Deep Dive: Supporting Artistic Freedom

Podcast with Sara Whyatt and Ole Reitov

Artists and cultural institutions often cross borders by challenging conventional, religious, social, and political norms. As a result, they are under intense scrutiny, subjects to repression and even attacked by other parts of civil society.

What measures are in place to ensure the protection of these artists? And how can international cultural relations contribute to safeguarding artistic freedom? This is the subject of the research project by Sara Whyatt and Ole Reitov, both experts for the UNESCO on this topic and today’s guests in this episode of Die Kulturmitter:innen - Deep Dive.

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Transcript of this episode

Deep Dive: Supporting Artistic Freedom. With Sarah Whyatt and Ole Reitov.

Tobias Rohe: Hello and welcome back to "Die Kulturmitler:innen. Deep Dive – Experts on International Cultural Relations". My name is Tobias Rohe and I'm incredibly happy that you are here with me again. In t

Tobias Rohe: Hello and welcome back to "Die Kulturmittler:innen - Deep Dive. Experts on International Cultural Relations." My name is Tobias Rohe, good to be back with you again. In this episode we take a close look at the topic of artistic freedom, an important right of liberty and one that in many places around the world is not granted. Why? Artists and cultural institutions often challenge traditional religious, social and political values. As a result they become targets of scrutiny and oppression and even are attacked by other civil society groups. What is being done to protect these artists and how can international cultural relations support safeguarding of artistic freedom? These and other questions I will be discussing with Sarah Whyatt and Ole Reitov. They are working on a research project on artistic freedom right now. Mrs. Whyatt, Mr. Reitov, it's a pleasure to have you here with me.

Ole Reitov: Thank you.

Sarah Whyatt: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Tobias Rohe: Now, Sarah Whyatt, you are a highly renowned campaigner and researcher on freedom of artistic expression and human rights. You have been the director of Pen International's Freedom of Expression program for many years and worked with numerous arts freedom organizations. Moreover, you serve as an expert on artistic freedom for UNESCO. As does my other guest, Ole Reitov. Mr. Reitov, you also co-founded Freemuse, the world's leading organization defending artistic freedom and, amongst other things, served as expert consultant to the UN in the fields of cultural and human rights. And now you both have decided to start a research project together. So, Mrs. Whyatt, Mr. Reitov, let's get straight to the subject. Can you first describe what you mean when you speak of artistic freedom?

Sarah Whyatt: Well, I can start by saying it's a subset of the right to freedom of expression as a whole in all media and all forms. But it tended to be seen as the right for journalists and for people working within the media. Which is understandable given the large numbers of journalists who are under threat, who are arrested and killed. Artistic freedom is a subset of that. And it encompasses the idea of the freedom to create work without having to worry about being attacked, imprisoned or even killed. What would you say for that, Ole?

Ole Reitov: And it also adds to the fact that it's the right for audiences to take part in cultural life. Because not only the artists are being threatened or killed or banned or censored, even the audiences are sometimes being targeted. So it includes those rights. Internationally, there's not one single definition of artistic freedom. UNESCO incorporates social and economic rights which is a very big field in itself. But today we'll talk about the freedom of expression perspective which also includes producers, distributors, organizers and whatnot, to organize concerts, theatre performances and so on.

Tobias Rohe: That's a very broad perspective. Having that in mind, can you give an overview of the previous research done on the topic of artistic freedom?

Ole Reitov: It's a huge topic but from the Freemuse perspective: When Freemuse started, a lot of research was done on music censorship and the negative effects on music censorship. That was done by scholars and journalists and whatnot. Since 2012, there's been some research on artistic freedom but it goes in many different directions, including what the organizations such as Freemuse and other organizations have done. That could be country studies, could be regional studies. It's basically looking into what kind of violations there are and to a certain extent also the the negative effects of that.

Sarah Whyatt: Yes, it's true. There have been relatively few studies on artistic freedom, although this had been gathering interest in recent years. Notably, the UNESCO has started to cover artistic freedom in its global reports. But that was only really since 2015, if I'm correct. And there are organizations who do ad-hoc-studies on the situation in their own countries. But it's very patchy. This study will give us an opportunity to have a broader picture and a better picture of what studies are being carried out globally and by whom and on what topics.

Tobias Rohe: As the field is treated quite patchy, as you say, where do you see the remaining gaps in the existing research landscape?

Ole Reitov: It's almost endless but I'll just give you two examples. For instance, we don't really know why art educations do not incorporate elements of artistic freedom in their curriculum. Is it because lack of conscience, is it a lack of interest? Are people afraid to deal with it? That is just one very small level. You could do the same with lawyers. Are lawyers really capable of dealing with cases of artistic freedom? All these would be parallel studies. The main challenge is to have a holistic view on, let's say, the landscape of artistic freedom and see which key operators are there, what are they doing, what is missing here. So there's endless things to do in this field.

