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Art under threat: The figures

Freemuse, an international organisation advocating freedom of expression for musicians and composers worldwide, releases a report on attacks and violations against artists across 78 countries.

Violations of artistic freedom in 2016.
Violations of artistic freedom in 2016.

Freemuse

Freemuse registered 1,028 attacks on artists and violations of their rights in 2016 across 78 countries, continuing a worrying trend of artistic freedom increasingly coming under threat. The number of cases registered in 2016 more than doubled the amount in 2015, increasing by 119%, rising from 469 attacks. Of those more than one thousand cases, Freemuse documented 188 total serious violations of artistic freedom and 840 acts of censorship.

The numbers include the killing of two musicians, Amjad Sabri in Pakistan and Pascal Treasury Nshimirimana in Burundi, and the execution by ISIS of a 15-year-old boy in Iraq for listening to Western music.

Freemuse divides attacks on artistic freedom into “serious violations” – which include killings, abductions, attacks, imprisonments, prosecutions and persecutions/threats – and acts of censorship. Acts of censorship are also serious concerns, but separating them from the rest helps to distinguish the nuanced global picture of the artistic freedom world, and the difference between having an art work banned from the other categories which have even more severe consequences for an artist's life and family.

The increase in the case number can partially be explained by the fact that Freemuse, alongside its partners and expanding network, has continued to improve its documentation methods and increasingly receives more information through its strengthening network. Additionally, the issue of artistic freedom, especially in a year that is seeing a rise in populism and nationalistic views, continues to gain attention, resulting in more bodies and organisations reporting on incidents when artists are being silenced.

Despite these increases in attention and refinement of methodology, artistic freedom violations in many countries continue to be under-reported due to a variety of factors, including lack of public awareness, capacity and political will. Thus, while the number of cases Freemuse sees continues to rise year after year, the sad reality is that the real number of attacks on artistic freedom and violations of artists' rights is much higher. It is nearly impossible to report on closed societies or determine the number of acts of self-censorship carried out by artists due to intimidation, cultural and social pressure, or living under regimes that threaten punishment for artistic expression of any or all kinds.

In 2016, Iran was the worst violating country for serious violations on artistic freedom of expression with 30 registered cases, including an attack on one artist, the imprisonment of 19 artists, prosecution of six others, and persecution of or threat to four artists. Thus, Iran continues to be one of the worst violators since Freemuse began documenting artistic freedom violations in 2012. Iran also ranked tenth for worst country practicing censorship with nine registered cases (for a more detailed overview of the situation in Iran click here).

Following Iran, were Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, China, Russia, Malaysia, Syria, Tanzania and Uzbekistan as the worst violators committing serious violations on artistic freedom, which combined accounted for 126 of the 188 serious violations in 2016, or 67% of total serious violations.

In the case of serious violations, music continued to be the art form that suffered the most violations of artistic freedom with 86 cases, or 46% of total serious violations. In 2015, Freemuse also registered 86 serious violations for music.

2016, however, saw a rise in serious violations on theatre and visual arts. Theatre ranked second, up from fourth place in 2015, for serious violations with 32 cases registered in 2016. Visual arts ranked third, up from fifth place in 2015, with 27 cases registered in 2016. Combined, music, theatre and visual arts, accounted for 77% of worst affected art forms for serious violations.

Ukraine in 2016 topped the list for worst country to practice censorship with 557 registered acts of censorship, mainly due to a blacklist of 544 films that was made public, mostly consisting of Russian films and TV-series banned as a result of the ongoing conflict between the two countries. Ukraine alone accounted for 66% of censorship cases in 2016 – 557 of the total 840 cases registered.

When a blacklist is made public, or Freemuse is able to obtain it and identify all the individual art works banned, they are all registered as individual cases of censorship; when a list is not able to be obtained, the offence is listed as one case. For example, such was the case in 2016 with Uzbekistan, a country that sources reported produced a blacklist of 700 films. Freemuse was unable to obtain that list and thus the case was registered as one.

While Freemuse appreciates the level of transparency by governments who are public about their censorship, the fact remains that neither such a wide-sweeping act of censorship should occur in the first place, nor should any act of censorship.

Following Ukraine in censorship was Kuwait – a country whose total 61 cases were all acts of censorship, including a blacklist of 54 films Freemuse was able to obtain – followed by China, Egypt, India, Russia, Turkey, USA, Pakistan and Iran. Combined, the top ten censoring countries accounted for 88% of all registered censorship cases in 2016.

In the case of censorship, film overtook music to be the most censored art form in 2016, with 663 registered cases, or 79% of all cases of censorship registered; of course a bulk of those numbers come from the Ukraine and Kuwait blacklists. In 2015, film was ranked second as most censored art form with 31 cases at the time.

Following film, music was ranked second in 2016 with 92 cases of censorship. In 2015, music was the most censored art form with 223 cases; however, that year, Freemuse was able to obtain a 120-song blacklist in China that swelled those numbers. Acts of censorship against film and music combined for 755 registered cases, or 90% of all acts of censorship Freemuse registered in 2016.

This broad overview of the statistics Freemuse collected over 2016 serve to paint a macro picture of how artistic freedom continues to be violated in many countries. In the following sections of the report, we dive deeper into the issues and tendencies that drove governments and other groups to limit artistic expressions, and then go deeper still to look more closely at the six worst violating countries to understand the motivations behind their attacks on artistic freedom.

Among the tendencies, 2016 saw incidents of violent militants or peaceful civil society groups targeting artists and audiences with very different means, but with the same goal of stifling artistic expression. We saw several cases of women, as well as LGBT artists, being discriminated, and even cases where artist syndicates and unions played the role of censor. The conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, and India and Pakistan, also showed that when two neighbouring countries fight over a contested region, cultural exchange often suffers greatly. Additionally, 2016 was a year with a number of cases of governments, specifically the governments of China and Turkey, attempting to censor and prosecute artists and art outside their own borders.

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