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Freemuse is a European Non-Governmental Organization based in Copenhagen that monitors and advocates for freedom of artistic expression across the world. Its work is based on the belief that attacks on art derive from the desire to silence those voices and values that are alternative to the prevailing ones. Therefore, the freedom enjoyed by artists and thinkers can be seen as a useful indicator to measure the democratic quality of our societies.
In the annual report presented on 15 April 2020, Freemuse points out a continuing deterioration of freedom of expression in general and of art in particular, which translates into 711 attacks in 93 countries and shows that art continues to be a hazardous activity that can lead to harassment, censorship, imprisonment and even death. To successfully monitor this development, Freemuse compiles and analyses statistical data, as well as thorough interviews with artists around the world. The comparative analysis allows to identify global trends and recognize those areas where interference is necessary to defend the freedom of artistic expression.
Among the trends registered, one of the most striking is the advance of a discourse with populist overtones that exploits nationalist sentiments at the expense of cultural diversity, religious tolerance, political plurality and, in short, civil society. In countries like Hungary, Turkey, China and Russia, to name a few, legislative corpuses have been approved whose main objective is to target centres of critical thought and alternative narratives in order to impose an official and monolithic discourse. The most widely used concepts to justify this advance have been the fight against terrorism and state security. The laws that vaguely define these two concepts allow their arbitrary and discretionary use and have been used against musicians, actors, poets and cartoonists.
A second trend has been the institutionalization of religion-based discourses when this religion is understood as part of the State. In addition to the existing theocracies, there are therefore countries with democratic traditions where churches of different faiths claim the role of guardians of public morality. In Brazil, referents of the evangelical church do so from places in the national cabinet. In India, Hinduism under the leadership of Mahindra Modi is slowly advancing against the secular tradition of the country. The institutionalization of religious norms and beliefs of a group translates into funding cuts, censorship and encourages a climate of self-censorship. For artists living in these countries it is simply safer to refrain from thinking, portray certain content and work with certain materials.
A particularly sensitive topic in this framework is sexual identity which, whether hetero-normative or not, becomes a taboo subject where a religious morality is imposed by law. A particularly vulnerable group is the LGBT community whose contents have been under attack, even in countries where homosexuality is not illegal. In fact, attacks have been recorded in countries as dissimilar as the United States, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Sweden and Egypt, among others.
Historically, art has been suppressed by the state and the centres of power due to its ability to question the social norms that guide our lives and to disturb the structures of power. An intrinsic feature of that capacity is the ability to imagine other possible worlds, different from the ones we know in our day-to-day life. However, today's challenges call for a certain amount of imagination, creativity and alternative narratives to enable us to think about our present and our future. Hence, attacking the freedom of artistic expression is not only an attack against artists, it implies, above all, the impoverishment of the societies in which we live.
Cecilia Noce is academic advisor of Center for the Opening and Development of Latin America (CADAL).