From press freedom to artistic freedom: upholding the rights of all during World Press Freedom Day

For the third year running, artistic freedom was in the spotlight of World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) held this year in Accra, Ghana (2-3 May). To mark this occasion, artists, human rights activists and media professionals came together to debate global emerging challenges to artistic freedom in the digital environment. A call for joint action from artists and journalists to work closely together in advocating for press and artistic freedoms was made during the joint launch of UNESCO’s two new global reports, “Re|Shaping Cultural Policies” and the World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development Global Report.

Since the publication of UN Special Rapporteur Farida Shaheed’s 2013 landmark report “The right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity”, artistic freedom has entered the global policy debate on freedom of expression in an unprecedented way. According to the latest findings of Freemuse´s 2018 The State of Artistic Freedom report, there were 553 recorded attacks against artists in 2017 compared to 430 in 2016 and 340 in 2015.

With the transformation of the art world by digital technologies, new critical challenges have also arisen. While social media platforms have opened up multiple opportunities for the creation, distribution and funding of creativity, these spaces have also brought about new threats to the rights and freedoms of artists with, for example, online harassment, internet censorship and arbitrary “community guidelines criteria”. The particular nature of these threats have made the digital environment a blurred space for the monitoring of international human rights standards.

The high-level panel discussion “Artistic freedom in the digital age” was moderated by Ojoma Ochai (Nigeria), Director of Arts, West Africa for British Council and included the participation of satirical Ghanaian artist, Bright Ackwerh, Fatou Jagne (Senegal), Director of Article 19 West Africa, Hija Kamran (Pakistan), lead communications and researcher at Digital Rights Foundation and Ole Reitov (Denmark), former Executive Director of Freemuse.

The debates focused on new and still rarely documented issues, including the effect of algorithmic filtering on the discoverability of online cultural content, the impact of artificial intelligence on the automation of creativity, the transnational surveillance of artists on the internet, and the targeted attacks against female artists on digital platforms.

Female artists who are the target of continuous aggressive online harassment often opt out of an active presence online, especially on social media, leading to self-censorship and corrosive effects to arts freedom.

"Online trolling is a huge problem, especially for women artists who face more personal attacks in comparison to male artists. We must pay special attention to online gendered restrictions and cyber harassment. This is a new phenomenon that is increasing social pressure on women," underlined Hija Kamran.

During the debates, cultural professionals reflected on best ways to address threats and constraints arising from laws and guidelines to control access and content shared online. “Important pressure comes from community guidelines imposed by corporate networks. This is a real challenge, especially as most of us, contemporary artists, use social networks to promote our work. Social media must, however, remain  a space of exchange and dialogue for artists with their audience," warned satirical artist Bright Ackwerh.

Securing the free flow of ideas

The joint launch of UNESCO’s flagship global monitoring reports, gathering a wide audience of 250 persons, was opened by Getachew Engida, Deputy Assistant Director-General of UNESCO and Marie Ottosson, Deputy Director-General of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

"Through this joint presentation, we have a unique opportunity to examine at the same time the global situation of freedom of expression and creation, access to information and cultural life. All these rights are crucial for the protection of fundamental freedoms, as enablers of peace, development and democracy," said Getachew Engida.

"Sweden is committed to supporting, through these global reports, human rights, media diversity and artistic freedom. They are becoming points of reference for the international community and helping to advocate for policy reform processes," underlined Marie Ottosson. "At a time when artists and journalists are increasingly targeted, we need to stand firm and uphold the rights of all actors that are working to maintain and secure the free flow of ideas in all parts of the world," she added.

Participants highlighted the need to provide opportunities for journalists and artists to work and advocate together as threats to their freedom of expression continue to rise in the current international security climate. Between 2014 and 2016, 314 journalists were killed and there were 860 recorded attacks against artists according to both monitoring reports.

"Artists, like journalists, are often confronted with same type of laws – on anti-terrorism, insult, blasphemy – that are used to curtail freedom of expression principles. New approaches are needed that address all creative professionals working in the arts and the media," underlined Sara Whyatt (United Kingdom), former Deputy-Director of PEN International.

Also participating in the discussion on freedom of expression were media scholar Julia Reid (South Africa) and Ramon Tuazon (Philippines), president of the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC).

“Never before has global society experienced such attacks on media freedom, independence, safety,” highlighted Ramon Tuazon.

In the margins of these events, UNESCO organized a two day workshop with key members of the artistic, cultural policy, human rights community and the justice department on the state of artistic freedom in Ghana.

UNESCO and Cartooning for Peace also joined forces for a second year to highlight the vital role of freedom of expression, with the release of the series Cartoons for Freedom of Expression. Cartooning for Peace is an international organization founded by Kofi Annan, 2001 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former United Nations Secretary-General, and editorial cartoonist Plantu.