Safety Guide for Artists
Artists take risks, but they should not have to risk their lives. Nevertheless, global watchdogs document hundreds of cases each year of artists who are attacked, imprisoned, and even killed for their work––and countless more cases go undocumented.
In response to these realities, the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) of PEN America has developed A Safety Guide for Artists, a first-of-its-kind manual that offers practical strategies for artists to understand, navigate, and ultimately overcome risk. While such tools have been developed for journalists, human rights defenders, and cartoonists, no guide has been designed specifically for artists. A Safety Guide for Artists fills this crucial gap in providing artists with a resource tailored to their needs.
When an artist first faces risk, there are not a lot of roadmaps: the experience can be incredibly isolating and disorienting. A Safety Guide for Artists explores topics such as defining and understanding risk, preparing for threats, fortifying digital safety, documenting persecution, finding assistance, and recovering from trauma. Tips and strategies were drawn from testimony of artists who have faced persecution, including Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera, Lebanese singer Hamed Sinno, American visual artist Dread Scott, and Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, as well as the research and expertise of ARC’s vast network of partners.
The guide is available in English, Spanish, and French. Click the “Download PDF” feature at the top of this page to access the pdf versions.
One night in October 2019, as a curfew blanketed the city of Santiago, Chile during nationwide demonstrations for social justice, opera singer Ayleen Jovita Romero peacefully protested by singing “El derecho de vivir en paz” (“The right to live in peace”) from her window, a song made famous by singer Victor Jara before he was murdered following the 1973 military coup.
As UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights, I shared this example in my March 2020 report on cultural rights defenders (CRDs)––human rights defenders who defend cultural rights in accordance with international standards––because this story shows the ways that artists can both challenge injustice and bring hope to others in difficult times. Artists and their work promote access to culture and creative responses in the face of human rights violations and strife. Yet, artists and other CRDs have not been adequately recognized as human rights defenders, and therefore receive insufficient protection when their work puts them at risk around the world.
Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to collaborate frequently with the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) on just such issues, jointly hosting expert meetings and public programs and working together along with other partners on advocacy concerning persecuted artists. ARC has also coordinated joint statements with a range of other civil society organizations engaged on these issues at the Human Rights Council in support of the cultural rights mandate. All these activities have made a significant contribution to work on cultural rights in the United Nations system. Through stakeholder meetings that ARC has helped facilitate, they have also played an important role in working to build a coalition of civil society organizations to defend the cultural rights of different constituencies, including women, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, minorities, and LGBTQIA+ people. With their wide-ranging understanding of both the human rights and cultural spheres and their intersections, ARC has excellent capacity to be a catalyst for collaboration and to help raise awareness of cultural rights like artistic freedom at the international level.
It is therefore my pleasure to introduce A Safety Guide for Artists, a vital tool to help artists access needed support in the face of threats to their human rights. Similar to analogous guides for journalists and other human rights defenders, this guide affords a critical tool for those working to defend their own right to freedom of artistic expression and that of others.
The field of artist support is constantly evolving, as new programs emerge and as artists continue to be mainstreamed into discussions of defending human rights. This critically important guide offers a window into that field, helping artists develop strategies to overcome persecution.
A great deal of my work as Special Rapporteur has been devoted to understanding the needs of cultural rights defenders and advocating for the steps that should be taken to ensure their safety. In offering a comprehensive toolkit of practical strategies to counter the risks, I am certain that this guide will be crucial in advancing artists’ safety around the world. I also hope it will help bring much-needed attention from governments, international mechanisms, human rights organizations and civil society generally to the threats that artists face, therefore helping to ensure that the next Victor Jara or Ayleen Jovita Romero in any country is able to make their work in peace.
–Karima Bennoune, United Nations Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights
The year 2020 has exploded with global crises. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the rise of nationalist, authoritarian, and extremist regimes and conflicts around the world led to disturbing increases in violations of fundamental human rights. In response to these threats, massive social movements, from pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong "Hong Kong kicks off 2020 with fresh protests,” BBC, January 1, 2020. to calls for a new constitution in Chile, Philip Reeves, “Protests in Chile,” NPR, January 11, 2020. arose, generating hope for more equitable societies. But these movements also led to ever-greater dangers for activists, frontline workers, and outspoken voices.
The health crisis has only intensified these realities. Beyond placing restrictions on everyday life, from the shuttering of venues and public spaces Valentina Di Liscia, “As the Art World Shuts Down Over COVID-19, Uncertainty Plagues Hourly Workers,” Hyperallergic, March 19, 2020. to the shutdown of borders, “Coronavirus: Travel restrictions, border shutdowns by country,” Al Jazeera, June 3, 2020. authoritarian regimes and declining democracies alike have exploited the pandemic to crack down on dissent. They have curbed protests through enforced curfews, Anthony Faiola, Lindzi Wessel, and Shibani Mahtani, “Coronavirus chills protests from Chile to Hong Kong to Iraq, forcing activists to innovate,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2020. criminalized activism under the guise of vague laws meant to curtail “spreading disinformation” about the virus, “Thai Artist Arrested for Posting About Country’s Coronavirus Screening,” PEN America, March 25, 2020. and more. The pandemic helped quell the protests in Iran Max de Haldevang, “Coronavirus has crippled global protest movements,” Quartz, April 1, 2020. and Iraq to Argentina and Venezuela Faiola, Wessel, and Mahtani. to Hong Kong, Austin Ramzy and Elaine Yu, “Under Cover of Coronavirus, Hong Kong Cracks Down on Protest Movement,” The New York Times, April 21, 2020. where the Chinese legislature slammed through a disturbing national security law “Hong Kong security law: What is it and is it worrying?” BBC, June 30, 2020. that many believe signals the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy and which has already been used to arrest countless outspoken voices. Austin Ramzy, Tiffany May, and Elaine Yu, “China Targets Hong Kong’s Lawmakers as It Squelches Dissent,” The New York Times, November 11, 2020.
