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Artistic freedom is an increasingly contested area of public discourse. But as Ruth Anderson of Index on Censorship argues, while she might not agree with what is expressed, she defends the right to do so.

Image of Toomaj Salehi
Index on Censorship celebrates dissidents like Iranian rap artist, Toomaj Salehi, who is currently in prison for singing about women's flowing hair

Freedom of expression is an increasingly fashionable topic. Rarely does a day go by when there isn’t a discussion in the media about censorship, self-censorship, repression or the most recent action by a tyrant to silence dissent.

In the last month, we’ve seen coverage of the Scottish Hate Crime legislation, the new (and very much not improved) National Security law in Hong Kong, the censoring of Alan Titchmarsh’s jeans in North Korea, the banning of Al-Jazeera in Israel and a least a dozen other examples of the right to freedom of expression. The examples range from the authoritarian to the absurd.   

Everyone has an opinion on it and - rightly from a freedom of expression point of view - they readily share it. 

‘A matter of impassioned debate’

In the British context, we have a duty to protect what we cherish. It facilitates not just a public space where discussion and debate can and should thrive, but it also gives us permission to comment on and campaign against the more egregious acts of censorship which seem to be becoming the norm in authoritarian regimes around the world.  

As Stephen Spender, the founder of Index on Censorship, argued: “[T]he question of censorship has become a matter of impassioned debate; and it is one which does not only concern totalitarian societies. There are problems of censorship in England, the United States, and France, for example. There is the question whether it is not right for certain works to be censored or at any rate limited to a defined readership. The problem of censorship is part of larger ones about the use and abuse of freedom.”

It’s in this context the debate became so impassioned back in February, when Arts Council England (ACE) came under fire for what was understandably perceived as an effort to control artistic output through funding arrangements which could or would lead to censorship or self-censorship. Even the perception of undermining artistic expression and restricting our public space at a time when there is so much conflict and tension in the world is unacceptable.

Cock up rather than conspiracy

I should clarify the role of Index on Censorship before any further comment. Index is a recipient of ACE funds and we work with other grantees when issues related to freedom of expression touch their work streams.  

So back to the ACE statement. Unsurprisingly, the response from the artistic community was immediate and rightly ferocious. However, while I spend my working life defending freedom of expression, I am also aware that nine times out of ten cock up rather than conspiracy tends to lead to such mismanagement.

So let’s think again. It’s quite legitimate for ACE to engage with its funding recipients to consider risk management of the content being produced. After all, ACE distributes public funds and risk management is an important part of public accountability. But - and it is a big but - it was equally important for the artistic community to respond to what they saw as a real threat of censorship with an uncompromising rejection. 

The swift clarification issued by ACE demonstrated that the artistic community was absolutely right to push back and force ACE to consider the unintended consequences of their statement. I take their clarification at face value. 

Vigilant to creeping threats

Index on Censorship is a freedom of speech organisation. We work in some of the most contested areas of public discourse and with some of the most controversial figures expressing views many others disagree with. We do not take a position on the merit of their argument but stand, on principle, for their right to express opinions without fear or favour.  

We also work closely with ACE. And Index is testament that you can manage risk, but still exercise your absolute right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. But there is a bigger artistic world outside that funded by ACE and we have to remain ever vigilant to the creeping threats to freedom of speech which is affecting art and culture across the UK and beyond. 

At its best, art and culture should make us feel uncomfortable. It should prompt us to ask questions about what we think and what we believe. It should - and must - be controversial. It should prick the conscience of society and challenge settled views on almost every topic. It should provoke debate and cause arguments. It should also shine a light into the dark recess of tyranny and expose the brutality of the despotic totalitarian regimes that seek to crush any freedom which challenges their dominance.  

But achieving this objective is increasingly difficult for artists, venues and the funders of those projects. We have too many groups and organisations whose response to art they don’t like is to prevent it from being seen or heard, something seen far too often in recent days and weeks related to the conflict in Israel and Gaza.  

Challenging authoritarianism

But these aren’t the only threats facing freedom of expression in the UK. We’ve seen the growing influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in trying to censor the work of dissident Chinese activists whether from mainland China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. 

In November 2022, Index’s report highlighted how physical violence, threats to family members and leveraging financial ties to European galleries were all being used by the CCP to control the art and the artists living in the UK and EU who used their art as resistance.

We should remember how valuable artistic voices are at home and abroad. Each year, Index on Censorship celebrates dissidents at our annual awards. We have a category specifically for art and artists who use their words, their art and their music to challenge authoritarianism. 

One of last year’s winners was Toomaj Salehi, an Iranian rap artist who has one of the largest YouTube followings in Iran. He sings, he raps and he dances to expose the horrific abuses of the Iranian state. He was tortured for his art and remains incarcerated for singing about women’s hair flowing freely. When art can lead to these sorts of reprisals from thin-skinned dictators, you can see the immense power that art has as a vehicle for our rights.

Ruth Anderson is Chief Executive Officer of Index on Censorship.
@indexcensorship | @RuthAnderson

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This is all just smoke and mirrors to try to cover up the fact that this organisation is not independent, nor is it interested in talking seriously about censorship in the UK. Happy to point the finger at other countries but not our own or our allies. Remember folks, we in the civilised tolerant open democratic UK only make innocent cock ups. We certainly don’t give out public money on the basis of whether you keep your trap shut about British complicity in war crimes. And in case you saw something on the dreaded Chinese bogeyman’s TikTok, there’s definitely no Genocide happening in Palestine, and we are definitely not aiding and abetting the deliberate murder of tens of thousands of innocent Palestinian men, women and children, so you can breathe a sigh of relief and get back to your emails. Tyranny, despots and authoritarianism only exist in China, Russia and Iran, or wherever the BBC tells you. So you can sit back and relax knowing you live in a free country where you are allowed to say whatever you think — because you’ve already been programmed what to think. Don’t forget to vote for Sir Keir! Or the other bloke. Just check they are a friend of Israel and you’re good to go!

Thanks for your article Ruth. You make an interesting point about evidence of direct interference by the government of China. The current circumstances of UCL (non-arts) academic Michelle Shipworth is a case in point https://tinyurl.com/2htwx6d6. There are many pressures on the UK arts sector not least a laissez faire attitude towards protecting artistic freedom - we tend to assume all is basically well. Your article details a number of recent UK events - (Scotland's Hate Act, ACE confusion) which illustrate the risk of chilling artistic freedom. What's needed to better protect it ?