According to experts, coronavirus accelerated censorship in 2020, including attacks against free speech, LBGTQ+ rights, and peaceful assembly. Human rights groups say that while artistic expression has been blockaded during the pandemic, arts and culture continue to play a pivotal role in shaping how we view ourselves through our identities, fears, and hopes.
The state of civil liberties and artistic freedoms around the world has become bleaker this year, according to a new study released this December which found that 87% of the global population is living in nations deemed “closed,” “repressed,” or “obstructed.” According to an alliance of civil society groups called Civicus Monitor, civil rights were found to have deteriorated in nearly every country. “The use of detention as the main tactic to restrict protests only shows the hypocrisy of governments using Covid-19 as a pretence to crack down on protests,” said Civicus Monitor’s research lead Marianna Belalba Barreto. This year, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPC) also found that murders of journalists have more than doubled worldwide.
“The global situation is getting worse,” said Srirak Plipat, executive director of Freemuse, an independent organization that tracks attacks against freedom of speech and artistic expression worldwide. “As far-right governments continue to prevail, we have seen more countries that are moving away from democracy and into autocracy,” he said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Anti-terrorism legislation is often used to prevent artists from expressing themselves, and this year also saw increasing control over internet content and social media.”
In 2020, artists continued to face all manner of censorship. Below is a brief, albeit incomprehensive list of countries who have deployed different tools to censor cultural content this year.
A theater writer and producer was shot and injured in Argentina during an attack in the Baigorria and Casiano Casas areas of Argentina. In a report, Freemuse stated its concern “about attacks on the artist Leonel Giacometto motivated by his sexual orientation” and called “on the Mayor of Rosario to publicly reassure its people that the city respects and values the diversity of cultural expression including of LGBTI+ artists and people.”
In addition to Armenia’s archaeological sites being targeted and destroyed during a war with Azerbaijan this year, several major multinational groups and corporations, such as Google and the UN, refused to acknowledge the cultural heritage of Armenian sites.
Since a Digital Security Law passed in 2018, a wave of arrests has taken place across Bangladesh, including that of cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore. He was charged with spreading rumors and misinformation following the publication of a series of press cartoons criticizing the government’s management of the coronavirus.
After a series of popular demonstrations against the autocratic rule of Alexander Lukashenko earlier this year, the killing of an artist and activist, Roman Bondarenko, in the midst of the protests only accelerated the discontent. In June, the human rights organization Our House reported at least 73 cases of artists who had been persecuted for their activism. The group also identified at least nine artists being held as political prisoners, and found that the government had started at least 20 criminal cases against activists who had used their art to criticize Lukashenko’s government. In November, a 31-year-old painter and activist Roman Bondarenko was stopped by plainclothes police officers in Minsk and beaten while in custody, leading to his death in hospital.
The Cambodian rapper Siem Reap was arrested and charged with incitement after his song “Dey Khmer” went viral in April. The song commented on Cambodian-Vietnamese border disputes, peaking at 1.3 million views on YouTube before being deleted under unknown circumstances.
A guerrilla image projected onto Chile’s national telecommunications company building caused one art collective to have their accounts hacked and deleted by the government dominated telecom giant. After the new media art collective @Delight_Lab spelled out the words “Humanidad” (humanity) and “Hambre” (hungry) on the facade of Torre Telefonica’s tower HQ, the Chilean artists responsible for the action, Octavio and Andrea Gana, were threatened on numerous occasions.
This year, China’s National Film Board tightened regulations on foreign films requiring that they now undergo a second round of reviews by the Chinese Communist Party. The China Independent Film Festival, which started in 2003, announced that it would be canceling the festival because they “believe it is impossible to locally organize a film festival with a purely independent spirit,” citing increased surveillance and control over content.
In Tibet, a Chinese court sentenced musician Lhundrub Drakpa to six years in prison for “separatist activities” over his song “Black Hat.” The song criticized government policies in Driru County, which is located in the Chinese-named Tibet Autonomous Region. The title of the song relates to the Tibetan proverb “don’t put a black hat on an innocent person,” or “don’t accuse an innocent person of wrongdoing.”
In November, the Château des ducs de Bretagne in Nantes, France, said it was forced to censor an exhibition earlier this year because it did not conform to the Chinese government’s new cultural policy on Mongolia. According to reports, the museum said the Chinese Bureau of Cultural Heritage had contacted it to include “elements of biased rewriting of Mongol culture in favour of a new national narrative.” The exhibition was barred from using terms like “Genghis Khan,” “empire,” and “Mongol.”
