Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Freedom of Creative Expression in Africa

The article was written for www.artsfreedom.org

In recent years, there has been much excitement in the West – and in African
political circles - about the rise of the African continent, pointing particularly to the
sustained economic growth in some countries over an extended period of time.
During the first ten years of this millennium, six of the fastest-growing economies
were African: Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Chad and Mozambique.
Expectations are that Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic
of Congo (DRC) will join this club by 2015, the deadline for the realization of the
Millennium Development Goals.

There is hope – in some quarters – that economic growth will help to lift millions of
Africans out of poverty, improve their quality of life and empower them to demand
and experience greater human rights and freedoms than has been the case till now.

But, does economic growth necessarily lead to greater freedom? Is market
liberalization always accompanied by political liberalization? Does greater wealth
translate into a better quality of life for the majority of a society’s inhabitants?

The so-called Arab Spring that started in North Africa has inspired many - both in
the Arab world and elsewhere – to believe that it is possible for ordinary people to
throw off the shackles of repression and to claim the rights and freedoms outlined
in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights including the rights to freedom of
assembly, freedom of expression, freedom to hold views contrary to those in power
and the freedom to participate in the structures that govern their lives And yet, while
there have been various attempts at replicating the citizens’ movements of North
Africa south of the Saharan desert, there have been no changes in authoritarian
governments through citizen power in the last two years, except that Mali, till recently
considered one of the more democratic countries on the continent, and Equatorial-
Guinea both experienced military-led coups in this year.

If anything, there has been a tightening of the grip of those in political authority and
by those who occupy positions of power in religious, social and other institutions, and
whose collective hegemony suppress dissent and opposition in a variety of ways.
Those who present alternative ideas, who challenge dominant positions are at risk,
and these include creative practitioners: musicians, filmmakers, visual artists, theatre
makers, writers and cartoonists.

Against this background, Arterial Network – a civil society network of artists, cultural
activists, creative enterprises and others engaged in the African creative sector
and its contribution to human rights, democracy and the eradication of poverty –
embarked on a project, Artwatch Africa, to research, monitor and expose in particular
the suppression of the right to freedom of creative expression in all African countries
and territories.

The right to freedom of expression and African policies

Many African countries expressly assert – or support - the right to freedom of
expression in their constitutions, in some laws or in regional and international
conventions to which they are signatories.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which many African states
support declares “everyone has the right to freedom of expression; this right includes
freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart
information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

UNESCO’s Recommendation concerning the Status of the Artist calls on member
states to “protect, defend and assist artists and their freedom of expression”.
The UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of
Cultural Expressions – which 36 African countries have adopted to date - affirms
that “freedom of thought, expression and information, as well as diversity of the
media, enable cultural expressions to flourish within societies”

The African Union’s own Plan of Action on the Cultural and Creative Industries in
Africa adopted by culture ministers in Algiers in October 2008 expressly proposes
to “guarantee freedom of expression for creative and performing artists”.

The predecessor the African Union – the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) –
adopted the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights in 1981 (it entered into
force five years later when the required number of countries ratified it).

Article 8 of the African Charter states:
Freedom of conscience, the profession and free practice of religion shall be
guaranteed. No-one may, subject to law and order, be submitted to measures
restricting the exercise of these freedoms.

Article 9 states:
Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions
within the law.

Article 10 states:
Every individual shall have the right to free association provided that he
abides by the law.

While the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights appears to promote and
support fundamental human rights, the emphasis on “the law” and subjugating these
fundamental rights and freedoms to “the law” allows governments to pass laws
that may severely restrict and undermine such human and people’s rights. So, for
example, Zimbabwe uses the Public Order and Security Act to prevent criticism
or insults of the President, while the former President of Malawi similarly used a
colonial-era “insult law” to threaten those who undermined him, with imprisonment of
up to two years.

Article 17 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights is similarly
ambiguous when it states that “Every individual may freely take part in the cultural
life of his community” but goes on to declare that “The promotion and protection of
the morals and traditional values recognised by the community shall be the duty
of the State”, thereby granting the state the right to determine what is morally and
culturally acceptable when individuals do “freely take part in the cultural life of his

This contrasts sharply with Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
which states “everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of
the community and to enjoy the arts….” without any qualification.

The struggles of artists and creative people in Africa are reflected in the Kampala
Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility adopted by
intellectuals who met in 1990 to reflect on the increasing repression faced by African
intellectuals and academics. In the preamble to the Kampala Declaration, they
state “The struggle for intellectual freedom is an integral struggle of our people for
human rights” and the Declaration later states “No African intellectual shall in any
way be persecuted, harassed or intimidated for reasons only of his or her intellectual
work, opinions, gender, nationality or ethnicity”.

Notwithstanding the rights apparently afforded to African people through various
official African and international conventions and the claims to intellectual and
other freedoms by African people, the default impulse of African regimes appears
to be that they are able to restrict these freedoms where they consider – or defend
such restrictions – in terms of law, order or national security, as determined by the
regimes themselves. There appears to be little appetite for affording African people
their fundamental rights and freedoms as suggested by the Protocol to establish
an African Court for Human and People’s Rights which was adopted in 1998 and
came into force in 2004 when the minimum number of 15 African countries ratified
the Protocol. To date, only 26 countries – fewer than half the number of African
countries – have ratified this Protocol aimed at defending the rights of Africans.

There appears then, to be a real ambivalence on the part of the political leadership
of African countries fully to embrace real and fundamental human rights and
freedoms, without giving themselves an escape clause, where they may use “the
law” and “order” as legitimate means to deny people these rights and freedoms.

Democracy in Africa

The so-called Arab Spring served to place democracy in the Arab world under the
spotlight, but it also brought into focus the state of democracy in Africa that, after a
rapid period of democratisation in the last decade of the previous century, appears to
be reflecting a retreat from democratic practices.

Freedom House is an America-based NGO that monitors democracy globally using
criteria such as political rights expressed in electoral processes, political pluralism
and the functioning of government, and key civil liberties like freedom of expression
and belief, personal autonomy and individual rights to determine whether countries
are “free”, “partly free” or “not free”.

In terms of these descriptions, a “free” country is one where there is open political
competition, respect for civil liberties and highly independent media and civil society
organisations. “Partly free” countries are characterised by limited respect for political
and civil liberties, where a single party enjoys significant dominance and where
corruption, weak rule of law and ethnic and/or religious strife prevail. Countries
where civil and political liberties are absent and basic civil liberties are systematically
denied are classified as “Not free”.

Using these criteria, Freedom House’s 2011 global survey lists 9 African countries
as “free” (16%), 23 as “partly free” (42%) and 23 as “not free” (42%), implying that
the overwhelming majority of Africans live in conditions where political pluralism, free
and fair elections, political and civil liberties, including freedom of expression and
association, are severely restricted.

Using the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index of 2011, the African
Institute based in Pretoria, South Africa, identifies four types of African governments:
full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian
regimes. Of the 50 rated African countries, only Mauritius is considered a “Full
Democracy” while 9 countries constitute the “Flawed Democracy” category, 11
are considered “Hybrid Regimes” (in the state of transition) and more than half are
deemed to be “Authoritarian Regimes”.

Of the six African countries with the fastest growing economies, four are listed
as “Not free” in the Freedom House survey – Angola, Chad, Democratic Republic
of Congo and Rwanda while Mozambique and Nigeria fall into the “Partly free”
category. None of the fastest growing economies appears in the “Free” category.

On the Democracy Index 2011 it is even worse with only Mozambique having
a “Hybrid Regime” while the other five fast growing African economies are all
in “Authoritarian” countries. There does not appear then to be a link between
economic growth and political freedom, not surprising when China has also reflected
significant economic growth and the lifting of hundreds of millions of people out of
poverty while not embracing significant civil and political liberties. Interestingly,
the four non-African countries with the fastest growing economies in the first ten
years of this millennium are China, Cambodia, Myanmar and Khazakstan, all of
which feature in Freedom House’s “not free” category. The temptation for many
would be to deduce that democracy is an impediment to economic growth, and,
with China as Africa’s key trade partner, there may be the increasing justification to
follow the Chinese centralised model of growth and political control to meet Africa’s
developmental challenges.

