“Given the exceptional nature of the crisis, […] if the rule of law is not upheld, then the public health emergency risks becoming a human rights disaster, with negative effects that will long outlast the pandemic itself,” said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the early beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Nothing far from reality.
Worldwide, freedom of artistic expression is increasingly facing pressure. A growing number of artists and cultural workers who spell out uncomfortable truths and make the unseen visible are subject to pressure, censorship, intimidation and harassment.
Persecution and imprisonment of artists are not just local or national phenomena limited to a handful of regions or countries. It is a global trend and Europe is, unfortunately, no exception.
On 25 February, Freemuse launched its flagship report “The State of Artistic Freedom 2021” during the online session of Re: Writing the Future Festival. Among the alarming scale of violations of artistic freedom and sanctions around the globe, the report illustrates that 26% of all documented restrictions happened in Europe in 2020, followed by 22% in North and South America, 19% in the Middle East and North Africa.
“It is unimaginable that the record high of prosecution and imprisonment of artists will happen to be in the year when artists and the cultural sector have already suffered the loss of their livelihood,” said Srirak Plipat, Executive Director of Freemuse. “This year’s report illustrates increasing misuses of blasphemy, anti-terrorism legislation, and COVID-19 measures as pretexts to silence dissident voices of artists and artworks .”
Limiting the freedom of individual artists and artistic spaces undermine fundamental human rights and funding values of the European Union as enshrined in the EU Treaties and in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. The topic of media and artistic freedom in Europe has also been brought up recently to a political debate by the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) Group in the European Parliament (EP). The group called on the European Commission to ensure better protection of freedom for the press and the arts, during an online meeting that took place on 22 February.
During the debate, Eszter Orban (co-president of the Hungarian Dramaturgies Guild) and Klemen Dvornik (Chairman of the Slovenian Federation of Filmmakers’ Guilds), among others, described how the freedom of artistic expression has been dismantled in EU countries for years, reducing the power of art to communicate and open up new perspectives.
“Media and artistic freedom are the cornerstones of a healthy society and a functioning democracy. […] Only when these two fundamental rights are filled with meaning and exercised freely can media and art act as the all-important corrective in democracy,” highlights the joint statement co-signed by MEPs Petra Kammerevert, Domenec Ruiz Devesa, Klara Dobrev, and Elena Yoncheva, who participated in the event.
Taking part in the consultation on the European Democracy Action Plan last Autumn, CAE and Freemuse called on the Commission to recognize artistic freedom in all its forms and place it on equal footing with other kinds of Freedom of expression, such as media freedom, where the EU increasingly takes action vis-à-vis its Member States.
Crucially, an indicator on freedom of artistic expression should be included in the assessment of the breaches of rules of law in the Member States. The joint co-development of a handbook together with cultural agents would be a starting point to trigger this discussion and strengthen Europe’s fundamental rights toolbox. Among other recommendations, it would also be key to foresee a facility through which artists could report violations of their rights and access support for their legal assistance and relocation.
Culture Action Europe’s recently published paper on artistic freedom highlights that protecting artistic freedom is a European value. While we would expect the rule of law to protect the freedom of artistic expression, legal provisions are becoming a tool for contesting that same artistic expression. There is little doubt, if any, that this tendency needs to be paid adequate and acute attention by the EU.