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At UNESCO, Experts Urge Improved Protection for Artists and their Freedoms

09 November 2017

In 2016, 1,028 artists in 78 countries around the world came under attack or had their rights violated, according to Freemuse. The nongovernmental organization says this figure represents a two-fold increase compared to 2015 in violations that include harassment and persecution, censorship, imprisonment and even murder.

Artists clearly need and deserve better protection, experts who examined threats to artistic freedoms and ways to secure them at an international panel debate at UNESCO Headquarters on 8 November agreed.

“The challenge is to get verified information and data, and then translate that into positive action on the ground, through national policies and laws protecting artists’ rights”, said Srirak Plipat, Executive Director of Freemuse. “Supporting artists at risk by providing safe havens outside of their countries is very helpful, but we need to address the root causes of attacks on artists. Creating spaces of dialogue between governments and civil society is key”, he added.

Artistic freedom is essential not only to let artists and cultural professionals do their work, but also to the wellbeing and development of people and societies. Yet artists are being silenced and audiences threatened.

In a 2016 survey in Sweden sent to over 6,000 writers and visual artists, one in three respondents reported having come under threat, most often through social media channels.  “Even though Sweden has a strong legislative framework and an Action Plan in place protecting artistic expression, these threats often translate into self-censorship by artists,” said Elin Rosenström of the Swedish Arts Council.

Katja Holm, actress, and Vice-President of the International Federation of Actors (FIA), emphasized the importance of empowering artists and civil society.  “To monitor violations and get the stories out, the artists themselves need to understand their rights. We also need to better explain why these rights are crucial to our democratic systems”, she said.

A key message from the debate is that strategic partnerships are needed to bring about change. Artists and international artist associations can raise awareness and advocate, but they need governments and the international community to enforce laws and facilitate the movement of artists between countries.

“We need a more systematic, inclusive and international approach to this issue, with all stakeholders involved,” explained Diana Ramarohetra, Artwatch Africa Project Manager of the Arterial Network. “We are now including lawyers and the judiciary in our work. Artists need to be a part of the process, but they need help to organize and engage, especially those from the Global South.”

Much like the frameworks in place to protect journalists, the panel considered development of a UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Artists as a possible way forward.  While UNESCO, the European Union and the UN Human Rights Council, among others, work within their respective mandates to secure the right to artistic expression, guaranteed by international human rights conventions, more monitoring and better policies are needed to bring about change.  An important contribution is UNESCO’s Global Report “Re-Shaping Cultural Policies” on the implementation of the 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression. The 2018 edition of the Report, to be launched on 14 December next at UNESCO, will include an up-to-date analysis of policies and measures to support artistic freedom.

The international experts’ panel was organized by UNESCO with Denmark’s, Finland’s, Norway’s, and Sweden’s Permanent Delegations to the Organization within the framework of the 39th session of UNESCO’s General Conference

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