And yet, at the same time, to a degree not seen in decades, opposition movements are ascending, from protests of police brutality in the United States Eliott C. McLaughlin, “How George Floyd's death ignited a racial reckoning that shows no signs of slowing down,” CNN, August 9, 2020. to massive demonstrations rejecting the rigged 2020 presidential election in Belarus. “Nearly 3 months after vote, Belarus protests still go strong,” Associated Press, October 31, 2020. Throughout this outpouring of dissent, artists have stood at the forefront, Carly Mallenbaum, “Art activism: Stories behind murals, street paintings and portraits created in protest,” USA Today, July 6, 2020. bearing witness to inhumanity and catalyzing solidarity through songs, Marta Balaga, “Las Tesis, Collective Behind Anti-Rape Protest Song, on Campaign Against Violence,” Variety, October 31, 2020. slogans, Aliaksandr Bystryk and Karolina Koziura, “Strategies of Protests from Belarus,” Public Seminar, November 9, 2020. and murals Raisa Bruner, “'Art Can Touch Our Emotional Core.' Meet the Artists Behind Some of the Most Widespread Images Amid George Floyd Protests,” TIME, June 3, 2020. that call for change. When artists are able to express themselves freely, they can be forceful and influential voices that document oppression, articulate cultural critiques, and accelerate social progress. Art can offer an essential outlet for nurturing free thought and exercising free will. It can help independent viewpoints survive, challenge orthodoxies in ways both subtle and overt, and create openings that allow citizens to imagine a different future.
But this power can also put artists at the forefront of backlash, exposing them to violence, intimidation, and other forms of persecution by both governments and non-state actors. It is no accident that artists are among the first targets for suppression during the rise of authoritarian regimes, the spread of armed conflicts, and the collapse of democracies.
In 2019, the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) received more requests for assistance than in any previous year, and global watchdogs documented over 700 incidents in at least 93 countries in which artists’ rights were violated "The State of Artistic Freedom 2020," Freemuse, April 15, 2020.—numbers that do not include hundreds of cases that go unreported. While many artists defy these attacks and continue their work, others live in constant fear for their safety and the safety of their families, and some have been intimidated into self-censorship or silence. Though many threats come from state actors such as governments, politicians, police, and the military, they can also come from non-state parties, including extremist groups, fundamentalist or conservative communities, and even one’s own neighbors and family members. These attacks rob artists of the opportunity for creative expression and impoverish democratic discourse by excluding challenging ideas and perspectives and depriving the public of valuable contributions, insights, and inspiration.
Artists are vital to the health and longevity of free and open societies, and their importance is enshrined in international law. “Artistic expression,” as former UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights Farida Shaheed has stated, “is not a luxury, it is a necessity.” Farida Shaheed, “The right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity,” UNESCO, March 14, 2013. As a fundamental human right, it is addressed in varying ways in a number of documents within the international human rights framework, including article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” OHCHR, 1948 article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” OHCHR, 1966 and related provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is also addressed by UN Special Rapporteurs in the field of cultural rights and freedom of expression; as outlined in the Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights’ 2020 report, artists are cultural rights defenders––those human rights defenders who act in defense of culture––and therefore deserve the same recognition and protection as traditional human rights defenders. Karima Bennoune, “Cultural rights defenders. Report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights,” pp. 3-4, OHCHR, 2020 and OHCHR, “Who is a defender?” Artists take risks, but they should not have to risk their lives.
What is ARC?
The Artists at Risk Connection, a project of PEN America, aims to safeguard the right to artistic freedom of expression and ensure that artists everywhere can live and work without fear. ARC works to achieve this goal primarily by connecting persecuted artists to our growing global network of resources, facilitating cooperation among human rights and arts organizations, and amplifying the stories and work of at-risk artists. ARC plays the role of connector and coordinator, matching need and response to equip artists with the means to withstand pressure and continue creating.
Since its inception in 2017, ARC has assisted more than 261 individual artists and cultural professionals from over 61 countries by connecting them to a wide range of services, most frequently including emergency funds, legal assistance, temporary relocation programs, and fellowships. Thanks to a core network of over 70 partners, over 50 percent of artists who seek our help have already received direct support. Our network is the heart of ARC: Since we are not a direct service provider but a hub that brings together the vast constellation of organizations that support artists, our work would not be possible without the diverse partners we refer artists to.
You can contact ARC through our website, via email at email@example.com, or via our encrypted intake form. For more information about using ARC’s resources, please refer to the “Finding Assistance” section.
Why Does This Guide Exist?
In the four years since ARC was created, we have been fortunate to collaborate with a vast array of partners working on the ground to support artists at risk. We have engaged an even larger number of organizations that might not traditionally have supported artists but are now beginning to serve them, such as Freedom House, Front Line Defenders, and ProtectDefenders.eu. However, while a number of robust guides exist for vulnerable journalists, “Safety Guide for Journalists,” Reporters Without Borders and UNESCO, 2015. cartoonists, “Practical Guide for the Protection-of Editorial Cartoonists,” Cartooning for Peace, 2019. and human rights defenders, See “New Protection Guide for Human Rights Defenders,” Protection International, 2009 and “Protection Guide for Human Rights Defenders,” Front Line Defenders, 2005. and other vulnerable groups, Gary McLelland and Emma Wadsworth-Jones, “Humanists at Risk: Action Report 2020,” Humanists International, 2020. no such tool exists expressly for at-risk artists.
In creating this manual, ARC aspires to offer concrete recommendations and provide a comprehensive tool kit to help artists navigate, counter, and overcome threats and persecution. This guide will cover topics including cybersecurity threats and best practices; tactics used by governmental and non-governmental actors to attack artists; resources available to artists under threat and ways for organizations to provide support; methods of identifying risks to yourself; strategies for developing a safety net and plan; actions to take against perpetrators; and an appendix of further resources.
Although ARC has tried to make this manual exhaustive, every experience of risk is unique, and this guide may not provide every tool for every scenario. In such cases, we recommend getting in touch with ARC or with one of the vast array of organizations that might be able to meet your specific needs with specific assistance, many of which are listed in the appendix. Because the world changes quickly, we will give frequent updates to keep this information relevant. In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive disruptions in the field of artistic freedom. Some of the resources recommended in this guide may currently be on hiatus or be offering altered services. We always recommend checking organizations’ websites directly to get the most up-to-date information regarding their support.
