"Artistic freedom is complementary to press freedom": interview with Deeyah Khan, Goodwill Ambassador

On the 3rd May, World Press Freedom Day celebrates the importance of freedom of the press and freedom of expression more broadly.

This year’s celebration in Jakarta, Indonesia will be an opportunity to further explore how artistic freedom is increasingly recognised as a pillar of fundamental freedoms.

Musician and filmmaker Deeyah Khan is no stranger to violations on her artistic freedom. Named UNESCO’s first Goodwill Ambassador for artistic freedom and creativity in 2016, she explains her personal motivations for engaging in advocacy with UNESCO.

Deeyah, how did you get involved in advocating for artists’ rights?

“In my native country, Norway, from the age of seven I studied North Indian classical music with training from Ustad Bade Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan and Ustad Sultan Khan of India, masters of the genre. I began to build a successful music career, at first singing traditional music from South Asia then later with influences from contemporary music.

As I became more prominent in the public sphere, certain elements within the Muslim community decided to target me. As part of the rise in fundamentalist forms of Islam, musicians, particularly female musicians, are often regarded as shameful or immoral and can be persecuted on this basis. I was harassed and threatened. On one occasion, there was a failed abduction attempt on me; on another, a caustic chemical was sprayed in my face while I was on stage. This was devastating to me.

The persistent threats eventually forced me into exile at the age of seventeen After this, I realized that countless other artists had similar experiences all across the world.

This realization instilled a deep commitment to this cause and led to my involvement with Freemuse, a civil society organization which tracks violations of artistic freedom. I grew to understand how important the role of art is in many closed and repressive societies, where artists can ask difficult questions about the world they live in, and address challenging or taboo topics in engaging and emotionally direct ways. It is also a way of expressing our shared human heritage and building connections of understanding and empathy between people. As the 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions says, ‘cultural diversity is strengthened by the free flow of ideas, and nurtured by constant exchanges and interaction between cultures.’”

Why do you think it is important to talk about artistic freedom on World Press Freedom Day? What is the link?

“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of any democracy.  It makes it possible for the people to keep checks upon the powerful, to be aware of what is being done in their name, and to ensure that abuses of power are challenged. This applies whether the abuses of power is by states, clergy or corporations. We need days like World Press Freedom Day to call attention to the shortfalls in the freedom of the press.

But singers and poets, filmmakers and painters also play a role in expressing political and social problems. Art can engage with the audience in a very creative and imaginative ways - from graffiti all the way through to opera – and often reaches out to different audiences. A protest song may galvanize action against a repressive state in a different way than an editorial statement does.  

Arts are complementary to a free press: both are ways of understanding our world and ourselves. Both need to be protected. Artists, no less than journalists, are targeted by the state and other forces of repression – galleries and exhibitions have been closed down, concerts cancelled, singers and novelists harassed, threatened, imprisoned and even killed. If the enemies of freedom of expression recognize the power of art, then so should its allies.”

According to recent data, the rights of artists to express themselves freely are increasingly under threat worldwide. What do you think are the greatest threats to artistic freedom and what can UNESCO do about it?

“These are dark times for freedom of expression. On one hand, certain states are becoming increasingly repressive, limiting freedoms, imprisoning writers, artists and activists who challenge their power. On the other, there are radical religious or political movements, suppressing art that they cast as offensive. Some of the most visible cases are often radical Islamist movements, but there are also ultra-nationalist and white supremacist movements growing across Europe and beyond, who attempt to silence expressions of diversity. In some regions, one of the most powerful threats to artistic expression is corporations, particularly where the state is politically and economically weak.

Another aspect is much more nebulous, and that’s the risk of self-censorship. How can we know how many artists have changed their subject matter because they are fearful of taking on topics that are considered too sensitive? How can we know how many people would wish to express themselves, but are afraid of the repercussions in their family and community, particularly women and girls?

As the UNESCO Convention of 2005 states, cultural diversity is a defining characteristic of humanity and forms part of our common heritage. The songs, paintings and poems that are being banned now are precious parts of the future heritage of humanity. We need to protect art, and those who produce it.”

Freedom of movement and having access to international markets is essential for any artistic career. What are the greatest challenges that you face in this respect as a film producer and film director?

“Despite the principles of the 2005 Convention, the mobility of artists, particularly those from the global South has hardly improved. Countries have become increasingly suspicious of outsiders in a rising tide of xenophobia. Visa applications have become very complex, and this is a particular issue if an artist is trying to organize an international tour. Every time a performer is restricted from travel, we all lose out on that artistic contact.

We’re living in a very divided world, where isolationism is becoming more common, where people are retreating behind borders, and into divisive identity politics. We all need to hear from people unlike us, so that we can hear and see what they are telling us, and learn from them. It’s through art and stories that we can see our similarities and differences, and what makes us human. In a world that seems to be riven by divisions, getting in touch with our shared humanity has never felt so important.”

Deeyah’s twitter handle https://twitter.com/Deeyah_Khan

Watch video on Deeyah Khan’s appointment as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador: