The violent attack on French publication, Charlie Hebdo, and the cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, both in response to their production of satirical artistic works, rightly draws our attention to how robust our freedom of speech really is now.
Artists and their admirers alike all consider sacrosanct our freedom of expression. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the content.
While this belief is generally recognized worldwide, it is not always allowed or encouraged. Sometimes overtly, other times more subtly.
The United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was the first global documentation of the basic rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.
Article 19 of the UDHR states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”.
Each country then accompanies this global agreement with legislation, such as the United States’ First Amendment to the US Constitution, which ensures freedom of speech.
While the Charlie Hebdo and Sony Pictures Entertainment incidents were truly life and death situations (or at least the threat of it), even self-censorship due to fear of government surveillance seems to be on the rise.
A new report from the PEN American Center indicates that self-censorship is now nearly as high among writers living in democracies as those living in semi-democratic or even authoritarian countries.
The PEN report, based on a survey of 772 writers from 50 countries around the world, further suggests that mass surveillance by Western governments, including the US and UK, has damaged their reputation as champions of freedom of expression around the world.
Clearly, most of us most of the time are not confronted with life or death decisions of whether or not to share our work. We usually only need consider the reaction of our friends, family, colleagues, clients and perhaps the public when we express ourselves about important matters.
But as these incidents and reports suggest, we may be becoming less well informed about what is really happening and what we feel that we can say about it publicly.
I wonder how many of us have ever been publicly criticized or even attacked for their work, and have subsequently self-censored.
Or, more subtly, seen it happen to a colleague and then chosen self-censorship to avoid any perceived trouble for oneself.
Either would be a reasonable reaction, to be sure. At the best of times I find it takes courage to share artwork that I have created. Surely I’d think twice about expressing myself under adverse circumstances.
As of yet my artistic concerns have simply been about how to fulfill my clients’ needs. I should hope that I’d be as courageous about sharing publicly any artwork that I thought would not be as universally well received as that which I’ve thus far created.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and personal experiences on this topic. Feel free to express them as a blog comment or on social media!