This guide has been inspired by the practical experience of ARC and our partners. In compiling it, we have listened to artists themselves—their direct requests for assistance, their responses to a survey that we conducted in 2018, and their thoughts expressed in in-depth interviews that we conducted in 2020. We have also drawn on research and manuals published by organizations that specialize in assisting artists, journalists, and human rights defenders. Certain sections might act as a gateway to other organizations’ resources, to which we have provided useful links or footnotes.
This guide will be continually updated as trends and recommendations change.
We hope that by presenting the voices of artists who have faced similar challenges and the strategies they used to overcome them, this guide can help at-risk artists feel less alone, more prepared, and better able to make their art in peace.
This guide would not exist without the continued, crucial support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, ARC’s primary funder; the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; the Elizabeth R. Koch Foundation; the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; and the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. We are immensely grateful to them for helping ARC make the world a safer place for artists.
With our bird’s-eye view of the field of available resources, ARC developed this guide by drawing upon the wealth of expertise of our global partners and PEN chapters and upon information gleaned from the 280 artists ARC has helped connect to direct support, 197 responses to a survey of persecuted artists conducted in 2018, and 13 interviews conducted in 2020 with prominent artists who have experienced persecution.
ARC strives to act as a clearinghouse, bringing together the vast constellation of global resources for artists at risk into one accessible hub. Before its existence, artists in need and their allies would have to peruse hundreds of individual websites to search the scope of existing resources. With ARC’s database, all of these resources are compiled in one portal. When ARC was launched in 2017, its network included 709 partner organizations—579 in its public, searchable database and 130 in a private database offering resources to persecuted artists. As of October 2020, the network has grown to 881 partners, including 673 in the public database. Of these organizations, about 70 constitute ARC’s core network—partners that ARC consistently turns to and collaborates with when aiding artists at risk. In addition to its global network, ARC has an Advisory Committee made up of prominent artists and representatives of core partners. This wide range of partners gives ARC a unique opportunity to study the field of artist support as a whole and understand what services exist, which are most helpful, and how artists can most effectively navigate them.
Much of this manual draws upon the insights, expertise, research, and resources of this diverse group of partners. Partners regularly conduct research and publish reports, many of which have been cited throughout this manual. In addition to collaborating on assisting at-risk artists, ARC regularly works in concert with our partners when attending international forums and hosting public and private programs—giving us insights into how service-providing organizations operate, which trends and challenges are most salient, and which organizations are best equipped to provide support to artists in need. This guide, and ARC’s work, would not be possible without their knowledge.
Requests for Assistance from Artists at Risk
Since its inception, ARC has received 261 requests for assistance from artists in 61 countries, and we work daily to refer these artists to our partner organizations. By analyzing trends in these requests, ARC has gained a deeper understanding of the state of artistic freedom and has been able to make inferences that helped inform the contents of this guide. But the requests that ARC receives by no means capture the full scope of persecution faced by artists. Though ARC receives about 87 requests a year, research from our partners and other watchdogs suggests that hundreds, if not thousands, more artists face substantial threats.
2018 Survey of Artists at Risk
To complement and deepen the information that ARC has gleaned from the artists who contact us, in 2018 we surveyed 197 individual artists at risk globally to better understand their needs, conditions, and challenges. This survey explored questions about what types of risk artists perceive, what risks they have experienced, and how often they have experienced them. It also asked artists about their views of the assistance process, perceived gaps in available support, regions where risk is most acute, and more. The survey provided crucial data that has helped ARC better understand the worldwide landscape of threats and support.
In addition to general biographical questions, the main questions of the survey included:
- What do you feel is the biggest threat to freedom of artistic expression?
- Have you experienced persecution as a direct result of your work as an artist?
- To the best of your knowledge, who are/were the perpetrators of the persecution?
- To the best of your knowledge, what is/was the reason for the persecution?
- What action(s) did you take or are you currently taking to protect yourself?
- What kind of support, if any, did you receive, or are you receiving?
- When persecuted, what was/is the best way for you to access information about support?
2020 Interviews Conducted with Artists at Risk
Each of ARC’s in-depth interviews with 13 prominent artists who have previously been or are currently at risk lasted approximately one and a half to two hours and explored the artist’s career, activism, and experiences coping with persecution and finding assistance. Conducting firsthand interviews enabled ARC to ascertain what the lived experience of risk is like, what tactics artists use to counter threats, what forms of support help most, and what forms of support remain lacking.
ARC interviewed the following artists:
- Aslı Erdoğan, Turkish writer
- Betty Tompkins, American painter
- Dread Scott, American visual artist
- Hamed Sinno, Lebanese singer
- Kubra Khademi, Afghan performance artist
- Masha Alekhina, Russian member of art collective Pussy Riot
- Nanfu Wang, Chinese documentary filmmaker
- Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian filmmaker
- Shahidul Alam, Bangladeshi photographer
- Tania Bruguera, Cuban performance artist
- Valsero, Cameroonian rapper
- Wanuri Kahiu, Kenyan filmmaker
- Yulia Tsvetkova, Russian visual artist.
The main interview questions included:
- Can you tell me about your development and career as an artist? As an activist? At what point did you realize these two were connected?
- When did you first experience risks, threats, harassment, persecution, etc., as a result of your creative approach? How have the threats intensified over your career as you continued to make artwork?
- How did threats/persecution affect your creative practice? How were your life and career affected?
- When threats began, please walk me through what you did to find assistance. Did you reach out to other members of the art or activist community, or elsewhere, such as human rights groups?
- If you did receive assistance from a human rights organization, can you discuss what it was like to navigate the world of human rights support as an artist? What was your experience in turning to the art community for help?
- What advice would you offer to other artists who are put at risk because of their artwork/activism for the first time?
For more about each artist, see the “Artists’ Voices” section of this manual.
