How we express ourselves and the mediums we choose is an intensely intimate process. Artists, writers, dancers, actors and musicians think very hard about what they wish to convey and how they wish to convey it.
Creativity and freedom of expression go hand in hand. To curtail one imperils the other. Creativity that is confined is censorship and when freedom of expression is under threat, self-censorship in art and culture becomes more prevalent.
All of us who value our voices and our freedoms have a duty to promote and protect creativity and ensure that everyone can tell their stories – however challenging they may be – in whatever medium they choose.
We expect these challenging but universal rights to be upheld in every nation – and especially those that claim to share our democratic values. And you would have thought they would be a given within the European Union member states. Yet, it seems all too often we are likely to be disappointed.
Victor Orbán’s government of Hungary is a case in point. A member of the European Union, Hungary is seemingly on a path leading further away from the democratic norms we all hold dear and venturing off to the dark recesses of oppression.
This week, the target of Hungary’s increasing authoritarianism is the World Press Photo exhibition and specifically the work of Hannah Reyes Morales.
Reyes Morales is a widely respected artist who uses her art and her skill to tell the story of LGBTQI+ life in the Philippines based on her own lived experience. She explores the joy, the optimism, the heartache and the sorrow that modern life brings to everyone.
Her artwork is a canvas in which her representation of emotion is weaved delicately against her own experiences. It is a celebration of what it is to be human and a stark reminder of the fragility of what we all hold dear.
So, a celebrated artist of international standing showcasing her work in a European Country. That’s all good then, yes?
Orbán’s government not only sought to censor the World Press Photo exhibition – they sought to ban any and all works which featured LGBTQI+ works.
The head of Hungary’s National Museum, Laszlo Simon, has now also been sacked for his curation of the exhibition. He is accused of providing access to material to under 18s which ‘promotes’ homosexuality under the controversial Hungarian law that bans the “display and promotion of homosexuality” in materials accessible to children, such as books and films.
While the head of the museum is clear that no laws were intentionally broken, the compliance with the rule is not the issue. It is the law itself which is an affront to freedoms. And the fact that for the first time on European soil the World Press Photo exhibition has been censored.
LGBTQI+ rights in Hungary are under attack and those who speak out are ostracised. Artistic freedom is under attack and those that challenge it do so at the fear of losing their jobs.
This is yet another attempt by the repressive regime of Viktor Orbán to erase minority voices, silence campaigns and censor anything that does not fit into his narrow world view.
The European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has already called Orbán’s legislation a ‘disgrace’. Human rights organisations around the world have marked Hungary’s lurch to the populist right as a defining moment in European history and should pose the question to other EU members about the sort of leaders they want in their club.
But it also exposes the ease with which authoritarianism and censorship can spread. Curtailing creativity today will lead to greater censorship tomorrow.
Index on Censorship continues to – and always will – share the stories of those silenced by Orbán. And we stand with Simon and Reyes-Morales as they try to make sure that all voices are heard and celebrated.
Music has always occupied an important place in Afghan society, serving as a medium of expression, storytelling and a celebration of cultural identity. For decades, Afghan musicians have also played a vital role in providing solace to our war-torn nation. But the situation has completely changed since the return of the Taliban to power. Musicians are one of the most severely affected of the many sections of Afghan society by Taliban rule. A once vibrant community of artists is now facing repression. Like other art forms, the Taliban consider music un-Islamic as per their strict interpretation of Islam. The lives of musicians are endangered, their livelihoods and artistic freedom deprived.
Artists who survived and worked covertly during the previous stint of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 were aware of the dark future that awaited them and were haunted by old memories. When the Kabul fell on 15 August 2021 many musicians fled. Rashid Khan, one of the famous musicians based in Kabul, told us that on the second night after the fall of Kabul, he got a call from the security guard of his studio to tell him that people with guns had entered the office, broke all the instruments and set them on fire. They enquired about him before leaving and the incident terrified Khan. The next day he escaped to Pakistan with his family.
The Artistic Freedom Initiative, which helps with the resettlement of international artists who are persecuted or censored, in the past two years has received more than 3,000 requests from Afghan artists for relocation.
For those who remained the attacks started immediately and grew and grew. Just a couple of days into the Taliban’s regime they brutally killed a famous folklore singer. On 27 August 2021, Fawad Andarabi was murdered at home.
Restrictions were put in place surrounding live performances, public gatherings and entertainment venues. The music industry came to a halt. Many had to retrain, if they could. One of those is a singer named Abdul Qadir, who has started working as a motorcycle mechanic.
The ministry of vice and virtue banned music on the national broadcasting network. All entertainment channels on television and radio were no longer allowed to play any music. Today they are only allowed to play the Naghmas/Taranas (patriotic and nationalist songs) of the Taliban, which are “songs” with slogans and without any actual music. They’re designed to promote the ideology of the Taliban, glorify the leaders of the Taliban and romanticise their achievements.