Meanwhile, TikTok, owned by ByteDance, which became increasingly popular in 2020, censored content involving the persecution of Uighur Muslims and democracy protests in Hong Kong.
In Cuba, several artists, including Tania Bruguera, were detained and put under a surveillance order earlier this year. The cultural workers were targeted for their participation in a protest outside the Ministry of Culture in November. The artists, who were advocating for artistic freedoms in Cuba, particularly Denis Solis Gonzalez, who was violently arrested from his home by agents of the National Revolutionary Police in Havana, Cuba.
In June, Egyptian poet Galal El Bahairy celebrated his 30th birthday from jail. This was his third birthday in prison after being incarcerated in 2018 on charges of “publishing false news” and “insulting the army” through his poetry.
Also, Egyptian authorities blamed alcohol poisoning as the cause of death for filmmaker Shady Habash, who was detained and imprisoned for a music video he made mocking the president. Habash died in Cairo’s notorious Tora prison in May after drinking hand sanitizer, which authorities claim he had mistaken for water.
Singer Hamo Bika was sentenced to two years in prison this year in Egypt. His punishment stems from allegedly insulting the head of the Syndicate of Musical Professions, a government-backed group that controls who can perform as a musician. He was charged with storming the head of the union in Cairo after not being granted the required permissions to make or perform his music.
After Hungary passed a notorious “Culture Law” in 2019, attacks against freedom of speech and expression accelerated in the central European country. The law, which was enforced throughout 2020, took control of culturally important institutions throughout Hungary under the authority of the country’s central budget. It established a National Cultural Council to oversee these institutions, including a number of local-run theatres. The law places culturally important institutions throughout Hungary under the direct control of the country’s central budget and establishes a National Cultural Council to oversee such institutions.
Members of the Hungarian University of Theatre and Film Arts’ (SZFE) management announced their resignation after the university’s transfer of ownership to a private foundation with ties to the ruling Fidesz party.
Jordanian cartoonist Rafat Alkhateeb was harassed and bullied on social media after posting an image of Prime Minister Omar Razzaz, which went viral. He was forced to take down the picture in order to avoid prosecution.
Singer Khaled Al-Mulla was sentenced to two years in prison for “insulting the judiciary” in a song he performed on a television program referencing a scandal of forging certificates by government officials.
In December, Director Anand Patwardhan’s documentation of the rise of Hindu nationalism was censored by authorities after the Central Board of Film Certification failed to award his film Reason certification to be shown publicly. According to the New York Times, Patwardhan was then forced to sell his DVDs and screen the film secretly.
Also in India, three members of the collective Kabir Kala Manch were arrested in connection to the 2018 Bhima Koregaon protests, which rocked India following several violent protests against India’s caste system.
Lebanese activist and film director Lucien Bourjelly was released after being arrested for having paint balloons and anti-government slogans in his car at a Badaro army checkpoint in Beirut. Lebanon, de-facto controlled by Hezbollah, guarantees freedom of expression “within the limits established by law,” but the penal code criminalizes defamation against public officials, with prison terms of up to one year. The penal code also allows for sentences of up to two years for insulting the president and up to three years for insulting religious rituals.
In February, the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur closed the mid-career survey of Ahmad Fuad Osman after a board member complained about some of the exhibition’s content. The show included a “missing” poster of Anwar Ibrahim, a disappeared Malaysian politician. Ibrahim was depicted with a black eye alongside portraits of lawmakers, including the country’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, all sculpted like pigs. In an open letter posted on Ahmad Fuad’s Facebook page on February 9, the artist decried the censorship and said he would rather have the exhibition close than continue in its “compromised state.”
Composer and gospel singer Yahaya Sharif-Aminu was sentenced to death by hanging in September for blasphemous statements he made against the Prophet Muhammad in a Whatsapp group chat. He was sentenced in Kano State, Nigeria, where Sharia law applies to the state’s Muslim population. In Nigeria, blasphemy laws are frequently employed to curtail freedom of artistic expression.
LGBTQI+ culture and life continue to face acute threats in Poland following years of cultural policy favoring religious doctrine. In 2019, after painting a Madonna and Child with rainbow halos in the town of Płock, Poland, an artist was detained and subsequently indicted under Article 196 of the Polish criminal code. Artist Elżbieta Podleśna was charged with insulting an object of religious worship in the form of the image and offending others’ religious feelings. If convicted, she could face up to 2 years in prison.