Patterns of Persecution
Throughout ARC’s existence, the number of requests for assistance from at-risk artists has continuously grown. While this growth is partly due to increased awareness of ARC’s resources, we believe it is also rooted in the global rise of authoritarian, nationalist, and extremist regimes and groups that are exerting pressure on artistic freedom of expression. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated such threats.
Although artists from all over the world contact ARC for assistance, the majority come from the Global South, and from a few regions in particular. Year after year, since ARC’s inception, the most requests—42 percent—have come from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, followed by artists from Africa (19 percent), Latin America (14 percent), and Asia (11 percent), with other regions constituting the remaining 14 percent of requests. Within these regions, certain countries tend to have higher rates of violations of artistic freedom than others. For example, while many countries have only one to two artists a year who reach out for support, ARC has received 36 requests for assistance from Iranian artists, nearly 14 percent of the total number of requests. Other high numbers come from Turkey (19), Egypt (17), Cuba (15), and Yemen (11).
In terms of artist disciplines, ARC receives the most requests from visual artists (a category that encompasses anyone working in a visual medium, including painters, filmmakers, and photographers), at 38 percent, followed by writers (28 percent), musicians (13 percent), and other cultural professionals such as curators, theater directors, art scholars, and researchers (10 percent).
Requests for assistance overwhelmingly come from artists who identify as male—only 28 percent of ARC’s cases have been imperiled women—partly because male artists are more likely to self-report risk and seek assistance. Yet while female and non-gender-conforming artists make up only a small percentage of ARC’s cases, the risks they experience tend to be greater in severity and related to their gender in some capacity, which is not typical for male artists’ persecution. Furthermore, threats tend to more significantly affect artists who identify with minority groups, whether due to their gender, sexuality, language, ethnicity, religion, race, or class.
Thirty-two percent of artists who contact ARC for assistance do so because they are experiencing threats of violence, death, verbal or physical harassment, or arrest, followed in frequency by artists who have already been arrested or detained and are looking for assistance either to avoid imprisonment or to be released from prison (22 percent). Artists seeking asylum assistance and/or looking for support in exile also make up a substantial portion (13 percent) of ARC’s requests.
When ARC receives such requests, we assess the situation and level of risk and connect artists to the support they need. ARC does not provide direct services but rather refers artists to our global network of partner organizations, each of which has its own parameters for what it can provide and how many cases it can take on. Twenty-nine percent of ARC’s requests have come from artists seeking to flee threats by relocating to a safer area, either temporarily within their country or region or long-term, often to countries in the Global North. Requests for relocation tend to come alongside those for emergency grants, often to pay travel costs, or living costs after relocation. Although some urgent funds are earmarked specifically for artists, many tend to be restricted to extremely prominent artists seeking to carry out specific creative projects and are only rarely reserved for those in dire need. Instead, ARC must often connect at-risk artists to emergency grants for human rights defenders, offered by a wide range of human rights organizations around the world.
Requests for relocation and emergency grants are followed in frequency by requests for legal assistance (such as representation in a criminal case, immigration advice, and trial monitoring) and for advocacy (help with raising awareness about their situation and putting pressure on governments, institutions, or other perpetrators). More often than not, however, artists request a mix of services: They may need relocation assistance as well as funds to support them abroad, or they may need public advocacy in addition to publishing opportunities to boost visibility of their case.
After artists receive support, ARC stays in touch with them to ensure the long-term sustainability of their safety, as they often find themselves bouncing from one resource to another, their threats persistent and ongoing rather than singular, one-off experiences. Beyond direct persecution, artists often endure continuing difficulties related to psychological and emotional trauma. So lasting security often requires long-term cooperation with organizations or a combination of short-term opportunities in succession.
Section I: Defining Risk
Art is inherently political. Through creative work, artists use image, representation, metaphor, motif, and more to challenge the status quo, oppressive religious beliefs, reigning political ideologies, social and cultural norms, and moral or economic injustices. Artists don’t always make an active choice to be political; often they do so unintentionally when their work unexpectedly touches on sensitive topics. Yet engaging politics, deliberately or not, can be one of the most dangerous acts of their career. Because art has the power to move people and envision alternative, more equitable societies, artists often face significant threats from those seeking to silence them. These threats include censorship, verbal or physical harassment, assault, arrest, legal prosecution, imprisonment, torture, and even death.
Whether or not you affirmatively decide to be politically engaged and make overtly political art, it is important to understand the kinds of risks faced by artists around the world. Such awareness is crucial to knowing how and why your own work might put you at risk and will leave you better equipped to anticipate, withstand, and ultimately overcome pressure.
What Kinds of Threats Do Artists Face?
Artists can face a wide range of risks around the world. The following are the most common:
The enforced silencing of artists—by preventing them from displaying or promoting their work, forcing them to alter its content, or damaging or destroying it—is far and away the most common threat worldwide. “The State of Artistic Freedom 2020,” Freemuse, April 15, 2020. Censorship can be carried out by both state and non-state agents, through laws and regulations, corporate and commercial pressures, or force and intimidation. Many countries require artists to get licenses from a censorship board to make art. State-sponsored censorship is often carried out on such grounds as protecting national security, “Censorship and Secrecy, Social and Legal Perspectives,” MIT, 2001. controlling obscenity, “Definitions of Censorship,” PBS. regulating hate speech, “Free Speech and Regulation of Social Media Content,” Federation of American Scientists, March 27, 2019. promoting or restricting political or religious opinions, “Censorship and Secrecy, Social and Legal Perspectives,” MIT, 2001. and preventing libel. “First Amendment and Censorship,” American Library Association, October 2020. But censorship may or may not be legal, and many countries have laws that protect against it.
In the internet age, censorship on digital platforms by both private and public groups is another growing concern, as authoritarian regimes control what content is allowed online "About Democracy in the Digital Age,” Pew Research Center, February 21, 2020. and social media companies use arbitrary algorithms to remove content deemed inappropriate. See “Internet,” National Coalition Against Censorship. Furthermore, censorship begets censorship, and many countries have cultures of self-censorship, a toxic situation in which fear of censorship or retaliation leads artists to muzzle themselves. David Kaye, “Disease pandemics and the freedom of opinion and expression,” OHCHR, July 24, 2020, p. 11.