Against the background of the global economic recession and the global perception
of Africa as an increasingly attractive investment and market destination, both west
and east might sacrifice democracy in favour of political stability to secure their
respective economic interests in the region in the same way that the democratic
west turned a blind eye to the dictatorships of Tunisia and Egypt as these served the
west’s geo-political and economic interests.

Development and human rights in Africa

Democracy and economic growth are not ends in themselves. Economic growth is
necessary to generate the resources that states can use to fulfil the aspirations of
their people in accordance with the human rights and freedoms articulated in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights while democracy represents the best political
means for citizens to lay claim to, monitor and agitate for their interests.

In 2000, world leaders met at the United Nations in New York and agreed on a set
of Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015. While these goals were
articulated in terms of “development”, they are fundamentally, about human rights.

Millennium Development Goal 1 is to “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger”; this
resonates with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ Article 25 (1): “Everyone
has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself
and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary
social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness,
disability, widowhood, old age or lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his

Millennium Development Goal 2 to “achieve universal primary education” is similar to
Article 26 (1) of the UDHR: “everyone has the right to education. Education shall be
free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall
be compulsory….”

MDG 3 to “promote gender equality and empower women” expresses the desire to
implement Article 2 of the UDHR: “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms
set forth in this Declaration without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex,
language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth
or other status.”

Goals 4 “reduce child mortality”, 5 “improve maternal health” and 6 “combat HIV/
AIDS, malaria and other diseases” are inherent in Article 25 Article 25 (1) already
articulated above and in Article 25 (2) “motherhood and childhood are entitled to
special care and assistance”.

Goal 7 “ensure environmental sustainability” and Goal 8 “develop a global
partnership for development” express the vision contained in Article 28 of the
UDHR “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and
freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised”.

The Human Development Index of the UN’s Development Programme rates
countries in terms of criteria such as life expectancy, income, literacy levels, etc with
countries divided into four categories: Very High Human Development, High Human
Development, Medium Human Development and Low Human Development. Thirty-
three African countries – more than 60% of the total number of African countries -
are listed in the Low Human Development category, emphasising the relevance of
the Millennium Development Goals and of the human rights principles to African
countries. Interestingly, notwithstanding their “fastest growing” economies, Chad,
Nigeria, Rwanda, Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia all feature in the “Low Human
Development” category, showing that there is no link necessarily between high
economic growth and development that benefits the majority of a country’s citizens.
It is for this reason that citizens should be able to enjoy political rights and civil
liberties to agitate in their interests, to ensure that national wealth is not vested in an
elite and that the MDGs and UDHR are realised in the lives of citizens.

These rights include:

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are
endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit
of brotherhood.
Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Article 7: All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination
to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any
discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such
Article 9: No-one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Article 13: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the
Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either
alone or in community with others and in public or private, and to manifest his
religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right
includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and
impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Article 20: Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Article 21 (1): Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country,
directly or through freely chosen representatives
Article 21 (3): The will of the people shall be the basis of authority of government;
this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be
universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent voting
Article 23 (1): Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just
and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
Article 23 (2): Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration
ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and
supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection
Article 27 (1): Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the
community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
Article 27 (2): Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material
interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the

Rather than separate silos, development, human rights, democracy and economic
growth are all integral to each other. It is this belief that has led to Arterial Network’s
definition of development as ‘the ongoing generation and application of resources to
create and sustain the optimal conditions in which human beings may enjoy all the
rights and freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’.

It is also the recognition of key challenges on the continent and the integration
of development with democracy and human rights that have informed Arterial
Network’s vision “to develop the creative sector in its own right and as means to
contribute to human rights, democracy and the eradication of poverty in Africa”.