The Afghanistan National Institute of Music was closed. The centre’s director, Ahmed Sarmast, says we are witnessing the end of great musical heritage and we agree.
Once a famous spot for music and entertainment in Kabul, Sar e chowk has now been turned into a regular market with no sign or remnants of music anywhere. The market used to be full of shops selling musical instruments. It had small studios where artists, musicians and singers would gather to make songs, create music and entertain people. That is now all gone and instead people sell fruit and vegetables.
In attempts to completely eradicate music from society, it is even banned during weddings. What happens to those who ignore the ban? In October 2021 people with guns entered a wedding ceremony in Nangahar where music was playing. They tried to break the loud speaker. When guests resisted, the armed people fired at them, killing two and injuring 10.
In a recent attack the Taliban confiscated musical instruments in the west province of Herat on 30 July 2023 and set them on fire.
These are just some examples in an endless list.
In these testing times, the international community must not forget Afghan musicians and artists. While providing humanitarian aid and evacuation to all vulnerable populations, there is a dire need to extend support to the artistic community as well. Collaborative efforts with international arts organisations, cultural exchanges and virtual platforms can offer a lifeline to Afghan musicians, allowing them to continue their craft and share their talent with the world.
On a housing estate, somewhere in north-west London, a dispute said to be between rival groups of young men, apparently rages on. From this quagmire of social deprivation emerges Chinx (OS) who, released from an eight-year custodial sentence at the four-year mark, starts dropping bars like his very life depended on it. And, in a way it does. Because for boys like Chinx, young, black and poor, there is only one way out and that is to become the next Stormzy. Only, two behemoths stand in his way: the Metropolitan Police and their apparent “side man” Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram.
In January 2022, Chinx posted a video clip of a drill music track called Secrets Not Safe. Following a request by the Metropolitan Police arguing that the post could lead to retaliatory gang-based violence , Meta removed the post and Chinx’s Instagram account was deleted.
Meta’s decision has now been challenged by the Oversight Board, a quasi-independent adjudicator conceived to police the online giant’s application of its own policies but funded by the company.
The Board recently condemned the company’s decision to remove Chinx’s post and delete his account as not complying with Meta’s own stated values and with wider human rights considerations.
As part of its review of Meta’s decision, the Board made a Freedom of Information Act request to the Met over its requests to remove content from various online platforms. Whilst a good proportion of their responses to the request were unhelpful bordering on obstructive, what it did disclose was troubling.
In the year to the end of May 2022, the Met asked online platforms, including Meta, to remove 286 pieces of content. Every single one of those requests related to drill music. No other music genre was represented. Some 255 of the Met’s requests resulted in the removal of content, a success rate of over 90%.
The decision makes for illuminating, if worrying, reading when one considers the potential chilling impact Meta’s actions may have on the freedom of expression of an already suppressed, marginalised and some would argue, over-policed section of our community. Four areas of concern emerge.
Law enforcement access to online platforms
Instagram, in common with other applications, has reporting tools available to all users to make complaints. Whilst it may be that law enforcement organisations use such tools, these organisations also have at their disposal what amounts to direct access to these online platform’s internal complaints procedures. When law enforcement makes a request to take content down, Meta deals with such a request “at escalation”. This triggers a process of investigation by Meta’s internal specialist teams who investigate the complaint. Investigation includes analysis of the content by Meta to decipher whether there is a “veiled threat”.
This case demonstrates a worrying pattern in my view; namely the level of privileged access that law enforcement has to Meta’s internal enforcement teams, as evidenced by correspondence the Board saw in this case.
Lack of evidence
What became clear during the exposition of facts by the Board was that despite the apparent need for a causal link between the impugned content and any alleged “veiled threat” or “threat of violence” law enforcement advanced no evidence in support of their complaint. In the light of the fact, as all parties appeared to accept, that this content itself was not unlawful, this is shocking.
On the face of it then, Meta has a system allowing for fast-tracked, direct access to their complaints procedure which may result in the removal of content, without any cogent evidence to support a claim that the content would lead to real life violence or the threat thereof.
This omission is particularly stark as, as in this case, the violence alluded to in the lyrics took place approximately five years prior to the uploading of the clip. This five-year gap, as the Board commented, made it all the more important for real and cogent evidence to be cited in support of removal of the content. We ought to remind ourselves here that the Board found that in this case there was no evidence of a threat, veiled or otherwise, of real-life violence.
Lack of appeal
Meta’s internal systems dictate that if a complaint is taken “at escalation” – as all government requests to take down content are, and this includes requests made by the Met Police – this means there is no internal right of appeal for the user. Chinx (OS) and the other accounts affected by this decision had no right to appeal the decision with Meta nor with the Oversight Board. The result is that a decision that, in some cases, may result in the loss of an income stream as well as an erosion of the right to express oneself freely, may go unchallenged by the user. In fact, as Chinx (OS) revealed during an interview with BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, he was not made aware at any point during the process why his account had been deleted and the content removed.