In Kenya, filmmakers are required to get approval from a censorship board before they can make and distribute their films. When Wanuri Kahiu, a world-renowned filmmaker, brought her film Rafiki to the Kenya Film Classification Board, she was asked to make a few changes. The film, about two young girls who fall in love, was viewed as too pro-LGBTQIA+ in a country where homosexuality is still criminalized. But Kahiu refused to censor her film, so it was banned. Besides a one-week release period after Kahiu appealed, and in the face of international acclaim, Rafiki has not been available in Kenya. Cobie-Ray Johnson, “Wanuri Kahiu,” Artists at Risk Connection, 2020. Read more about Kahiu’s case in the “Artists’ Voices” section.
Detention, Legal Prosecution, and Imprisonment
Detention, prosecution, and imprisonment are the second-most-frequent violations of artistic freedom. “The State of Artistic Freedom 2020,” Freemuse, April 15, 2020. Detention occurs when an artist is arrested and taken to jail but has not yet been charged with a crime. As soon as an artist is indicted for a crime, prosecution begins. Artists who are successfully prosecuted and convicted may be sentenced to prison or face some other punishment. Artists can be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for a wide variety of reasons. Often such actions are politically motivated, but sometimes they are legitimized under existing statutes and laws. To understand what kind of laws you could be prosecuted under, see “Knowing Your Country’s Laws.”
Egypt is one of the world’s most frequent jailers of artists and writers. "Freedom to Write Index 2019," PEN America. One of the most common tactics used by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government to silence artists and other dissidents is pretrial detention, which allows detainees who have been arrested, but have not been formally charged or undergone trial, to remain in custody for up to two years—a limit that is often violated. “60+ Organizations Call for Release of All Artists, Writers, and Journalists in Pre-Trial Detention in Egypt,” Artists at Risk Connection, 2020. On May 2, 2020, after spending 793 days in pretrial detention for filming a music video that was critical of el-Sisi, 24-year-old filmmaker Shady Habash died in jail. Declan Walsh, “Filmmaker Who Mocked Egypt’s President Dies in Prison,” The New York Times, May 2, 2020. Not long after, a friend, film editor Sanaa Seif, was also placed in pretrial detention. Her brother, prominent activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, was already behind bars in pretrial detention at the time. “World renowned actors, filmmakers, and writers call on Egypt to release Sanaa Seif,” Artists at Risk Connection, August 4, 2020.
Harassment, Violence, and Assault
Artists around the world can face generalized harassment, including physical violence and assault; online abuse; verbal hate speech or threats carried out in person, by phone, or on digital platforms; physical assault such as beatings, police raids, or damage to facilities and equipment; state violence, including torture; and even killings or death sentences.
Sanctions and Fines
Artists are frequently subject to fines and sanctions, which act as a sort of extension of censorship. Governments try to force artists to be silent by levying heavy fees against them for a wide range of reasons, from violating minor laws and committing petty infractions to imposing sentences related to criminal or civil prosecution. Polina Sadovskaya, “Kirill Serebrennikov,” Artists at Risk Connection, e.g.
State persecution often goes hand in hand with travel bans. When a state seeks to criminalize an artist, it will often place them under a travel ban or even house arrest for the duration of their court case—and longer still if they are handed a conviction. These tactics are meant to constrain an artist’s ability to spread their work across borders and cultures, seek safety in a third country, and meaningfully advance their career through international opportunities.
In Russia, travel bans are frequently used against artists currently on trial or under investigation. In 2017 Kirill Serebrennikov, a prolific Russian playwright and theater director, was detained and charged with embezzling 68 million rubles, a politically motivated and spurious allegation meant to silence a prominent critic of Putin’s regime. He was placed under house arrest from August 2017 to April 2019, when he was released on bail. On June 26, 2020, he was convicted and received a suspended sentence, and although the case has now concluded, he remains unable to leave Russia, causing lasting damage to his ability to engage foreign arts institutions and communities. Sadovskaya, Artists at Risk Connection.
Who Is Most Vulnerable To Threats?
While any artist can be put at risk for their work, certain factors increase the likelihood that this will occur. Women, LGBTQIA+ people, those with disabilities, seniors, migrants or refugees, and members of religious, ethnic, or linguistic minorities often find themselves at heightened risk of repression, as do artists in the world’s most restrictive regions.
Women and LGBTQIA+ People
Though male artists tend to make up more documented cases of risk, women and non-gender-conforming artists face a greater range of threats related to their gender than their male colleagues. ARC Case Data. Also see ““Safety Guide for Journalists,” Reporters Without Borders, 2015, p. 14. This occurs for a variety of reasons, including orthodoxies and regulations about gender and sexuality, regressive social attitudes toward women, and heightened risks of sexual violence. The same holds true for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Even if their work is not explicitly related to their sexuality or gender, hostile attitudes and biases toward these groups place them at inherently higher risk.
Russian feminist artist and activist Yulia Tsvetkova is currently on trial for disseminating pornography, a charge that could land her in prison for up to six years. Her only crime was making pro-LGBTQIA+ and body-positive artwork. After creating two social media webpages that displayed work by feminist artists, some of which included frank depictions of female genitalia, Tsvetkova was arrested in November 2019 and charged in January 2020. In a society in which “gay propaganda” is outlawed and in which homophobia and misogyny are rampant, Tsvetkova’s case was largely seen as punishment for raising taboo subjects. Annie Kiyonaga, “Yulia Tsvetkova,” Artists at Risk Connection, June 2020.
