A new report finds that African artists are facing a “troubling rise” in restrictions on their creative freedom. Produced by PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) in partnership with the South African human rights defense group SouthernDefenders, the document identifies digital surveillance, financial blacklisting, and travel and internet restrictions as political and military conflicts continue to simmer across several nations in the region.
The report is based on a November 2021 workshop titled “Artistic Freedom in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities,” which convened 30 participants from 17 countries to pinpoint the most pressing issues and develop circumvention strategies for creatives facing censorship and oppression. The participants — which ranged from artists and activists to lawyers and human rights defenders — agreed that while Africa possesses an immense wealth of creative expression, creatives who stay true to their practice are most vulnerable to threats, harassment, and imprisonment at the hands of authoritarian regimes cracking down on dissent. The instability brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has only left artists more susceptible to such crackdowns.
“The discussion of, as an artist, trying to make peace or to be at peace with the devil is demanding so much from my own humanity,” a participating Zambian musician said. (All participants remained anonymous, identified only by country.) “What you do is either surrender because you don’t want to go to prison tomorrow, or you surrender because you want to be at peace at your own expense. That is a very huge deduction on my own humanity.”
Internet access is a volatile asset for African artists, the report states. Workshop participants said that while the digital realm has made spaces for artists and activists to showcase and engage with politically confrontational content, African regimes have rapidly adjusted by investing in digital surveillance and disruption technology, and conducting nationwide web shutdowns during times of unrest. One participant from Sudan highlights a period in 2021 when the Sudanese government shut down internet access for weeks amidst protests in the capital city, Khartoum, after the military took over the country. Social media algorithms also interfere with creative expression through automated moderation, arbitrary account deletions, and intentional flagging of controversial posts and users. Mauritanian activist poet named Abdallahi Salem Ould Yali, for example, was detained and charged with inciting violence in 2018 after he made Facebook posts that encouraged the Heratines, an ethnic group descended from slavery, to assert their rights in light of discrimination.
Censorship boards for media and entertainment also exist in nations such as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria. Such boards are usually stocked by political and gubernatorial bodies, vetting music, films, and TV shows for controversial content. For example, in 2019, Uganda adopted the Stage Plays and Public Entertainments Act in 2019, requiring all musicians, filmmakers/producers, and entertainers to apply for a government-administered media license which could be revoked for lewd and explicit content.
COVID-19 further enabled authoritarian governments to use quarantine implementation rules as a means of silencing dissidents and limiting freedoms under the guise of combatting the virus. Workshop participants agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic has stifled their creativity through disinformation, police brutality, increased web surveillance, limited internet access, and lack of sufficient aid for mental health.
Many artists have self-censored in fear of political repercussions and not being able to make ends meet, a decision that takes a “harsh psychological and emotional toll” on those who show such restraint, the report says.
At the forefront of combatting censorship was community solidarity and mutual support. Identifying artists as human rights defenders also affords them additional assistance through the United Nations and other strategic organizations, and participants encouraged creatives to become more present in policy reform on a national and continental level.