Features I by I 19.03.17

Art Under Threat: The bleak reality of growing attacks on freedom of expression

According to statistics collected by Freemuse, freedom of expression is under attack throughout the world, leading to artists of all disciplines being targeted and sometimes killed. Josh Hall investigates Freemuse’s troubling annual report, Art Under Threat.

Music is at the front line of renewed global attacks on freedom of expression. This is according to a new report from Copenhagen-based NGO Freemuse, which catalogs instances of artistic suppression in its annual report Art Under Threat. In 2016, the report suggests, music and musicians suffered the highest number of ‘serious violations’ of any art form, with 86 recorded during the year.

Freemuse reported on a total of 1,028 attacks on music in 2016, more than double the number recorded in the previous year. These include everything from acts of censorship through to threats, prosecutions, imprisonments, abductions, and even killings.

Among the serious violations in 2016, Freemuse recorded three deaths. The organization’s executive director Ole Reitov says the murder of Pakistani Qawwali singer Amjad Sabri, in particular, “sent shockwaves”. Beginning in the late 1970s, he says, but continuing today, Pakistan has seen a new “atmosphere of threats, not only to people who had a different opinion, but to culture as such.” Sabri, Reitov says, came from “a very well-known family of Qawwali singers,” which is basically a way of expressing the love for Allah. But the Sufis don’t accept someone between you and God, so using music is one way of expressing this. You could say this is the gospel music of Pakistan. He was a very popular singer, and he was gunned down by two youngsters who passed his car on a motorbike and shot him to death.

Amjad Sabri

“Symbolically it means a lot, because it’s sending a very strong signal to musicians connected to Qawwali, or to any other art form in Pakistan: ‘take care, we are here.’”

A second murder came in Burundi, part of a pattern of attacks since President Pierre Nkurunziza began to tighten his grip on power in 2015, and following the violent suppression of protests that year that left more than 100 people dead. “We noticed that in the past couple of years a lot of musicians in Burundi were actually leaving the country, in fear of what was happening,” Reitov says. “Then, in 2016, Burundi introduced new legislation that said that all music that’s going to be played in public should be accepted by a censors’ committee. Of course, several musicians reacted to this, and one of them, Pascal Treasury Nshimirimana, was killed. Everything looks like it was a government operator or secret police operator. That, of course, has also sent shockwaves to any artist in Burundi: ‘don’t speak up’.”

Reitov says that Nshimirimana’s murder is akin to previous attacks seen on artists in the country. “We know that he was arrested by the police, and there were eyewitnesses to this. Then he was later found dead in the neighborhood, which is a pattern that political opponents have also experienced in Burundi. There were different ideas about why, and why particularly how, he was arrested and killed. Some people thought it was because he took part in demonstrations against the regime, and some said it was because of one of his songs.

Pascal Nshimirimana

“That’s the tricky thing. It’s probably a combination of the two things. Those songs can be quite mild; they can simply address not living in a fair country, or money ending up in the wrong pockets. But the monitoring of oppositional voices has increased.”

Given the increase in the number of incidents recorded by Freemuse, it appears that the global climate is becoming more hostile to the arts, and particularly to music. Reitov agrees. “It seems that many regimes understand the power of artistic expression, and increasingly it gets squeezed in that process. Media has always been squeezed, but it seems that some countries are putting so much more intelligence into the arts than they used to. This, combined with the extremist movements who particularly have put a focus on destruction of the arts, makes the situation so much more serious.”

But it’s not only musicians in Pakistan or Burundi, or Iran, Turkey, Ukraine, or other areas troubled by more conventional censorship, who are affected. Reitov sees the impact of new repressive movements appearing in both Europe and the United States. “We’ve seen the terrorist attacks in Paris,” he says. “A lot of institutions are also now more afraid to put up exhibitions, or anything that could be considered controversial, because these things happen. There was a recent report by the National Institute for Research and Cultural Policy in Sweden, which did talk to arts institutions about self-censorship and threats. Through social media they receive many more threats. We know that most of the threats are not real, but how does it affect people’s minds? I know from many artists, they’ve become much more careful about how they express themselves.”

Threats from conventional political actors, meanwhile, now appear more prominent in Europe than at any point in recent memory. Reitov draws a parallel between post-Brexit cultural retrenchment in the UK and the impact of a resurgent nationalist movement in his home country of Denmark. “We have seen this nationalist tendency moving forward,” he says, “I think partly as a reaction to globalization. There’ve always been these right wing groups who’ve influenced Denmark and the Ministry of Culture to have a ‘canon’ – that is, what are essential Danish values. There’s always the question of defining what is the original. This is definitely coming up in many places – saying ‘this is our culture, these are our expressions’, not realizing that most of these expressions are an amalgamation of expressions from several cultures over hundreds of years. What is authentic?”

For its part, Freemuse continues to catalog attacks on musical freedom around the world, and lobbies on behalf of those affected. Today, with reactionary forces gaining ground around the world, their work takes on a new dimension. As Reitov says in the introduction to Art Under Threat: “Populists and nationalists, who often portray human rights as a limitation on what they claim is the will of the majority, are on the rise globally. As this phenomenon rises, artists continue to play an important role in expressing alternative visions for society.”



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