Monitoring and exposing the contravention of freedom of creative expression

Contemporary emphasis on the “cultural dimension of development” stresses
the importance of the creative industries as economic drivers that would promote
development. However, as pointed out earlier, economic growth – certainly in
Africa – does not necessarily mean “development”; economic growth needs to be
complemented by the pursuit of civil and political liberties in order to ensure that
societies are developed in which the full human potential, and their full human rights
and freedoms of all, are realised.

Against this background, Arterial Network is establishing a project to monitor the
practice and constraints on freedom of creative expression in all African countries,
including the various forms of censorship that prevail in each country. While other
barometers exist to measure freedom of the media, there is no measure of freedom
of creative expression.

Freedom of creative expression is linked to a number of other factors such as access
to education and training, safety of artists, ICT penetration, freedom of assembly
and association, access to resources to facilitate creation, access to infrastructure
and opportunities to distribute work, so that while freedom of creative expression
has value in its own right, it would be useful also to measure the extent to which
countries in Africa create and support the conditions in which this right may be
realised to its fullest potential.

The aims of Artwatch Africa are
1. to research Freedom of Creative Expression across the continent (the laws
governing freedom of expression in each country, the methods used to limit,
curtail – or promote – freedom of creative expression, the levels of formal,
informal and self-censorship, the kinds of censorship – political/religious/
social - the numbers of artists arrested, detained, jailed and the art works
banned or censored), to provide a benchmark for Freedom of Creative
Expression in Africa, and as a starting point to monitor such freedom
2. to produce and regularly update a website on a daily/weekly basis that is
dedicated to the monitoring of freedom of creative expression
3. to produce a barometer that measures and evaluates African countries and
their support for or curtailment of freedom of creative expression
4. to produce an initial publication on the state of Freedom of Creative
Expression in Africa
5. to host seminars, workshops and conferences and to produce information
tools on the subject in order to assess the state of freedom of creative
expression and as a basis for taking action to advance freedom of expression
6. to encourage weekly blogs and articles on the freedom of expression from
around the continent and as expressions of such freedom
7. to liaise with other organisations monitoring freedom of expression (Amnesty
International, Freemuse, Reporters Without Borders etc) and to share
resources, information and strategies to advance freedom of creative
expression in Africa
8. to alert the African and international communities to any assault on freedom of
creative expression in Africa and to provide regular updates
9. to initiate and/or co-ordinate campaigns to advance freedom of expression
in support of particular artists, countries, organisations, causes as deemed
necessary from time to time
10. to research, monitor and regularly update the conditions in each African
country (policy, funding, education, distribution mechanisms, etc) that impact
on the exercise of freedom of creative expression.
11. to develop a database of organizations providing direct support such as
psychological, legal, medical and financial help/assistance to the artists in
distress and their families

Artwatch Africa is essentially to keep accountable African governments who have
committed themselves to upholding freedom of expression and to place pressure on
others that pay little respect to civil and political liberties, and to fundamental human
rights and freedoms.

Mapping of freedom of creative expression in Africa

Research undertaken by Arterial Network as well as other experience reveals that
there are varying ways in which artistic expression is suppressed or compromised
depending on the context.

The following table provides an indication – by no means exhaustive – of the kinds of
strategies adopted in order to suppress freedom of artistic expression.

Partly free
Not free
            1.    Coercive strategies

1.1  Arrests

1.2  Detention without trial

1.3  Use of insult/defamation laws
1.4  Imprisonment

1.5  Kidnappings

1.6  Murder/Extra-judicial execution
1.7  Exile

1.8  Violence (assaults, disruption)
1.9  Banning (of art works)

1.10              Banning (of persons)

1.11              Restrictive age limits

            2.    Intimidation (generally resulting in self-censorship)

2.1  Verbal abuse
2.2  Threats of violence
2.3  Lawsuits/civil claims
2.4  Protests

            3.    Marginalisation

3.1  Denied access to public funding
3.2  Exclusion from official functions
3.3  Blacklisting
Entities responsible for suppression
Partly free
Not free

