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Freedom of expression banner

A text banner that brings the issue of freedom of artistic expression home. Image: Chadzkii

(WNN/Culture360) Copenhagen, DENMARK, WESTERN EUROPE: There are even less organizations dedicated to protecting and defending the basic rights of the artists themselves. Founded in 1921, PEN International is the oldest organization devoted to freedom of artistic expression for writers. PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee was established in 1960 to raise awareness of increasing numbers of imprisoned writers (including journalists, translators and historians).

In this context, the Artsfex-Copenhagen Summit on Artistic Freedom of Expression organized by Freemuse – a unique and very active NGO defending musicians’ freedom of expression and Danish PEN, with the support of the Danish Ministry of Culture, took place in Copenhagen from December 9 to 11, 2011. The summit brought together national and international artists’ organizations, networks, and freedom of expression organizations with the aim to explore options for establishing a global network for monitoring violations of artistic freedom of expression.

In 2001, a year after the launch of the Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity which led to the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, both UNESCO and PEN International convened meetings of artists, intellectuals and human rights organizations such as International Theatre Institute (ITI), International Federation of Actors (FIA), Media Entertainment International, Index on Censorship and Freemuse, with the idea to set up an action alert network.

By 2009, conscious of the rise in threats to artists but also of the internet’s increased opportunities to diffuse information, the urge for such a grouping began to reappear in various corners. Freemuse started talking about the network again and planning for a global conference in 2012.

Meanwhile freeDimensional, an international organization that finds safe havens for persecuted artists and cultural operators, organized a conference bringing together professional networks “that have activities at the intersection of arts, human rights and social justice and are interested in situations of persecuted or refugee artists denied freedom of expression and the free movement of artists and cultural workers overall.”

Forming a coalition of advocates

The result was an informal coalition where the International Coalition for Arts, Human Rights and Social Justice, known as Arts Rights Justice came together to share information, resources and expertise, as well as to strengthen political advocacy for arts and human rights issues. A follow-up to this international group has been the creation of a new European Union ‘Arts, Rights and Justice Working Group’.

The summit brought artists, activist networks and policy-makers together in a public forum followed by a 2 day working meeting. Participants outlined the social and political importance of artists’ free expression, the difficulties they face and the challenges of the organizations dedicated to helping them.

South African playwright and activist, Mike Van Graan, General Secretary of the Arterial Network in Africa, focused on sombre contemporary realities asking: “Are basic rights only for the North or the rich? Are human rights essential to the growth of cultural industries or are they expendable and secondary to economic progress?”

For Van Graan, “the discourse of solidarity has disappeared from the global arts space.”

Christine Merkel urged human rights and arts organizations to work together to use existing tools more effectively and called UNESCO to “declare and deplore” cases where artists’ freedom is threatened.

The activities of several networks have been highlighted as well during the Summit. Since 1978, the International Committee for Artistic Freedom (ICAF) supports artists “facing censorship, exile, persecution, imprisonment, torture or death.” Another example of an artists’ association actively supporting their colleagues’ human rights was given by the European Composers and Songwriters’ Association (ECSA) who presented ‘Impossible Music Sessions’, an advocacy group who promote banned music and organized ‘the world’s first stealth music festival’ in Afghanistan.

Since 2005, freeDimensional has been building a network to pragmatically address the urgent issues faced by artists in distress. They give training on psycho-social issues, source pro-bono legal aid or psycho-social care in the community, including services such as securing a visa for a threatened artist. Given the sensitive nature of fD’s work, the organization often keeps a low profile to remain effective.

Sara Whyatt of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and Ole Reitov of Freemuse highlighted the necessity of high profile activities to draw attention to rights abuses, as well as of the more quiet, individual work of aiding persecuted artists and ensuring their safety.

For Whyatt, whose organization reports 600-700 writers under threat each year, it is essential not only to make cases visible and ensure artists receive support in emergency situations, but also to continue supporting them once the urgency is over.  Similar to the news alerts issued by Freemuse and other freedom of artistic expression organizations, PEN’s Action Alerts serve as a critical tool for diffusing information, motivating supporters and increasing political pressure.

Reinforcing the remarks of all of the participants in the 2011 event, Sara Whyatt pleaded for like-minded organizations and institutions to come together, share and collaborate internationally in order to be more effective in stopping human rights abuses of artists and cultural workers active in the struggle for democratic conditions in their countries.

Next Steps

Key to success in  achieving the objective above will be the ability of such diverse organizations (from arts organizations to freedom of expression NGO’s) to identify common goals and strategies and transcend differences of approach.

Freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 19 does not bow before questions of taste or moral relativity and arts organizations often prefer oblique references to direct confrontation with authority.  However, there is urgent and important work to be done to improve legislation, visa regimes, donor’s programs, public awareness, the arts sector’s capacity to protect its own workers and the human rights sector’s ability to understand the needs and dangers to artists whose voices are calling for freedom and justice.

In the meantime, the Copenhagen Summit launched a resolution in 2011 that established a working committee that has hopes that much-desired global network will continue.

For more information see the final outcome of the Artsfex Resolution – Copenhagen, Denmark


This article has been edited and compiled by members of the International Coalition for Arts, Human Rights and Social Justice (ICARJ)  Victoria Ivanova (TransEuropeHalles),  Sidd Joag (freeDimensional), Rosario Pavese (LA Net Art for Social Transformation), Ole Reitov (Freemuse) and Mary Ann DeVlieg (IETM). The article presents analysis gleaned from continuing insights gathered from the Artsfex-Copenhagen Summit on Artistic Freedom of Expression held in Copenhagen, December 9-11 2011.




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