A safe space for expression.Julia Farrington is the Associate…

A safe space for expression.

Julia Farrington is the Associate Arts Producer of Index on Censorship. Her work focuses on the intersection between arts and human rights. She specialises in artistic freedom of expression and is the chair of our forthcoming panel discussion Censored No More? in which leading cultural figures question if we are self-censors in today’s artistic landscape.

In this blog Julia discusses how the Arts Rights Justice Academy and other similar organisations aim to develop a more informed picture of the threats facing artists and what we can do together to defend the space for expression, and support individual artists at risk. 


Last week I was at the Arts Rights Justice Academy (ARJ) at Hildesheim University in Germany, as one of a team of facilitators working in the field of artistic freedom. The Academy is in its second year, and the week-long course is delivered to an international gathering of young professionals: artists, lawyers, human rights defenders and cultural managers. They come predominantly from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, and a scattering of participants from Brazil, India, Japan and Central Asia. From my point of view, the most powerful achievement of the Academy is the synergy and the chemistry that is created by the group – very committed, dedicated young people doing difficult, complex work, each with a powerful story, and an abundance of courage and passion.  They defend the right to freedom of expression, support others to do so, speak out against authorities and authoritarians, push for greater justice for their communities and others.  

One of the main partners is the International Cities of Refuge Network. This is a network of over 72 cities across Europe, predominantly in Scandinavia, but more recently including Mexico City and now Ithaca, New York, each city offering a two-year residency to an artist at risk. For artists working in some countries that are so hostile to freedom of expression, there can be no viable alternative to getting out. Many of the artists at the Academy were current or former guest-artists – writers, musicians, actors, bloggers. It is seen as a last resort because it is such a complex intervention, and in many cases it is temporary. Some countries offer permanent residency, but others do not, seeing it more as respite. While it is safe, at least in the short term, it can also be extremely difficult, alienating and fraught – not surprising with refuge offered in Sweden, North of Norway, Iceland, East Anglia to people coming from Bangladesh, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan. Developing strategies to support artists more effectively in their own country, and finding safe spaces in neighbouring countries are ongoing objectives of the Academy.

The University of Hildesheim holds the UNESCO Chair for ‘Cultural Policy for the Arts in Development’. It’s main connection to UNESCO is via the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which includes support of artistic freedom of expression. The 2005 Convention is an interesting document.  When I first read it a few years back I was really surprised by the language in the preamble – it’s written in very considered, aspirational, elevated language, which is significant because arts are very rarely acknowledged as having social or political weight. There are over 20 short paragraphs, each one ‘affirming’, ‘celebrating’, ‘recalling’, ‘recognising’, ‘reaffirming’ the value of culture. Here is one:

Taking into account that culture takes diverse forms across time and space and that this diversity is embodied in the uniqueness and plurality of the identities and cultural expressions of the peoples and societies making up humanity,

Unfortunately, the 2005 Convention doesn’t carry much weight – it has been described as a toothless tiger.

Many countries that perpetrate the worse abuses against artists are parties to the 2005 convention but there are no consequences for these state-sponsored anomalies. 

Consistent with the spirit in which it is written it is aspirational, fostering dialogue rather than dealing in penalties for failing to deliver. But although the machinations of these huge international instruments are slow and bureaucratic, they can help to make connection and call states to account, even if only ceremonially. They have been carefully constructed to create common ground, which is needed more than ever in our fragmenting world. But, in the end it is not about what is written in national or international legislation – it is about implementation in each jurisdiction, and rights are always overlaid by politics. To work towards the aspirations and obligations of these conventions, there has to be the political will to do so, and that is lacking in many states, including, I would argue increasingly in the UK.

By focusing on censorship in the arts in the UK, I know I am working on the slippery slope, while many face a landslide. Yet there is no room for complacency here.  It is only a matter of degree. In this country we talk about plays or artworks that are cancelled or removed on the advice of the police, while people in countries more hostile to free expression face the demolition of their national cultural institutions, or the destruction of cultural artefacts. While we censor a specific artwork, in other parts of the world it is the person of the artist that is attacked to permanently silence voices of dissent or challenge. But these are only points on the continuum and we are handing over our rights to the state with extraordinary readiness. We have talked for years about taking our rights for granted in this country, as if it is something we can do little about, just giving ourselves a gentle slap on the wrist for being lazy. But rights can and must be defended.  They take generations to secure, but are lost to the wind when they are not respected by those in power. So it is up to us to demand them when denied and understand and exercise them as enthusiastically as we exercise our bodies (well at least we know we should exercise our bodies!)