Political parties

Security police

Religious groups
Traditional leaders

Miscellaneous examples of the suppression of freedom of expression

1. Bertrand Treyou, a Cameroonian writer, was imprisoned from 2010-2011
for writing a book – The Belle of the Banana Republic: Chantal Biya, from
the streets to the Palace - in which he allegedly insults the wife of Paul Biya,
President of Cameroon – a “not free” country - since 1982
2. Jonathan Shapiro, aka Zapiro, a cartoonist in South Africa – a “free” country
– regularly encounters a range of forms of intimidation from lawsuits from the
country’s President Zuma for his cartoon depicting Zuma as a rapist of Lady
Justice, to death threats from Muslim groups for his depiction of Mohamed, to
sharp criticism from Jewish groups for his cartoons that critique Israel
3. In May 2012, a group of intellectuals and artists in Algeria – a “not free”
country – issued a statement decrying the intimidation levelled at the
organisers of an independent conference on cultural policy, and for its general
control of the Algerian cultural space in which it seeks to sanction “official
culture”. Ironically, the AU’s Plan of Action on Cultural Industries that
promotes freedom of expression and civil society participation in cultural
policy formulation and implementation, was adopted in Algiers in 2008.
4. The Censorship Board in Zimbabwe – a “not free” country - banned the play,
No Voice, No Choice by Tafadzwa Muzondo earlier in 2012, notwithstanding
the aim of the play to “spread a message of peace”. Cultural activists in
Zimbabwe are also concerned about proposals to regulate festivals made by
the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe, and which are seen as an attempt to
control the largest independent festival in the country, the Harare International
Festival of the Arts (HIFA).
5. World Theatre Day, due to be celebrated by theatre professionals, students
and amateurs in Tunisia on 27 March 2012, and with full authorisation
from the Ministry of Interior, was violently disrupted by a group of religious
6. A South African artist – Brett Murray – encountered heavy intimidation in
the form of protest marches led by the ruling party, calls for his work to be
banned, accusations of racism and even a suggestion by a church leader
that he should be stoned for his exhibition, Hail to the Thief 2, which heavily
critiqued the ruling party’s betrayal of its liberation ideals, and particularly for a
painting, The Spear, that depicted President Zuma with his genitals exposed.


As the above examples show, intimidation and suppression of freedom of creative
expression are not confined to authoritarian African countries, but are evident in “not
free” countries, in societies that are in transition after having deposed autocratic
dictators and even in countries where constitutional democracy – at least in the form
of relatively free and regular elections – is embedded.

While the forms of suppression of dissent and the entities exercising such repression
may vary from country to country, invariably it is those who occupy positions
of political and/or religious power who are most responsible for denying the
fundamental right to freedom of creative expression, with through the use of the
coercive machinery of the state, or by mobilising religious, political or ethnic groups
to exert pressure (often violent) on those who exercise their right to freedom of
creative expression.

Notwithstanding this, there are many brave people – artists and other creative
practitioners among them – who recognise that the only way to advance, defend and
embed freedom of expression, is to practice it.

It is in support of such individuals and organisations that Artwatch Africa finds its
raison d’etre to provide moral, financial and publicity support to help to protect and
defend those who are on the frontline of freedom of expression in Africa. Given
the precarious state of democracy and the lack of respect for human rights on the
continent as well as the constant reversals of democratic gains, Arterial Network
chapters and links between Arterial Network and similar organisations across the
globe are imperative to advance the creative sector in its own right, and in so doing,
to defend and promote democracy and human rights, and to empower citizens in
their collective fight to eradicate poverty, and create sustainable conditions in which
human beings enjoy and realise their full potential.

Mike van Graan
Executive Director: African Arts Institute

Acknowledgement: This article is based on research undertaken as an initial
mapping of the state of freedom of expression in Africa by Arterial Network with
Dounia Benslimane (Morocco), Telesphore Mba Bizo (Cameroon) and Josh
Nyapimbi (Zimbabwe) coordinating a number of researchers to do this.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home