Sarah Whyatt: Yes, I totally agree with that. It's also that human rights organizations are very well placed to carry out studies on human rights in general. But they don't have a really deep understanding of the arts community and culture and how it can be affected. So it's really important that arts organizations, that educational institutes engage and cooperate and collaborate with the human rights organization. That there's an exchange of experience and expertise. And also human rights organizations will tend to focus on what I tend to call the above the radar attacks. Those which are easy to monitor like attacks on imprisonment and physical attacks on artists. They don't look at the more subtle, under the radar censorships. That may be things like denial of funding or denial of performance space or other aspects that affect the freedom to create for artists in particular.

Ole Reitov: And one thing I'd like to add is that we don't know the financial economic consequences of art censorship. What exactly are they? How do you measure them? How would you measure the fact that Afghanistan is without arts and culture these days? The same thing with parts of Mali, Burkina Faso. Because it's not only the artists that are being affected, it's sort of the whole ecosystem which includes technical equipment, catering, transport, tourists. So there are lots of gaps here.

Tobias Rohe: So is that where your study comes into play? The focus of your study, is that the holistic analysis?

Ole Reitov: We'll try. We can't do all this in about 6 to 70 pages.

Tobias Rohe: Speaking about the study itself, how are you planning on conducting your research?

Sarah Whyatt: We'll do some basic desk research. As I mentioned, we will be reviewing what literature had been published in the last 4 or 5 years to see what is being said and published out there. I will also be reviewing the activities of the various organizations that are monitoring artistic freedom. Maybe they're doing it 100%. Maybe they're doing it on occasion. And this will give us the kind of groundwork for what's already going on and to better identify the gaps. And then, of course, we'll be making more in-depth analysis through 1 to 1 interviews with key individuals.

Ole Reitov: And that's one of the challenges because how much can people say in interviews? One of the issues that we've taken an interest is why are ministries not collaborating on these issues? You may have the Ministry of Culture who runs one certain policy. Then you have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who is running another kind of policy. There's a lack of inter-ministerial consultations. But how much will people reveal that? Because in the end it's a political process. There are hierarchies, there are hierarchies in the UN Human Rights Council of which topics different countries would take on. And also the whole situation between countries: some countries would be hesitant to criticize another country. So a lot of these trigger issues which also includes donors, the roles of donors, what are the purposes of the donorship? How much do they want to control the organizations in directions of what they do? We'll see how far people will go in these interviews.

Tobias Rohe: Are you planning to incorporate a non-Western-centric approach in your research?

Ole Reitov: It's an interesting question because I think what we need to understand with censorship and repression of arts is that it predates Western colonialism. It's always been there. So what I think is more interesting is that the mechanisms are basically the same. Whether we go back to, let's say, ancient Greece or the empire of China, it's a question of power. And I think in our research we need to believe in the universality of the rights of citizens, of artists to express themselves. Obviously, in the current situation, there are a lot of talks about Islamophobia and this and that. It comes down to the following: every country has an interest in keeping themselves in power and they will do anything to repress anything that questions that as long as they're not totally democratic. So we see repression in the north, the south, the east and the west and we have to deal with them in the same way.

Sarah Whyatt: And I should also add, there is often criticism of human rights groups that refer to the UN declaration and other international rights declarations as being pro-Western. But we have to remember that the UN Declaration on Human Rights itself was agreed by countries from across the globe. Many of the principles in the declarations have been adopted, for instance, by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights and the American Court on Human Rights. And when you look at the constitutions of the different countries across the world, many of these principles have been absorbed into their constitution and law. Specifically on freedom of expression. So it's a misunderstanding of the international treaties, which are truly international.

Ole Reitov: Yes. Both Sarah and I have been working with artists at risk for the past 25, 30 years. And whether it's artists in Iran or certain parts of Africa or wherever, I've never heard any artist say when their freedom was violated, that it was a specific Western concept. Artists anywhere in the world want to be able to express themselves. And some of them are unfortunately not aware of their rights in principle before they're being violated.

Tobias Rohe: Very interesting. Thank you. From where you are now, can you say what is needed to effectively support initiatives and projects working towards safeguarding artistic freedom?

Sarah Whyatt: For me this is a question that I would like to put to the people we'll be speaking to. I'd like to hear from them what would be most useful, most practical and most relevant. Solutions that work for them rather than assumption that we might make which might work. But we can also tell them what other initiatives have been taken. So it's going to be really interesting process of learning for us, even though, as Ole said, we have been working on this topic for 25 years.

