Shrinking space for filmmakers’ artistic freedom in Europe

Freemuse, an independent international organisation, has in a recent report, for the first time, put the spotlight on Europe’s alarming rise of populism, undermining of cultural diversity and use of restrictions on artistic freedom in several countries. The topic was discussed on 21 January by Members of the European Parliament and representatives from the creative and cultural sector.

Freemuse examined 380 cases of violations of artistic freedom in 28 European countries from January 2018 to October 2019, and on film, it reports 42 documented violations in 10 countries. 50% of violations were due to artists opposing a government’s policy or practice. 25 films and 2 festivals were censored or cancelled in 9 European countries. Filmmakers have been both imprisoned and detained for their works. The overall main violator (72%) are government authorities, responsible for 61% of the censorship cases. 

Among the examples is Hungary that amended its law in 2012 on cultural practice. “Article X (1) of the Law states that “Hungary shall ensure the freedom of scientific research and artistic creation…”. Article (3) then adds that “Hungary shall defend the scientific and artistic freedom of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Hungarian Academy of Arts [MMA]”. The singling out of the MMA, which prior to 2010 had been a relatively small organisation, has placed it in a privileged position, now attracting a disproportionately large share of government funding and reducing what is available to other institutions that wish to stage programmes including works that challenge government views. At the same time, there are concerns that the leadership of key arts institutions have been deliberately taken over by government appointees, ranging from the National Theatre, cultural funds, film and performing arts sectors, leaving the independent sector neglected and side-lined” (Freemuse 2020:44).

Culture Action Europe partnered with Freemuse and delivered several recommendations to the European Parliament and European Commission during its launch event. Jean Fernando Lopez Aguilar, Chair of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee in the European Parliament expressed the Parliament’s responsibility to grant artists the freedom to question the political status quo and to be remunerated for their creative works. Yamam Al Zubaidi from Culture Action Europe talked about how artistic freedom is being contested across all Member States with reference to policies and legal provisions and called on the European Commission to develop a handbook on artistic freedom based on the existing case law of the European Court of Human Rights and EU law. Barbara Gessler from the European Commission (Head of Unit dealing with Creative Europe) responded that while the Commission has limited capacity to act on cases in Member States it is monitoring the issues. 

Artistic freedom falls under the broad remit of freedom of expression[1], and it encompasses a range of fundamental rights, including the right to have artistic work supported, distributed and remunerated. However, “artistic freedom does not feature with any prominence within European human rights practice. Only the most high-profile incidences where rights are breeched tend to be reported and acted on; others have only been afforded inconsistent attention”, writes Freemuse.

The SAA will remain attentive and vocal about the need to defend freedom of artistic expression. At last year’s dinner event co-organised by the SAA, Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker and former political prisoner participated, and the European Parliament’s 2019 LUX Film Prize winner Teona Strugar Mitevska thanked the LUX Film Prize for choosing uncomfortable films, such as hers. The “I’d like to watch that” campaign by Croatian audiovisual authors is another example of initiatives that the SAA supports to oppose censorship by public service broadcasters.

[1] Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 15 (3) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UNESCO Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression

Read the Freemuse report