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The State of Artistic Freedom 2021: Report by Freemuse

Freemuse published their annual The State of Artistic Freedom 2021 in April. Their Executive Director Director Srirak Plipat stated, “This year’s report illustrates increasing misuses of blasphemy, anti-terrorism legislation, and COVID-19 measures as pretexts to silence dissident voices of artists and artworks .” 


We'd like to summarize the parts of this report that stood out to us, so you don't necessarily have to read the 150-page report. However, it is aesthetically put together and an important read - so hopefully this summary inspires you to read the whole thing!


If you'd rather watch the launch of the report at the Re:Writing the Future Festival in Berlin, here's the video below:


The year of 2020 was (understandably) defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. To slow down the spread of the virus, countries immediately put restrictions on freedom of movement. People around the world turned inward, looking at art forms (books, music, films) for escape and comfort. Artists and cultural institutions began offering online, free exhibitions at the same time as their livelihood - these in person, paid events - were suddenly cut off.


Rather than the pandemic being an explosion of artistic freedom, as one might assume with these new formats, censorship and imprisonment of artists escalated. Artistic free expression was attacked by political and religious groups, social media platforms, private individuals, and to a large extent, government authorities.

This year, their countries of concern were Bangladesh, Belarus, Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, Uganda, and the US.

In Belarus and Uganda, artists were detained in crackdowns on protests following elections; in Nigeria, Thailand, and South Africa artists were also detained without cause due to their participation in protests. In Cuba, artists protesting the government’s overreach into their independent cultural sector were repeatedly arrested.


In particular, the report found violations related to the following themes:

  • Disinformation during the pandemic

  • State-sponsored silencing of political dissent

  • State-sponsored silencing of artists on grounds of terrorism, blasphemy and indecency

  • Limitations to artistic expression in the digital space

  • Homophobic, sexist, and racist actions against artistic expression


The Big Picture:

  • 17 artists in 6 countries were killed (11 Mexico, 2 Iraq, 1 Belarus, 1 Ethiopia, 1 France, 1 South Africa)

  • 82 people imprisoned in 20 countries

  • 133 artists in 26 countries were detained

  • 107 artists in 27 countries were prosecuted -- and 45% of these were related to artistic expressions relating to COVID-19

  • Film was the most censored art form in 2020

  • 75% of artists silenced for the reason of counterterrorism were in Turkey


Interesting to note: Freemuse calls the destruction of Confederate statues and busts an attack on free expression. “artists and artwork were alarmingly targeted under the pretext of racism...At least 34 statues and busts were destroyed because of their representation of colonial and racial history.”


This calls to mind the discussion of how far free expression should go - whether we should strive for unlimited free expression or maximum free expression. We at the International Free Expression Project are behind the second; we want everyone to have their own, personal maximum amount of free expression. The alternative, that free expression is completely free for everyone, stifles a lot of peoples' freedoms. It means a small portion of people say whatever they want without restriction, despite the hate and harm it can cause others (who are often members of already marginalized populations).