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Artistic freedom in Europe under threat

Poster accused of offending religious feelings in Poland © Wickimedia

A new report presented recently at the European Parliament shows alarming trends of violations of artistic freedom in Europe.

Several countries are censoring and sentencing artists in all kinds of art forms for allegedly insulting heads of state, hurting religious feelings or glorifying terrorism.

The report by Freemuse, an international organisation founded in 1998 with headquarters in Copenhagen, is based on an analysis of 380 cases of violations of artistic freedom in Europe over the last two years.

In the majority of cases, government authorities were responsible for the violations. More than 800 artists and artworks were censored. 50 artists were detained in 5 countries (Turkey, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Poland) and 31 artists imprisoned in 4 countries (Spain, Turkey, Russia, United Kingdom).

However, the actual number of cases is much higher according to Freemuse. which advocates and defends freedom of artistic expression. While a previous global report shows the usual suspects, dictatorships and authoritarian regimes suppressing artistic freedom, this regional report draws the attention to the fact that artistic freedom is also threatened in EU member states.

The conference was opened on Tuesday (21 January) by Juan Fernando López Aguilar, a Spanish MEP (S&D) who is chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. Himself a law professor, he underlined that artistic freedom is a fundamental right and can bring about change in society.

“But it has its enemies, that’s why we need to listen to the concerns of artists and protect them,” he said. Despite the protection of artistic freedom in article 20 of the Spanish constitution, Spain figures in the report as the country with the highest number of sentenced rappers, found guilty of insulting politicians and members of the Spanish royal family.

In fact, music is the most censored artform in the report, accounting for 39 % of all cases. “Music can be a very powerful art form and connects people emotionally,” explains Dr Srirak Plipat, executive director of Freemuse. “It often conveys a social message or protest against injustice which might upset the authorities. It’s also accessible almost everywhere.”

Fundamental right

MEP Domenec Ruiz Devesa (S&D), who moderated the conference, underlined that the report was timely as it follows a recent debate in the European Parliament on the rule of law in Poland and Hungary. The European Commission is concerned about the rule of law situation in these countries, where the independence of the judiciary has been undermined.

Elzbieta Podlesna, a civil rights activist from Poland, told that she was arrested last year by police and had her apartment searched because she had put up posters of a famous icon of the Black Madonna showing a rainbow halo in the colours of the LGBTQ flag. The decision to arrest her was apparently taken by the interior minister.

Her action was a protest against the attitudes of the Polish church against LGBTQ people. She is accused of having offended religious feelings, a crime punishable with up to two years in prison, and is awaiting trial. A court has already ruled that the arrest was legal though unproportional.

Even Sweden, a country known for its generous and liberal attitude to artists, has seen censorship of artistic expressions on local level. “It’s a worrying trend which needs to be taken seriously,” said Jessica Nordström from the Swedish Postcode Foundation, which co-financed the study.

“The EU has a responsibility to ensure the safety of artists and protect everyone’s freedom of artistic freedom,” says Srirak Plipat. “Its role is to create an enabling environment for artistic freedom for everyone in the Member States by improving legislation related to freedoms and fundamental rights so that they are consistent with European and international national human rights standards.”

Artistic freedom falls under the broad remit of freedom of expression and is a fundamental human right, protected in several international and European conventions. A former UN special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, has highlighted the importance of the arts for “the development of vibrant cultures and the functioning of democratic societies.”

In 2005, the UNESCO Convention for the protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions was adopted. It is a binding legal instrument which has been ratified by all EU Member States. In 2019, new reporting requirements were added. States are now explicitly obliged to report on the state of artistic freedom and measures taken to promote and protect this right.

Asked by The Brussels Times if this also included an obligation to fund art, Luise Haxthausen, the UNESCO Liasion Office in Brussels, replied that it was of equal importance and followed from the obligation to provide an enabling environment for artistic expression. Artists have a right to have their artistic work supported, distributed and remunerated.


That said, the international conventions do establish limits to artistic expression by stipulating that hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited. The European Convention on Human Rights states that the exercise of freedom of expression may be subject to restrictions on certain grounds prescribed by law.

However, such restrictions should only be enforced according to strict international human rights standards and must be necessary and proportional for the protection of a legitimate aim. According to Srirak Plipat, this is not always the case in EU.

“Blasphemy laws and laws on the protection of national symbols are not consistent with international standards,” says Plipat, “but EU is reluctant to take a stand against them since they fall under the competency of individual member states.”

A new challenge to artistic freedom is the growth of anti-terrorism legislation, criminalising the “glorification” of terrorism. An artist might support terrorism and his art could encourage hate crime or inspire other people to carry out terrorist acts. Should it not be banned?

“We need to distinguish clearly between artists and those who perpetrate terrorist acts,” Plipat replies. “Society has a right and duty to defend itself against terrorism but that does not mean that artists should also be targeted. In fact, this is one of our biggest concerns today.”

“In a democratic society, artists should have a right to express whatever they want, whether or not we agree with them. And any legal response must past the test of necessity and proportionality. Otherwise anti-terrorism legislation can easily be manipulated to silence debate and censor artistic expression.”

The report does not explicitly mention cartoons that might incite racism and hate crimes – do they also have a right of protection under artistic freedom?

“It’s an artistic form in its own right and linked to the right of expression, especially satirical cartoons mocking public figures and politicians,” he replied. “If you don’t like a cartoon, you should question and criticise it, but not ban it.”

But he admitted that cartoons which express racist stereotypes should be assessed on a case by case basis. “Very often we find ourselves in a grey area. Generally, we should allow a cartoon, however we may dislike it, rather than censor it.”

The report ends with a number of recommendations towards a new agenda on artistic freedom. Among others, Freemuse states that artistic expression may entail the appropriation of religious and national symbols, as part of a response to official narratives, unless the art work contains an essential element of incitement to hatred. Laws penalising insults to heads of state should be abolished.

Anti-terror legislation is misused in some countries against both journalists and artists to silence free debate and to falsely accuse them of being members of a terrorist organisation. Freemuse writes that laws should only criminalise expressions that encourages others to commit a recognizable criminal act with the intent to incite them to commit such an act.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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