Artists enjoy less protection in their freedom of expression than journalists although they face many of the same threats, according to a new study published by Unesco that explores ways to improve artists’ safety.
In 2021, there were 1,200 attacks against artists worldwide, with 39 deaths. “These figures are the tangible sign of a desire to silence and control artists—for the same reasons that journalists are taken as targets,” Audrey Azoulay, the director-general of Unesco, wrote in a foreword to the report. “Now is the time to tackle this topic, with the same determination that the international community has shown for the protection of journalists.”
Threats to artistic expression examined in the study include harassment and violence, legal prosecution under charges such as defamation and blasphemy or under vague laws that allude to terrorism, national security, public order, hate speech, public morals or traditional values. Rising threats and attacks on artists and cultural professionals “lead to self-censorship and curb democratic debate and the access to artistic work,” the report found.
Like journalists, artists are often among the first groups to experience infringements of their right to freedom of expression in an emergency—such as the coronavirus pandemic—the report found.
But unlike journalists, “they are not considered a priority group in international law, their role in society receives less recognition and the support they can access is more limited,” the authors wrote.
The study examined the work of groups such as Finland-based Perpetuum Mobile/Artists at Risk, a network that identifies artists suffering persecution and facilitates their safe passage to residencies in other countries, and Avant-Garde lawyers, a network of art law and free speech lawyers that take pro bono work to help artists.
However, journalists tend to be more aware of the organisations and mechanisms they can turn to if their rights are threatened while artists “remain mostly in the dark,” the study said, calling for more collaboration between organisations protecting journalists and artists.
Unesco is supporting artists in Afghanistan and Ukraine, but “we could go further,” Azoulay said. For the past ten years, it has monitored and denounced journalists’ killings and helped develop national standards for the protection of journalists under the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.
“Normative and operational measures like these could be deployed for artists too,” Azoulay wrote.