Minorities or Underrepresented Groups
Sometimes merely being a member of a minority or underrepresented group can lead to persecution. Kurds in Turkey and Iran, “Cultural policy effects on freedom of the arts in Turkey,” Index on Censorship, February 13, 2014. Tamils in Sri Lanka, See “Tamils,” Minority Rights Group International. Rohingya in Myanmar, See “Rohingya emergency,” UNHCR. Palestinians in Israel or occupied Palestine, See “Palestine,” Minority Rights Group International. and Uyghurs, Allisen Lichtenstein, “Xinjiang: The Free Expression Catastrophe You Probably Haven’t Heard Of,” PEN America, August 17, 2018. Tibetans, Tsering Woeser, “Tibet on Fire: Self-Immolation Against Chinese Rule,” PEN America, December 30, 2015. and Hui Ibid. in China are among the ethnic and religious minorities, stateless groups, unrecognized people, or otherwise minoritized groups that face persecution.
In the name of combating “Islamist extremism,” the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has turned Xinjiang, an autonomous region in western China, into a police state, where those who publicly express their ethnic identity are marked as potential enemies of the state. Uygher people, a Turkic, Muslim-majority group that makes up about half of the region’s population, are especially vulnerable. According to estimates, more than a million Uyghers are believed to have been detained in “reeducation camps” for “deradicalization.” Lichtenstein. Detainees are not given a trial, a lawyer, or any semblance of due process. Even more shocking, Uyghurs and others are sent to the camps for everyday expressions of their culture or faith. Artists who in any way express Uygher cultural identity—or artists who simply are Uygher—are often detained. Rashida Dawut, a celebrated Uygher singer, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for alleged “separatism” in a secret trial in late 2019, “Prison Sentence for Uyghur Singer Part of China’s Efforts to Eradicate Uyghur Culture,” PEN America, March 27, 2020. and countless Uygher artists, poets, and activists have been similarly persecuted.
Artists From Certain Regions
Artists around the world face risks, but some regions violate artistic freedom more regularly and brutally than others. While some of this variation can be attributed to discrepancies like a lack of reporting or lack of civil society support, it is nevertheless important to recognize that certain threats tend to occur at higher rates in certain regions. The MENA region consistently ranks as one of the highest violators of artistic freedom across a number of metrics, followed by Asia and Europe as the second- and third-most-risky places for artists. See ARC data on types of assistance requested by region from 2018-2020 in “Patterns of Persecution.”
But regional differences shift depending on the specifics. For instance, Europe is one of the most common places for threats based on minority backgrounds. Freemuse 18. And in 2019, the majority of imprisoned writers—141 out of 238 cases—were in just three countries: China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. "Freedom to Write Index 2019," PEN America.
Belarus is often labeled the “last dictatorship in Europe.” Its government exerts widespread control over the cultural sphere, supporting official programs that serve its ideological needs and cutting off funding for those that don’t. In early 2020, numerous activists and writers were tried for participating in demonstrations calling for independence from Russia’s influence. Polina Sadovskaya, “Belarus Approaches Another Undemocratic Election, as Arts and Culture Remains Underground,” PEN America, July 27, 2020. Following massive protests in the wake of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko’s reelection in August 2020—an election widely viewed as rigged—writers, members of PEN Belarus, “PEN America Calls for the Immediate Release of PEN Belarus Members and Employees,” PEN America, September 8, 2020. members of the art collective Belarus Free Theater, “PEN America Demands Release of Three Belarusian Theater Company Members,” PEN America, August 11, 2020. and countless other dissident artists have felt the brunt of the government crackdown, facing arrest and detention. “PEN America Deeply Alarmed Over Belarus Election Crackdown,” PEN America, August 10, 2020.
Where Are Threats Most Likely to Come From?
Threats can come from a variety of sources. The most common are states and state entities, Freemuse, ARC Data. while non-state groups, corporate or commercial entities, and other sources also present risks.
State groups, including governments, heads of state, politicians, police, and the military, are by far the most likely entities to persecute artists, who are frequently imprisoned for criticizing government policies and practices. According to data from ARC’s 2018 survey, state agents are by far the most likely group to persecute artists, with 70% of those surveyed indicating that the government was the primary perpetrator, and 32% citing police. Also see Freemuse 13. Artists whose work directly engages political or social issues should prepare for possible retaliation. Those who criticize heads of state are frequently prosecuted for criminal defamation and sued for libel, even if the criticism is valid or warranted. But “apolitical” art can also pose a threat to the status quo, and artists should always be prepared for the possibility of state persecution, including by familiarizing themselves with laws used against artists, as outlined below.
Valsero, one of the most popular musicians in Cameroon, is known for politically tinged rap songs that call for greater accountability and transparency from President Paul Biya’s administration and that strive to spread awareness of civil and political rights. Biya, who has ruled since 1982, has maintained power through decades of intimidation and force, and his regime has taken countless measures to curtail freedom of expression. Over the years, Valsero has been detained a number of times by Cameroonian police forces, and many of his concerts have been banned. On January 26, 2019, he was arrested on the outskirts of a demonstration protesting the previous year’s presidential election, which many Cameroonians saw as rigged to favor Biya. He spent nine months in jail, awaiting trial for charges that carried punishment as severe as the death penalty, until he was eventually released. Anna Schultz, “Valsero,” Artists at Risk Connection, October 2019. For more information on Valsero’s case, see the “Artists’ Voices” section of this guide.
Non-state agents such as terrorist and extremist groups, paramilitaries, organized crime, religious fundamentalists, and online trolls and hackers have also persecuted artists. Those whose work pushes against orthodoxies may be more likely to experience the wrath of non-state agents if they live in especially conservative or traditional societies. Similarly, artists in conflict zones may face backlash from armed or extremist groups, and in such cases the availability of traditional legal recourse can be slim. Trolls and hackers may seek to harass artists online or compromise their digital security. Artists can also face attacks from family members, neighbors, and other artists within their own communities.
Sharmila Seyyid, an internationally acclaimed novelist and activist from Sri Lanka, has dedicated her life to advancing gender equality and fighting extremism within her Muslim community. In November 2012, after an interview on BBC Tamil in which she said that legalizing sex work would better protect workers, Seyyid rapidly became a target of vitriolic criticism, harassment, and death threats from religious fundamentalists. Since then, she and her family have faced incessant attacks, including threats of acid assaults and rape. Not long after the BBC interview, the English academy that she ran with her sister was vandalized. In 2019, authorities notified Seyyid that she was a target of National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NDJ), a militant Islamist group responsible for bombings that took place on Easter Sunday in 2019, forcing her to go into exile. Mabel Acosta, “Sharmila Seyyid,” Artists at Risk Connection, May 2020.
