Why Do Governments Hate Artists?

June 16, 2016

In a conversation during the School of Public Policy's Annual Conference (the view from here: artists // public policy), David Kaye, Dunja Mijatovic, and CEU Assistant Professor Sejal Parmar agreed that free speech is under attack around the world. They agreed also that art is a form of free speech, and that it had to be defended just as rigorously as free speech. "There is a close connection between art and politics," said Mijatovic.

Kaye, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said that governments don't "hate artists," as the title of the panel suggested, but they do hate artists who do not promote their particular world view. Kaye went on to comment that it is often impossible to define the line between art and politics. While it may be easy to agree, for example, that Malaysian cartoonist Zunar's art is explicitly political, this is not always the case. It is because artists challenge us to see the world differently that they threaten governments. This is also one of the reasons why, according to Kaye, it is so important that artists be protected.

Mijatovic said that she had often been criticized for "meddling" in issues that were not within her purview as OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media. This had happened in 2012, for example, when she spoke out to condemn the verdict against the Russian punk band Pussy Riot – a verdict that she described as the "first brutal sign" of suppression that would pave the path toward future suppression.

Kaye noted that artists face threats in the form of censorship, both pre-censorship and after the fact, and also punishment. He noted that private companies, sometimes but not always under government pressure, were becoming increasingly active as censors, especially as it relates to social media. "Censorship is no longer being carried out just by governments," he said.

Mijatovic and Kaye agreed that there had been a shift in attitudes to freedom of expression recently, partly as a result of specific events. "Security measures are the biggest threat to freedom of expression," said Mijatovic. Kate spoke about the "growing sense" on university campuses that speech that is offensive in any way should not be permitted. "People are growing up," he said, "with the sense that it's important to avoid offending people." While acknowledging that there are lines to be drawn, Kaye said, "we need to cause offense."

Parmar commented that there was much more emphasis placed on protecting media and journalists than on artists. Kaye agreed and said that he and his office did not do enough to protect artists. Kaye urged artists to "let us know" when they are threatened. "We don't hear enough about what's happening to artists," he said.