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(all screen shots by the author for Hyperallergic, from “Art Under Threat: Attacks on Artistic Freedom in 2015” by Freemuse)

ISIS’s November 13 massacre at an Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris’ Bataclan theater, which left 89 people dead and 99 more critically injured, was part of one of the worst terrorist attacks in French history. It was also the most devastating attacks on artistic freedom in 2015, stoking a climate of fear around the world and leading to concerts and cultural events being cancelled.

The massacre was part of a sharp, worldwide increase in attacks on artistic expression last year, according to a new report, “Art Under Threat,” released today by Freemuse. The organization, which aims to defend artistic freedom around the world, registered a total 469 cases of censorship and attacks in 2015 — nearly a twofold increase (98%) from 2014. Most attacks were either politically or religiously motivated. 

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Some of the report’s most significant findings include:

  • China was the worst offender among countries that systematically deny artistic freedom, with 20 registered serious violations in 2015. Iran took second place, with 16 registered violations; Russia had 15. Tied in fourth place were Burundi, Syria, and Turkey, with 10 violations each.
  • Music, which the Taliban banned in Afghanistan in the 1990s, was the most frequently attacked art form in 2015, as it was the previous year. Including the Bataclan theater massacre, attacks on music accounted for 309 registered cases (66%). Several jihadist websites deem music “haram” or the “tool of the devil.”
  • By type, registered attacks in 2015 included 3 artists being killed, 15 newly imprisoned, 31 imprisoned in previous years but still serving time, 6 abductions, 24 physical attacks, 33 cases of threats or persecutions, 42 artists being prosecuted, 23 being detained, and 292 cases of censorship.
  • There are no real statistics available on film censorship, as “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.”

The numbers in the report reflect only registered attacks on artistic freedom; the authors explain what this means:

The statistics are based on a combination of open sources — such as incidents reported in media worldwide — and whatever verified information Freemuse can collect from network partners and stringers all over the world. The artsfex network is an important platform for collaborations and exchange of information with local, regional and international sister organisations advocating artistic freedom.

We consider a case “confirmed” only if we are reasonably certain that an artist was targeted in reprisal for his or her artistic work. Freemuse conducts its own independent research based on various sources to determine the motive. When authorities make up false accusations such as economic fraud or drug possession in an attempt to silence an artist, the case is included in the statistics.


The numbers thus represent a cautious estimate, since most violations go unreported. “Artistic freedom violations continue to be under-reported in many countries due to lack of awareness, registration and reporting capacity,” Freemuse Executive Director Ole Reitov said in a statement. “Artistic creativity demands an environment free from fear and insecurity. Although states are the main violators, increasingly, threats from non-state actors are leading to fear and self-censorship. At the UN level there have been positive signs of larger attention being paid to the importance of protecting artistic freedom, but 2015 was in general a dark year for artistic freedom.”

In September 2015, at the 30th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the ambassador of Latvia, Janis Karklins, reaffirmed the UN’s mission to protect creative freedom. “We stand firm in our commitment to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression, including artistic and creative expression,” Karklins told the council — though only 53 of the UN’s 193 member states supported the statement. “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.”

To read the full report, including in-depth analyses of artistic freedom violations in individual countries, go here.

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.