Ole Reitov: Both Sarah and I have been involved in various workshops on behalf of UNESCO where we get civil society and governments together. That's just one example that they normally don't talk to each other. Or let's say the artists are not invited to talk with the governments. And by facilitating it sometimes both groups understand the difficulties and why things are a certain way. The problem is, of course, sustainability because especially people in ministries move around all the time. So even if you do a workshop in one year then next year there might be another person there who doesn't understand what artistic freedom is.

Tobias Rohe: Do you have any best practice examples?

Ole Reitov: Well, yes, in the sense that there's been growing awareness in this part of the world, in Scandinavia, in Germany, in terms of artistic freedom. Best practices in the sense that there are more operators. There is a deeper understanding by policymakers and ministries that they need to support this. Having said that, it doesn't mean that repression is not taking place or that, as Sarah puts it, things are taking place under the radar. Self-censorship, there are still a lot of difficulties here.

Sarah Whyatt: I should also add, there have been some good initiatives. France, for instance, has extended its legislation to protect creation and dissemination of art. Malta, only a few weeks ago, has included artistic expression among expression that should be protected. But it should also be said that there are many countries that have legislation to protect people against, for instance, torture or arbitrary arrest, yet they flout these. So it will be interesting to see. And I should also add that, although not specifically related to artistic freedom, abolition of blasphemy laws, for instance, have had a very positive impact on artists because it tends to be artists who find themselves subjected to this law. And also the removal of criminal defamation. Again, that applies to everybody, but it also particularly applies for artists who might be using satire or certain kind of jokey images find themselves tried under these legislations as well.

Tobias Rohe: At this point, maybe you can give a brief outlook. What policy recommendations do you have for the EU or multilateral organisations or even single governments? What could they do to support safeguarding of artistic freedom?

Ole Reitov: I think we need to talk in depth with some of the people there. We've been in contact with many of these people over the years but the situation changes and we need to hear how do they look at the landscape now? What are the challenges for them? I mean, if you take the EU, for instance, they do support UNESCO programs on artistic freedom. It's difficult to see what they actually do. And again, I just take this as one example. In the policy the EU will defend artistic freedom. They also partner to the 2005 convention. But what does that mean in reality when they make negotiations with countries overseas? Do they address the issue of artistic freedom? Will they refrain from supporting a specific country if they suppress artistic freedom? Now that's on a completely different level that those people working in the culture divisions of the EU. It's just one example of where are you now? Do you think something can be done? Even the institute that looks at fundamental rights, the EU agency, does not in general monitor documents. So let's hear from them how they see the problems at the moment.

Sarah Whyatt: And it also doesn't have to be particularly complicated. I don't know about Ole but I wouldn't be advocating for a new declaration or statement on artistic freedom especially. But to ensure when you talk about freedom of expression to remember it's not just about media freedom, it's also about artistic freedom. So it's just a matter of including artists when having discussions, whether inside one's own country or in debate with others. And I think governments should also make an honest appraisal of the support that they give to the culture sector to ensure that the condition for funding or whatever sponsorship does not inadvertently or not restrict access to dissenting or minority voices.

Tobias Rohe: Thank you. Coming back to your research project, since you're still in the progress of researching, where are you right now and what are your next steps?

Sarah Whyatt: At the moment we're at the basic level of gathering all that information to look at what happened in the last five, six years. And also we are reaching out to our interviewees and really looking forward to having these discussions. I'm really hoping and expecting to see some really interesting outcomes from this.

Ole Reitov: There's a combination of people who actually been in the landscape for a number of years who may have a more holistic view on what they're doing. And then you have a lot of newcomers who still have to understand what is it really this complex issue of artistic freedom. So we hope to combine the experience we've had over the past decades and through that also be able to analyze what the situation is now.

Tobias Rohe: Sarah Whyatt, Ole Reitov, thank you very much for these fascinating insights into the global state of artistic freedom. It's been a real pleasure talking to you.

Sarah Whyatt: Thank you.

Ole Reitov: Thank you very much.

Tobias Rohe: And I certainly hope that you, our listeners, enjoyed this Deep Dive episode of "Die Kulturmittler:innen". I would be delighted if you tuned in next time when I will be talking to more experts on international cultural relations. If you want to hear more about artistic freedom and cultural politics, listen to our latest regular episode of "Die Kulturmittler:innen", where author and human rights activist Ma Thida talks about the civil war in Myanmar and her view on freedom and exile. Ma Thida is a scholarship holder of ifa's Martin Roth-Initative, an organization that protects artists in danger by enabling temporary protective stays in Germany and in third countries. To make sure that you don't miss out on future episodes, subscribe to "Die Kulturmittler:innen" right away. You can do that wherever you listen to the shows of your choice, whether it's on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Deezer or Amazon Music. If you're interested in more research on topics of international cultural relations supported by ifa, check the show notes. You will find useful links there. For all other information on the Forum for International Cultural Relations, visit our website at That's all from my side. I say thank you for listening. My name is Tobias Rohe. See you next time.


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