(NEW YORK) – A new report by PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection and the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SouthernDefenders) documents a troubling rise in restrictions on artistic freedom throughout Africa that has been exacerbated by recent military coups, political crises, flawed elections, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report, titled We Have Always Had to Fight: African Artists on Human Rights and Artistic Freedom, captures the growing erosion of spaces for artistic expression across the continent, aggravated by a rise in various forms of censorship, which include financial blacklisting, digital surveillance, internet shutdowns, travel bans, forced exile, and the reinstatement of colonial-era laws often designed to suppress dissident expression.

We Have Always Had to Fight presents the key findings from a closed-door virtual workshop held in December 2021 with 30 members of the arts and human rights community in Africa, including artists, lawyers, curators, and human rights practitioners, representing 17 countries.

Key findings include:

  • Topics that commonly draw censors include politics, religion, LGBTQ+ and gender issues, and purported immorality, vulgarity, and indecency.
  • Too few human rights organizations in Africa focus or work on artists’ cases, and many artists are unaware of these human rights organizations and the existing protection mechanisms.
  • On the one hand, digital spaces have raised artists’ visibility and provided alternative platforms to showcase art, promote solidarity campaigns, and express opinions. On the other hand, not all artists can afford or access the internet, and technology enables new forms of surveillance, censorship, and repression.
  • Government policies used to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a toll on artists’ personal and professional sustainability.

In addition, the publication offers the following recommendations to help cultural institutions, human rights partners, and civil society shape a basis for actionable steps to protect artists:

  • African artists should join together to establish an emergency fund to respond to crises, whether individual cases of harassment or crisis such as the pandemic.
  • Develop an online resource map of artists and artists’ organizations engaged in human rights defense, including civil society institutions.
  • Artists should actively shape laws and policies by becoming active participants in local legislation and policy-making.
  • African artists, with the help of human rights defenders, should establish solidarity networks so that when a crisis arises, they can easily access information on who to approach for help and how to obtain resources.
  • Artists, organizations, and individuals alike need to spread awareness that artists are human rights defenders. The UN and other institutions should expand and streamline access to information, support, and resources through established human rights mechanisms.

“Over the last few years in Africa, we have witnessed disturbing attacks on artists from around the continent, accompanied by widespread and pernicious efforts to dampen the right to artistic expression. The looming threat of censorship casts a shadow over the careers of too many artists. Those who explore taboo subjects and themes can face community ostracization, financial blacklisting, imprisonment, or worse. Some artists are forced to stop creating or to go into exile—an incalculable loss for their communities,” said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC).

“Dissident artists and cultural practitioners in Africa have long been on the frontlines of demanding change. But they need international solidarity now more than ever, as they are forced to contend with attacks on artists and artistic freedom that grow by the day. This new report will hopefully help threatened artists in Africa and beyond feel less alone in their struggle and highlight some key actions people can take to support them,” said Dounia Bensliman, a Moroccan cultural professional.

According to the report, censorship is a central and omnipresent threat that is encoded into governmental bodies and regulations. Countries such as Nigeria and Zimbabwe have censorship boards for the film and the TV industries, while in Uganda, the government implemented the Stage Plays and Public Entertainments Act 2019, which includes regulations requiring the vetting of new songs, videos, and film scripts prior to their release. In some countries, workshop participants revealed that certain issues cantrigger censorship: for example, in Mauritania, discussions of slavery, ethnic and racial discrimination, and apostasy laws are taboo, while in Cameroon, discussions of Anglophone Cameroon are often censored.

“Artists play an important role in advancing human rights through their various platforms, from songs and satire to paintings and performance. In doing so, they are often subjected to risks and threats on their person or their work, resulting in a high level of vulnerability. The available human rights defenders (HRDs) protection mechanisms often neglect them as they do not fall in their general definition of an HRD, which is used to refer to those that defend socio-economic and political rights. There is an immense need for a concerted effort to support artists across Africa as they continue to defend rights at a great personal risk,” said Charles Clint Chimedza, the Regional Protection Lead at SouthernDefenders.

We Have Always Had to Fight: African Artists on Human Rights and Artistic Freedom is available online and downloadable as a PDF.

About Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SouthernDefenders)

The SouthernDefenders embodies an ironclad commitment to protecting human rights defenders (HRDs) in the face of attacks and shrinking civic space, both offline and online. It coordinates regional efforts to provide rapid, practical, comprehensive, and inclusive protection support to HRDs at high risk, defend civic space, and empower HRDs to mitigate the effects of repression. To this end, the SouthernDefenders contribute to the respect and recognition of HRDs as legitimate actors and agents of social change with universally recognized and constitutionally guaranteed rights.

The SouthernDefenders is working on building a sustainable operating model, anchored on a diversified funding base, creative programming, and partnerships with like-minded organizations in the region and beyond.

About the Artists at Risk Connection

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. ARC recently released A Safety Guide For Artists, a resource that offers practical strategies to help artists understand, navigate, and overcome risk, and features an interview with Cuban artist Tania Bruguera about the state of free expression on the island. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], ,201-247-5057