Corporate or Commercial Entities
Corporate or commercial entities often censor broadcasters, publishers, communications companies, and other media that have political or social agendas. Shaheed 10. They may also target or harass artists. Broadcasters and media companies that are de facto mouthpieces for the government sometimes use their megaphones to spread disinformation or launch smear campaigns against artists.
Social media platforms present both opportunities and risks for artists, enabling them to amplify their messages while also leaving them vulnerable to persecution. These platforms are among the most common forums for harassment, as trolls and other hostile groups can easily single out artists with vitriolic or threatening speech. Online Harassment Field Manual, PEN America. Artists also face internal censorship, as vague content regulation mechanisms based on “standards of behavior” are open to interpretation, especially regarding hot-button subjects like terrorism and nudity. “The Weekly Takedown,” Online Censorship, November 30, 2016. Women, queer, and transgender artists in particular have fallen prey to such content controls. “Censored Artists and their Stories”, National Coalition Against Censorship.
Knowing Your Country’s Laws
Artists in any situation, regardless of whether they anticipate risk, can benefit from a comprehensive understanding of their country’s speech laws or other legislation that is used against artists.
Logically, laws that regulate speech or expression are most likely to be used against artists thought to have crossed a line, so staying informed about the general climate and current status of free speech and expression is crucial to practicing your art safely. But artists can also be prosecuted under laws with seemingly no connection to art and expression. Laws to pay attention to, if they exist in your country, include, but are not limited to:
Laws Regulating Speech
Many countries have laws that regulate varying forms of speech and expression. These laws usually center on defamation and libel, “Defamation, Libel and Slander: What are my Rights to Free Expression?” Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, June 15, 2015. disinformation, Lian Buan, “Bayanihan Act's sanction vs 'false' info the 'most dangerous',” Rappler, March 29, 2020 and “Egypt sentences activist for 'spreading fake news',” BBC, September 29, 2018, e.g. cybercrime, “Thailand: Cyber Crime Act Tightens Internet Control,” Human Rights Watch, December 21, 2016, e.g. online speech, Brad Adams, “Bangladesh’s draconian Internet law treats peaceful critics as criminals,” Human Rights Watch, July 19, 2019, e.g. and broadcasting and telecommunications. “Burma: Letter on Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law,” Human Rights Watch, May 10, 2017, e.g. Speech-related laws are frequently used to criminalize artists for both the content of their work and the views they express. Artists working in countries that deploy such tactics should be especially wary of airing opinions on social media and in other digital spaces.
In Bangladesh, the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA)—formerly the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT)—is frequently used to criminalize online dissent. With its vague definitions and heavily punishable, non-bailable offenses, the act gives Bangladeshi authorities unprecedentedly wide purview to crack down on freedom of expression and launch investigations into anyone whose activities and/or online speech is deemed harmful or threatening. Under the DSA and former ICT, thousands of Bangladeshi artists, journalists, and activists have been arrested. “Bangladesh: New Digital Security Act is attack on freedom of expression,” Amnesty International, November 12, 2018.
Along with legislation that regulates speech and expression, governments increasingly turn to anti-terrorism laws to crack down on artists. At least eight countries have used anti-terrorism and/or anti-extremism legislation against artists. Freemuse 17. In over half of such prosecutions, the artists belonged to a minority group. Ibid.
In Turkey, almost any action related to Kurdish identity or language runs the risk of being criminalized under counterterrorism regulations. “Cultural policy effects on freedom of the arts in Turkey,” Index on Censorship, February 13, 2014. When artists represent Kurdish life in their work, the government often invokes the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant separatist group, branding them as terrorists even if their art in no way advocates violence or even addresses the political status of Kurds. Zehra Doğan, an influential journalist and artist, was sentenced to prison for terrorism after painting a scene based on a photograph of Turkish troops leveling a Kurdish town. Ben Ballard, “Zehra Doğan,” Artists at Risk Connection, August 2017. Likewise, members of Grup Yorum, a musical collective that often advocates for Kurdish rights and uses the Kurdish language in its songs, have been perennially arrested and convicted under trumped-up terrorism charges. Revantika Gupta, “Grup Yorum,” Artists at Risk Connection, November 2019.
Another form of legislation that’s commonly used to target artists is entertainment control acts. In their most drastic form, these laws exist in countries with state censorship apparatuses, such as China “China Media Bulletin: China’s Growing Cyber Power, Entertainment Crackdown, South Africa Censorship”, Freedom House. and Iran. Unveiled: Art and Censorship in Iran, Article 19, September 2006. In these countries, anyone who hopes to create something that could qualify as entertainment—pretty much anything in the cultural sphere, including films, TV, songs, and books—must first submit it to a censorship board, which grants licenses to release the work. If the board deems the content inappropriate or not in line with state narratives, it will withhold the licenses, and if artists circumvent such licenses and make their art anyway, they may face severe threats like imprisonment.
Decree 349 in Cuba, enacted in 2018, institutionalizes and expands limits on creative expression. The decree criminalizes unregistered artistic labor, granting authorities wide remit to censor and constrain artists’ activities. Under Decree 349, there has been an immense uptick in the censorship, harassment, and arrest of independent artists in Cuba. “Art under Pressure: Decree 349 Restricts Creative Freedom in Cuba,” Artists at Risk Connection & Cubalex, March 4, 2019. Since 2017 Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, an esteemed performance and street artist, has been arrested at least 21 times, frequently as a direct result of his outspoken criticism of the decree. Annie Kiyonaga, “Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara,” Artists at Risk Connection, April 2020.