The Board itself commented that: “The way this relationship works for escalation-only policies, as in this case, brings into question Meta’s ability to independently assess government actors’ conclusions that lack detailed evidence.”
Each of the three shortcomings above revealed by the Board within Meta’s procedures are worrying enough; but, coupled with the disproportionate impact this system has upon black males (the main authors and consumers of this content) it veers dangerously close to systemic racism.
The findings of the Oversight Board’s FOI request on the Met’s activities in relation to online platforms clearly back this up.
The Digital Rights Foundation argues that while some portray drill music as a rallying call for gang violence, it in fact serves as a medium for youth, in particular black and brown youth, to express their discontent with a system that perpetuates discrimination and exclusion.
An insidious and backdoor form of policing
The cumulative effect of Meta’s actions arguably amounts to an insidious and unlegislated form of policing. Without the glare of public scrutiny, with no transparency and no tribunal to test or comment on the lack of evidence, the Met have succeeded in securing punishment (removal of content could be argued to be a punishment given that it may lead to loss of income) through the back door against content that was not, in and of itself unlawful.
As the Board pointed out in their decision, for individuals in minority or marginalised groups, the risk of cultural bias against their content is especially acute. Art, the Board noted, is a particularly important and powerful expression of “voice”, especially for people from marginalised groups creating art informed by their experiences. Drill music offers young people, and particularly young black people, a means of creative expression. As the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights has stated, “…representations of the real must not be confused with the real… Hence, artists should be able to explore the darker side of humanity, and to represent crimes… without being accused of promoting these.”
The right to express yourself freely, even if what you say may offend sections of our community, is one of those areas that truly tests our commitment to this human right.
A new report from Index on Censorship published today (Thursday, December 1st) has laid bare the shocking extent to which Chinese Communist Party (CCP) activity is driving a new era of artistic censorship across Europe.
The report – Whom to Serve? How the CCP censors art in Europe – builds on in-depth interviews with more than 40 leading artists, curators, academics and experts from across Europe, and the findings of more than 35 Freedom of Information requests. It paints a worrying picture of the coordinated campaign by the CCP to undermine artistic freedoms.
Key findings include:
- Ruthless CCP techniques to limit the spread of critical art, including diplomatic pressure, direct threats to individuals and the propagation of pro-state art.
- A concerted drive to impose self-censorship on artists working in Europe, including surveillance, interrogations, graffiti and physical attacks.
- Threats made to those with family in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
- The spread of CCP soft power from visual arts into fine art, sculpture, graphic art, film, fashion and theatre.
- A murky network of extensive financial and non-financial ties between Chinese companies and state bodies, and European art institutions, the full scale of which is almost impossible to ascertain.
Jemimah Steinfeld, editor-in-chief at Index, said:
“With the kidnapping of a Hong Kong bookseller in Thailand nine years ago, we have long known that the CCP’s police state stretches beyond its own borders. But what this report shows in startling detail is just how far it stretches and how common aggressive tactics are.
“The scale of the CCP’s reach across the arts world is as staggering as its nature is coordinated. This is not a fringe pursuit or some dabbling at the margins – it is a new and growing weapon in China’s arsenal to burnish its image abroad, control how people both view it and discuss it, and to ruthlessly target those who create or curate art they class as dangerous.
“European art galleries and museums are relentlessly targeted by the CCP using a variety of tools. From diplomatic pressure aimed at European artistic institutions to cancel or forcibly change exhibitions, to the championing of a counter-narrative through artistic work that amplifies state propaganda, there is a battle being fought in institutions across Europe.
“With the recent re-entrenchment of Xi Jinping’s leadership and the growth of China as the 2nd largest art market, there are no signs of the CCP stopping.”
The report shows how the CCP targets dissident artists with overt censorship to prevent critical artwork from being made public, and self-censorship to dissuade artists and institutions from taking the risk of criticising both the party and the country. Fear of reprisals against both themselves and their family pushes many artists, even those living in Europe, to avoid sensitive topics.
While large-scale and coordinated, the report shows the CCP’s efforts to be only partially successful. While self-censorship is rife, attempts to pressure European governments to censor artists has largely failed, even in the face of financial hits to both private galleries or museums.
Nik Williams, policy and campaigns officer, Index on Censorship, added:
“With China one of the world’s largest and most rapidly expanding markets for contemporary art, there are also increasing connections between European art institutions and Chinese state linked firms or individuals sympathetic to the CCP.
“The difficulties we faced in tracking and tracing these connections, murky in their nature and opaque in their arrangements, is concerning in itself. We remain fearful of how these relationships could inform how institutions engage with dissident artists or sensitive topics.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
- You can read the full report, “Whom to Serve?: How the CCP censors art in Europe”, here
- The report includes exclusive artwork from leading dissident artist, Badiucao, as well as pieces from Lumli Lumlong, Jens Galschiøt and Yang Weidong.
For press and broadcast interview requests, or for further information, please contact:
Luke Holland // [email protected] // +44 7447 008098