In February, the City of San Antonio removed a video work by the artist Xandra Ibarra from a group show at the city-funded arts space Centro de Artes. The National Coalition Against Censorship called the removal of Ibarra’s video, which features Chica Boom, a minstrel-like Mexican housewife, a “serious First Amendment concern.” In a Facebook post, one of the project’s curators, Suzy González, wrote that: “We oppose this censorship and see it as banishing queer, sexual, feminist, and Latinx creative expression, an act of discrimination and glaring homophobia.”
In Minneapolis, a billboard dedicated to George Floyd was canceled ahead of its display in January 2021, with officials rejecting the ad because it depicted the scene of his death. The image on the planned Minneapolis billboard was identical to the one displayed for most of November in Times Square in New York City.
In New York, the mayor of Kinderhook demanded the removal of Nick Cave’s “Pro-Truth” painting along a 160-foot-long facade of Jack Shainman’s update outpost called the School. The mayor said the work violated city code, calling it a sign and not an artwork. According to Jack Shainman Gallery, the work is “pointed antidote to a presidency known for propaganda that disguises truth and history to present racist and nativist ideology as patriotism.”
Ukrainian blogger and satirist Serhii Poyakov was sued by the Ukranian president, a former comedian and actor, for parodying him in a TV show. The president accused Poyakov of threatening him with violence.
Authorities in Russia continued to target all manner of feminist and LGBTQ+ themed artistic expression. Pussy Riot member Rita Flores was sentenced to 20 days of administrative arrest following an anti-police brutality protest performance in November. According to the Moscow Times, Flores staged a protest performance called Fragile! Handle With Care! near the Red Square in Moscow with several other artists.
In February, the Governor of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Khaled bin Faisal, ordered authorities to arrest Asayel Slay, the female rapper whose song “Mecca Girl,” which praises women as powerful and beautiful, went viral. The governor of Mecca said that Slay’s song and video “offends the customs and traditions of the people of Mecca and contradicts the identity and traditions of its high-ranking children.”
The ongoing saga of rappers versus the Spanish justice system continues. Spain’s attempts to extradite rapper Valtonyc from Belgium played out in front of EU justice ministers. The country also confirmed a jail sentence for Pablo Hasel, sentencing that Catalan rapper to two years and nine months in prison for lyrics allegedly glorifying terrorism.
An exhibition titled a BREAdTH apart created by Scottish artist Sekai Machache was defaced and vandalized by unknown individuals, allegedly because of the exhibition’s message regarding racism in Dundee, Scotland. A local newspaper, the Courier, reported that the exhibition depicted 16 portraits of Black people wearing colorful face masks. The portraits, presented as a part of the Scottish Black Lives Matter Mural Trail, aimed to highlight the issue of systemic racism in Scotland and how the pandemic disproportionately affected the Black community.
In September, 11 artists were sentenced to two months in prison and fined around $70,000 for “public disturbance” after a rehearsal was interrupted by their neighbors, who turned violent. The activists claimed that they were targeted for their progressive and feminist views.
Singer Assala Nasri was sued for defamation of religion after her new song, “Rifqan,” went viral in Egypt. The song quoted part of Prophet Mohammad’s hadith, which was met with a wave of anger and criticism on social media platforms.
In October, the Court of Appeal in Thailand denied bail to Nampa for his participation in recent anti-Monarchy protests.
Osman Kavala, the Turkish activist and arts philanthropist, remains incarcerated in a Turkish prison following charges of plotting to overthrow the government, despite an international campaign for his release.
In November, actress Nilüfer Aydan was indicted on charges of “insulting the president,” which carries a prison sentence of up to four years and eight months. Article 299 of the Penal Code, which has been widely abused to silence criticism against the president, was used to bring 12,893 cases filed for defamation of President Erdoğan between 2010 and 2017.
In December, YouTube decided to appoint a local representative in Turkey, which critics say will increase censorship. “The main social media companies quite rightly have so far chosen not to comply with this draconian law, which facilitates censorship,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, according to the Stockholm Center for Freedom. “YouTube’s decision to comply with the requirement to set up a local representative in the belief that it will be possible to ride out the storm and hold out against a flood of take-down requests is deeply misguided and blinkered to the deplorable climate for free speech in Turkey.”