Dissenting Artists Around the Globe Were Jailed and Killed at an Alarming Rate Last Year, According to a New Report

The survey found that governments may be using the pandemic as a pretense to crack down on artists.

The activist-photographer Shahidul Alam is taken to court in Dhaka. Photo by Munir Uz Zaman, AFP/Getty Images.

Governments across the globe have exploited the pandemic to silence artistic expression at an alarming rate, a new study has found. 

Last year, 133 artists were detained, 82 were jailed, and 17 were killed ayround the world, according to the 2021 edition of the “State of Artistic Freedom” report, an annual survey published by the Copenhagen-based human rights organization Freemuse. The 150-page report counted 978 acts of violations of artistic freedom in 89 countries and online in 2020—a 37 percent increase over the previous year. 

That surge might come as a surprise given the months spent in lockdown last year, and the fact that only nine percent of those cases documented in the report occurred online. But, time and again, governments “weaponized the pandemic,” says Jasmina Lazović, an activist with Freemuseum, to “suppress any criticism and dissenting voices.”

Sixty-five artists were prosecuted or detained for criticizing their states’ handling of the pandemic or for staging protests, the report found. 

“All these consequences artists have been facing over the past year show us that while cultural activities are banned,” continues Lazović, “artists’ voices are additionally stifled by increasingly authoritarian political elites.”

Particularly distressing was states’ misuse of emergency laws as a tool to suppress political dissent last year, the activist explains, as was the increase in racial attacks—many of which were connected to the Black Lives Matter protests. There were 42 cases of racially-charged violence against artists, and at least 26 artworks created as a tribute to George Floyd were vandalized.

“It is unimaginable that the record high of prosecution and imprisonment of artists will happen to be in the year when artists and the culture sector have already suffered the loss of their livelihood,” added Srirak Plipat, Freemuse’s executive director, in a statement. “This year’s report illustrates increasing misuses of blasphemy, anti-terrorism legislation, and COVID-19 measures as pretexts to silence dissident voices of artists and artworks.”  

Europe accounted for 26 percent of all documented incidents, followed by North and South America with 19 percent, according to the study. Forty-four percent of imprisonments occurred in the Middle East and North Africa, and 11 artists’ deaths were in Mexico. 

Freemuse’s report was released on February 25 with a series of virtual panels featuring artists like Shahidul Alam and Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, both of whom have served extended jail time for speaking out against their country’s respective governments.

Read the full “State of Artistic Freedom” 2021 report here.

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