Last February, the Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji received a two-year prison sentence for “violating public modesty” by publishing excerpts from his graphic novel. While released in December after a judge suspended his sentence, Naji faces a retrial this April, exemplifying his country’s strict legislation that holds state interests above artists’ voices. His is only one of 37 cases of attacks on artistic freedom registered last year in Egypt — and only one of 1,028 registered worldwide, in 78 countries. According to Freemuse, an independent international organization that researches violations of artists’ rights, that global number has more than doubled that for 2015, increasing by 119%.
These figures are published in Art Under Threat, Freemuse’s annual report that examines the state of attacks on and censorship of the arts around the world. The statistics focus on visual art, performance, film, music, and works of fiction; they do not include attacks on journalists, bloggers, documentary filmmakers, or cartoonists who work in media. Freemuse has been tracking violations of artistic freedom since 2012 (it focused solely on music prior to that year), and its total number of registered cases has increased annually — so it’s important to note that while 2016 stands as a record year, this figure also likely reflects the organization’s expanding network and improving ability to gather and receive intelligence.
Any number, of course, is cause for concern. Freemuse divides its total count of registered cases into what it deems “serious violations” — killings, abductions, attacks, imprisonments, prosecutions, persecutions, or threats — and acts of censorship of artworks and events. This year, the organization tallied 188 of the former and 840 of the latter, determining that defense of “traditional values” and desires to uphold “the interest of the state” were the leading motivations for attacks on artists.
The intertwining of state and religion in Iran, for instance, is largely why the nation registered the highest number of serious violations worldwide — 30 — last year. This includes the imprisonment of 19 artists, a statistic that tripled the tally of 2015’s report. Following Iran is Turkey, with 23 registered serious violations; Egypt, with 18; Nigeria, with 15; and Russia, with 10.
Many of these countries also appear on Freemuse’s list of the 10 most censorious nations. Ukraine sits at number one, claiming 66% of the total number of cases; accounting for most of that figure is a blacklist of 544 films and TV series, as Freemuse counts every work it is able to identify as an individual case. Next is Kuwait, whose 61 cases also largely stem from a film blacklist, followed by China, whose 20 incidents cover a variety of media. Notably, the United States ranks as the eighth worst country for censorship, with 13 registered acts — tying with Turkey and surpassing Pakistan and Iran.
Freemuse also investigates the variety of individuals and organizations responsible for these violations. Government and military extremists, unsurprisingly, account for many of the cases, but civil society groups, too, and artists’ syndicate and unions are also among violators (particularly in countries like Ghana, Egypt, and Tunisia). Many of the cases of censorship in the United States stem from non-state actors, largely religious and minority groups who have claimed discrimination, blasphemy, or offense.
It’s worth diving into the entirety of the Art Under Threat report, which includes individual sections dedicated to censorship of women and LGBT artists and artworks. Its researchers also look closely at six of the worse violating countries, and throughout its 46 pages recounts specific stories that remind readers of the individual human struggles behind all these numbers and graphs. Many of these accounts arrive from media reports, and while attacks on artistic freedom are gaining more attention, many are still underreported, or outright unreported. The uncertainty of what the real numbers may be is an alarming thought with which to grapple, but awareness of the issues is the necessary starting point to action, and Freemuse’s report makes clear that the fight against the oppression and censorship of artists is far, far from over.
To read the full report, including in-depth analyses of artistic freedom violations in individual countries, go here.
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