There's a new free speech crisis gripping the world—and governments aren't helping

While the spotlight in recent years has been on censorship from the student left, real and increasing threats are coming from the right

December 18, 2019
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Scottish playwright Jo Clifford is no stranger to controversy. Her play, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, casts Jesus as a trans woman, and first aired at Glasgow’s Tron in 2009 to a reception of applause—and protest. But there is controversy, and then there is outright danger. The same play was on tour in Brazil until recently, when a smoke bomb was thrown into the performance space and armed police invaded the theatre. Brazil has become a country where it is dangerous to perform, especially if your show does not tick the boxes set out by the new right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro, who has pushed for local art to focus on “Brazilian heroes.”

The incident warns of a new threat sweeping the world right now: the censorship of the arts. A special report in the latest Index on Censorship magazine published this week shows a rising hostile climate towards the arts, even in robust democracies. Artists from around the world, including Germany, Poland, Brazil, and the UK spoke of the increasing threats to their artistic freedom as a result of an emboldened right. Perhaps most startling was the frequency of attacks in the field. Index went out expecting to find just a few examples. Instead, the list was endless.

A threat from the right

While the spotlight in recent years has been on censorship from the student left, with concerns about the rise of safe spaces, trigger warnings and no-platforming, real and increasing threats are coming from the right. They are taking away our liberties—and liberal arts.

“We are on the front line of a culture war that will only deepen and strengthen as the ecological and financial crisis worsens and the right feel more fearfully they are losing their grip on power,” said The Gospel According to Jesus playwright Clifford. She added that even in Scotland, her play can ruffle feathers. Last Christmas there was a run at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. An online petition demanding the play be banned, she tells me, attracted a whopping 24,674 signatures.

Germany is particularly feeling the heat. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has gone from newcomer on the political scene in 2013 to being the largest opposition party in the Bundestag today. They are eyeing up seats in parliament—and in the theatre. Marc Jongen, commonly regarded to be the party philosopher of the AfD, has said he wants to “de-grime the [left-dominated] cultural scene.” The party is behind a plethora of lawsuits and protests against art institutions across the country. In their more successful moments, they have banned political discussions at a theatre in Freiberg following complaints from an AfD councillor, who labelled a book reading and discussion on right-wing populism as “left-green ideology,” and had artist Olu Oguibe’s public sculpture, “Monument for Strangers and Refugees,” removed from its central location in Kassel (it has since returned.) This summer they requested to see the nationalities of artists in state-run opera, ballet and orchestra companies in Stuttgart. (Fortunately, those interviewed said they had refused to hand this information over.)

Artists in Germany are scared, the Index report shows, and rightfully so. They only need to look to Hungary to see how bad it can get for a fellow EU nation. Since Viktor Orbán’s most recent election win last year, the Fidesz party leader has pledged to “embed the political system in a cultural era.”  That has translated into funds being cut from the arts, on top of shows and talks being cancelled and newspaper editorials criticising plays as “promoting communism” or “gay propaganda.” The Billy Elliot musical was a recent victim, with 15 shows cancelled after a newspaper claimed it “could turn children gay.” Dóra Papp, former chief executive of an independent theatre company in Hungary, says that self-censorship is rife in what was once a thriving cultural scene. “Should they have confrontational subjects on their programmes or should they self-censor and try to get government funding?” she asked.

Big business, diminishing funds

Sometimes the attack on the arts can be subtle, like in the case of Croatia, as diminishing funding has come as a result of right-wing governments devaluing creative industries arts. Artists there are reeling at the recent closure of Zagreb’s last independent cinema, and have contended that its demise is linked to the crumbling institutional support given to the arts. A manager of literary centre in Zagreb, Miljenka Buljevic, said the arts ecosystem was “falling apart.” Once Croatia had secured its place in the EU, she claims, the nation no longer felt the need to appear hyper-liberal, and have subsequently dropped their façade to favour cultural conservatism.

Many fear the trend could get worse. Roman Schmidt, a German historian who works at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank that works on democracy and human rights, expressed concern about the AfD gaining control at the Lander (state) or municipal level, which they don’t yet have. “This would be a disaster for Germany because when it comes to cultural and educational institutions, the Lander have the say and the budget.”

And in the UK, it was only just days after the election that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced its intentions to boycott the BBC’s Today Programme and floated the idea of decriminalising non-payment of their license fee. Will state-funded museums, galleries and theatres be targeted too?

We must all be vigilant. As the experience of other countries in Europe and around the world shows, the arts are often the first lines of attack by populist leaders keen to shut down alternative voices and lifestyles. But the arts play a crucial role in society. At their best, they draw on and celebrate the stories and experiences of everyone. And they’re often instrumental in driving societal change. In a newly free Czechoslovakia, the first president, Vaclav Havel, was a dissident playwright; in eastern Germany in 1989, protests that led to the fall of Berlin’s Wall were led by artists. If the far right continue to win at elections—and if this great cultural space of experimentation, discussion, and play is attacked further—we are all the poorer for it.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, who have a short fuse for anything that insults their preferred historical narrative or the Catholic church, earlier this year banned a long-standing exhibition at the National Museum, Warsaw. One artwork showed a banana being eaten suggestively. Such a modest approach would be familiar to anyone living in China, where the label of pornography is a vexatious charge that frequently sees the shutting down of arts and censoring of films. But Poland isn’t one-party China.

In this instance, the Poles came out in droves to fight the ban and won. They might not be so lucky next time.

Jemimah Steinfeld is deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine.

The latest issue of the magazine, The Big Noise, is published this Wednesday and looks at how the current pack of macho leaders are using their specific brand of masculinity to crush freedoms