“The state of freedom of expression globally was considered by rights monitors to be at its lowest point in recent years,” opens Freemuse’s chilling “The State of Artistic Freedom 2022” report. A definitive increase in threats to artistic freedom has occurred as reactionary laws, rising conservatism, humanitarian crises, and protracted pandemic woes have all been intensified by partisan governments employing social media and digital weapons against artists. Women and LGBTQIA+ communities experienced a marked rise in instances of repression and online harassment campaigns, as Freemuse’s report examined 1,251 artistic freedom violations in 103 countries and online, including 39 artists murdered, 253 detained, 133 prosecuted, and 287 instances of censorship in 2021. In 2022 alone, we have already witnessed mass detentions and planned executions in Iran, the outbreak of war in Ukraine, and major repression in countries including China, Myanmar, Cuba, and Afghanistan.
“As a result, the existing support mechanisms for artists are extremely overwhelmed and the situation is untenable both for persecuted artists and the organizations that support them,” Julie Trébault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), told Hyperallergic. As the circumstances become more dire, and the threat of artistic suppression spreads daily, how can we defend artists in need and protect ourselves?
Rising traditionalism, conservatism, and populism have resulted in major discrimination against women and the LGBTQIA+ artistic community, with Freemuse citing 17 women artists in legal trouble for “indecent” art, and 32 persons arrested over their sexual orientation and expression. While women artists are especially targeted online via harassment, abuse, and algorithmic bias, LGBTQIA+ artists are likely to be made public examples of by conservative governments that view them as “ideologically radical outliers within a heteronormative framework,” as Gareth Harris describes in the book Censored Art Today (2022). Women artists may already know online spaces to be less than welcoming, but social media has persisted as a space for marginalized groups to find community and expression; or so it once was for many who’ve experienced their governments using it against them.
Brazilian actor and artist, Órion Lalli, highlights the mistreatment of LGBTQIA+ and HIV-positive people in Brazil. He is currently a political refugee in France after Jair Bolsonaro’s government orchestrated an internet defamation campaign against him. Denouncing artwork of his at a Rio de Janeiro museum, a coordinated attack targeted Lalli with threats and harassment across a plethora of platforms including Whatsapp, social media, email, and internet comments. “All the harassment I’ve experienced, and my experience as a refugee began as online attacks, which were orchestrated by members of the party of Bolsanaro,” recounted Lalli during a panel at the World Ethical Data Forum (WEDF).
Lalli’s harassment only increased after the weaponization of “fake news” laws, which are often used to ban anything a partisan government determines to share false information, and predictably used to silence critical art. Bolsonaro’s government created online networks to track down “fake news,” which were soon used for harassment campaigns and censorship. Recently, backlash over a speech that Lalli gave at the UN about LGBTQIA+ rights in Brazil became viral within these networks. Afterward, he was presented with various “traps” outside his home, including a fire and a dead puppy, meant to draw him outside.
Similarly, Malaysian graphic artist Fahmi Reza recounts in the aforementioned WEDF panel discussion that his government employs “cyber troopers,” people who are paid to go after government critics and activists on social media. Their strategy is to lead harassment campaigns online, abuse the “report” function on social media posts which will cause content to be flagged and removed, and make death threats in comments and DMs. Although most are not serious threats, says Reza, “When I get a death threat, for a few days I won’t be leaving home.”
Reza has a long history of detentions, convictions, and prison sentences over his satirical artwork. Currently investigated for the eighth time, the Malaysian government has repeatedly accused him of sedition and violation of the Communications and Multimedia Act which prohibits the posting of something that is false with the intention to offend. Reza was most notably arrested for a caricature of the Malaysian Prime Minister in clown makeup, an image that went viral. The reason given for his arrest was the spreading false information. “The way they define it, he is not really a clown, so it is false,” Reza explained. He was careful to use backup accounts and have alternative means of communication on standby, as police investigation can mean confiscation of your phone, computer, modem, router, even your social media and email accounts.
Cutting artists off from their digital community is becoming altogether more common in countries where artists are at risk. Two weeks before the death of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini and the ensuing protests, Iran passed major components of a bill restricting internet access, in what Article 19 says constituted “handing over [of] complete control of the internet to authorities.” A week after protests began, Iran shut down Instagram, WhatsApp, and most mobile operators. Similarly, following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia shut down social media, installed black boxes at telecom companies (precision equipment to track, block, and hinder websites), and introduced their own “fake news” laws to outlaw anti-war sentiments.
Possibly the most chilling aspect of partisan governments controlling our digital expression is its simple functionality, or, as Jake Neuberger blogged for Don’t Delete Art, “the effectiveness afforded by relatively cost-effective equipment and simple vigilance.” Whether confiscating accounts, targeting threats, using posts to prosecute, or simply shutting it all down, more and more partisan governments are finding new ways to curtail artists’ expression and safety online and offline. As doors close, artists can be left with desperately few alternatives and no way out, as ARC points out, “all too often, there is no path forward for the artists we work with, which is extremely frustrating and unfortunate because they are often in such grave danger and it is no longer safe for them to create.”
While repressive regimes may feel worlds away for many artists with the privilege to practice in more open and tolerant countries, it is in our best interest to pay close attention. Conservativism and partisan politics have been rising globally. As Eric Goldman from the High Tech Law Institute told Hyperallergic, “We are seeing a resurgence of government censorship across the globe and in the United States, and that poses extreme danger to artists, who are often top targets for government censorship.” Just this year PEN America reported over 1,600 books banned in the US, most of the topics related to LGBTQIA+ or race. Besides overt actions like book banning, US laws masquerading as online transparency and safety are poised to quell artistic expression across the internet at the will of partisan politics.
Making sure this doesn’t get worse means defending and protecting artists who are censored and threatened globally. The art community could be much more involved in supporting artists and bringing attention to the cause of artistic freedom globally.
As ARC’s Julie Trébault says, “Museums should be using their considerable reach and cachet to advocate for artists who are suffering from persecution and harassment worldwide,” what’s more, “Galleries and private collectors should be much more involved in providing platforms and exhibition spaces, as well as financial support to organizations that assist persecuted artists. Currently, they are not involved at all,” which should concern us all.