December Featured Cases: Creative Artists At Risk
Throughout the past year, disturbing violations of the right to create, access, and enjoy the arts have occurred across the globe. Dozens of creative artists are currently serving prison terms for exercising their right to freedom of expression, while others face physical attacks and harassment, and many more self-censor to avoid harassment and persecution. Because creative expression is not a crime in most countries, governments often conceal suppression under the guise of religious, moral, or political concerns.
Religious attacks on artistic freedom are common, as the accusation of “blasphemy” is often leveled at artwork considered offensive or immoral. In Iran, several artists are currently imprisoned under charges of religious blasphemy. In early November, singer Amir Tataloo was sentenced to five years in prison and 74 lashes for “spreading Western immorality.” Documentary filmmaker Keywan Karimi is currently imprisoned for “insulting Islamic sanctities.” In late 2015, a court in Saudi Arabia convicted Palestinian poet, artist, and curator Ashraf Fayadh of apostasy and sentenced him to death, despite his key role in helping bring the budding Saudi art scene to international attention. On appeal, his death sentence was downgraded to eight years in prison and 800 lashes; subsequent appeals have not yet been successful. In Egypt, writer Ahmed Naji is currently serving a two-year sentence for “injuring public modesty” after a private citizen complained about risqué content in his latest novel, which had already been cleared by a censorship board. A further appeal in his case is due to be held later in December. Additionally, in Russia, artists face increasing difficulty as a result of attempts by religious authorities or pressure from government officials to censor controversial works. PEN America recently translated a speech by acclaimed filmmaker Konstantin Raikin in which he denounces attacks on artistic freedom in Russia.
Artists accused of “separatism” or “terrorism” for their work are also at risk. Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour is currently under house arrest for a poem that was deemed by an Israeli court to encourage terrorism, as well as her posts on social media. She has been subject to ongoing confinement and repression since her arrest in October 2015, including over three months in prison, and over nine months in house arrest while being unable to work, study, or write. Many Tibetan musicians and poets remain detained or imprisoned under charges of separatism and incitement to violence, including Shokjang (Druklo), a Tibetan poet, lyricist, and short story writer who was convicted earlier this year on charges of “inciting separatism” in his writings. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment and two years deprivation of political rights. In Turkey, Kurdish musician Nûdem Durak is serving a ten-year prison sentence for “promoting Kurdish propaganda.” Additionally, all seven members of folk band Grup Yorum were arrested in late November on suspicion of being members of a terrorist group, while translator Necmiye Alpay and writer Asli Erdogan remain in detention following a crackdown on press freedom. After the coup attempt earlier this year, over 140 journalists and writers have been arrested on suspicion of supporting terrorism, among other charges.
The suppression of political dissent has also proved a prominent reason for art censorship. Works are often subject to criticism or censorship when they are misconstrued as “anti-state propaganda.” In Iran, musician Mehdi Rajabian and filmmaker Hossein Rajabian are both serving a three-year prison sentence for “spreading propaganda against the system.” Kurdish painter and journalist Zehra Dogan was arrested earlier this year as part of Turkish President Erdogan’s crackdown after the failed coup attempt. Opposition cartoonist Musa Kart was also arrested in the crackdown and is now awaiting trial. Vietnamese musician Trần Vũ Anh Bình (aka Hoang Nhat Thong) was imprisoned for “anti-state propaganda” after pairing his music with images criticizing Vietnam’s violent response to peaceful anti-China protests. Malaysian political cartoonist Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque (aka Zunar) was charged with sedition after drawing cartoons that critiqued the country’s prime minister, and now awaits trial.
In addition to government difficulties, artists around the world face pressure from non-state actors as well. Amjad Sabri, one of Pakistan’s most prominent musicians, was assassinated in June by a faction of the Taliban because “his music was blasphemous.” Islamist extremist groups like Ansar al-Islam, the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), and Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) murdered several secular Bangladeshi writers last year for their atheist views; the perpetrators of these killings have not yet been brought to justice. In Tunisia, militants attacked the Bardo Museum in the capital city, killing more than 20 and injuring around 50, with ISIL claiming responsibility for the attack. This past August 20 private groups in Malaysia filed reports against musician Namewee, claiming that his music video “insulted Islam.”
As the risks and pressures against creative artists escalate, PEN America works every day to defend writers and artists facing legal charges or physical harassment, and to offer assistance and protection to creative artists at risk. Our new Artists at Risk Coalition (ARC) project aims to deepen this work to enable PEN and its partners to better serve threatened artists. Our impact is deepened when the voices of our Members and supporters join us to speak out on behalf of those who cannot. Take action this month by spreading our campaigns on social media, writing a letter of solidarity to a writer or artist, or contributing to PEN’s Endangered Writers Fund to provide concrete emergency assistance to writers at grave risk.