coun­try-wide ban on music decla­ring that it was “for­bidden in Islam.” Just two days later, cele­bra­ted Afghan folk sin­ger Fawad Andara­bi was shot dead at his home in the Andarab Val­ley in the nor­t­hern Bagh­lan pro­vin­ce.

Count­less wri­ters, musi­ci­ans and artists – many of whom are freethin­kers who have pro­mo­ted secu­la­rism or con­dem­ned the peri­ls of extre­mism in their work – are among the human rights defen­ders who have sought to flee Afgha­ni­stan in order to save their lives.

As you can see from many of the cases abo­ve, pro­tec­ting natio­nal secu­ri­ty, par­ti­cu­lar­ly “tra­di­tio­nal values” and “reli­gious harm­o­ny,” is often given as the reason to silence tho­se who pre­sent an alter­na­ti­ve world­view. Tho­se that chall­enge the ortho­do­xy, ques­ti­on the sta­tus quo, call for chan­ge and the exten­si­on of rights to all often pay a hea­vy pri­ce.

Howe­ver, what I hope is also appa­rent is that the pro­tec­tion and pro­mo­ti­on of cul­tu­ral rights is cru­cial for the rea­liza­ti­on of other rights, for hol­ding tho­se in power to account, and for the flou­ris­hing of huma­ni­ty as a who­le.

So far this year, Huma­nists Inter­na­tio­nal has recei­ved 211 requests for help, among their num­ber are wri­ters, jour­na­lists, musi­ci­ans and artists see­king to live a life true to their values.

Bild: Huma­nists Inter­na­tio­nal

The work Huma­nists Inter­na­tio­nal does to pro­tect huma­nists who face dis­cri­mi­na­ti­on and per­se­cu­ti­on for their beliefs, sim­ply would not be pos­si­ble wit­hout the gene­rous dona­ti­ons we recei­ve from our Mem­bers and sup­port­ers. To find out more and show your sup­port, plea­se visit

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