As outlandish as it may seem, in some countries artists may find themselves accused of violating national security laws merely for making art. See “Sentencing of Chinese Political Cartoonist Jiang Yefei and Activist Dong Guangping is the Unjust Result of an Unjust Process,” July 27, 2018, and “Nasrin Sotoudeh,” PEN America. In countries with hard-line governments, artists who are seen as promoting agendas that pose a threat to a ruling regime or endorsing the cultural mores of a country deemed an enemy of the state may be prosecuted under draconian national security laws. See “Aras Amiri Tried to Educate British People About Iranian Culture. Now She’s Serving a 10-Year Prison Sentence in Iran,” Center for Human Rights in Iran, November 16, 2019. In the latter case, artists may be accused of using foreign cultures to dismantle the state, posing a danger to society. Convictions under national security laws can carry some of the most hefty prison terms of any on this list.
In Hong Kong, after months of historic pro-democracy protests against China’s encroaching influence on the semi-autonomous island, Chinese officials rushed a national security law through the legislature. The law, which criminalizes acts of protest against Beijing and severely weakens guarantees of freedom of expression within the city on vaguely defined “national security” grounds, has ignited widespread fears that Hong Kongers’ civic freedoms are being erased. “Hong Kong’s national security law: 10 things you need to know,” Amnesty International, July 12, 2020. In the weeks after it was passed, prominent artists, writers, publishers, and activists have been arrested or forced into exile, See “Hong Kong Activist Arrested Hours After PEN America Event,” PEN America, September 24, 2020 and “Serious concerns over arrest of media publisher and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai,” PEN International, August 11, 2020, e.g. as their pro-democracy work is now considered a threat to China’s national security.
Performance artists and musicians, whose work often incorporates or occupies public spaces, can be especially vulnerable to charges of hooliganism Shaheed 8. or vandalism. Baha’ Ebdeir, “Taeyong Jeong,” Artists at Risk Connection, April 2019, e.g. Obscenity “Ahmed Naji,” PEN America, e.g. and blasphemy “Joint Statement on the Conviction and Death Sentence of Nigerian Singer Yahaya Sharif Aminu,” Artists at Risk Connection,” August 14, 2020, e.g. laws are also frequently used to criminalize artists. Similarly, when a government truly wants to silence artists or activists, a common tactic is to accuse them of economic crimes, such as spurious tax- or embezzlement-related charges. See “Ai Weiwei” or “Kirill Serebrennikov,” PEN America. To guard against such treatment, it is crucial for artists to maintain financial security and legitimacy. When trouble arises, an error in your finances might be the reason a government that dislikes you is able to put you behind bars. For more on financial security, see “Preparing for Risk.”
Ultimately, laws are ever-changing, as are those in power, so it’s impossible to give comprehensive recommendations that apply across the globe. Instead, we suggest staying up to date on your country’s attitudes toward freedom of expression. To keep track of laws that might pose a threat to your artistic practice, you should familiarize yourself with organizations that maintain detailed, annual country reports, such as Freedom House, Freemuse, and Human Rights Watch.
Whether or not you actively criticize the government or call for social change in a hostile environment, there is a wide range of scenarios that could endanger your well-being. To prepare for them, it is essential to understand and assess the types of threats that you might encounter. Hopefully those threats never materialize, but knowing what they look like is crucial to effectively and safely navigating them if they do.
Section II: Preparing for Risk
Whether or not you think you will be put at risk because of your practice, there are other important preemptive steps you can take, including minimizing your visibility as a target, setting up a plan and support network, and ensuring your financial security.
Avoid Making Yourself a Target
One of the simplest ways to minimize risk is to prevent yourself from becoming a target. “Don’t Let Yourself Get Involved in a Cyber Attack: Tips & Tricks,” National Home Security Alliance. Following certain steps and protocols can lessen the likelihood that your artistic practice reaches the attention of hostile forces. Steps as simple as making your social media profiles private, curating the content that you show in public, and restricting your audience can give you some control over who engages with your art, helping you to avoid the wrong people.
Unfortunately, reducing your visibility or going dark online could have profoundly debilitating effects on your career and income. This dilemma can be stark and painful: Keep working at the same level of scrutiny and you might face serious risk; lower your profile and your practice might suffer. Self-censorship inhibits many artists around the world. Instead of self-censoring for fear of retaliation, consider entering a “dormancy” period, staying below the radar for a limited amount of time. Such decisions require careful calculations, weighing the shortest possible time you might need to go quiet against the longest possible time you can stay safe without compromising your work.
In the end, most artists simply follow their instincts. If something gives you pause, don’t ignore that feeling. Ask yourself: Why does this make me uneasy? What about this artistic endeavor might be endangering my work or safety? If your gut is telling you that you might be putting yourself in a sticky situation, your gut is probably right. That said, even in situations that don’t seem excessively risky, preparations never hurt.
If you reach the conclusion that reducing the visibility of your work alone cannot avoid making you a target, you can instead prepare for potential repercussions, deciding in advance and in some detail on the most effective ways to navigate and, ultimately, counter them.
Setting Up a Support Network
The experience of persecution can be not just risky but also isolating. One of the most important steps you can take to protect your mental and physical well-being is to establish a wide, diverse, and supportive community of peers.
If you are about to release or promote work that you believe could attract dangerous attention, you should notify this support network to make sure that it’s ready and able to respond. Support networks can be deployed to counter hateful speech online, “Finding Supportive Cyber Communities,” Online Harassment Field Manual, PEN America. to provide safe shelter, or to raise awareness about your case in your stead if you have been detained or kidnapped.
Developing a support network is a process that is completely within your control, and it can help you feel empowered and encouraged. Identifying and building a community of friends, colleagues, and like-minded professionals in your field who will stand in solidarity with you—people you can trust and reliably turn to for assistance—can give you peace of mind during calmer times and defend you if trouble arises. “A Safety Manual for Political Cartoonists in Trouble,” CRNI, 2016, p. 6.
Beyond your immediate network, having a number of international organizations, including human rights, free expression, and artistic-freedom groups, available to turn to as part of your network is of critical importance. You do not necessarily need strong personal relationships with these organizations, although, whenever possible we encourage fostering such relationships; merely having an array of organizations that can advocate for you, as well as direct contact information for each of them, must be a part of an artist’s toolbox. Ibid.
It is crucial to be able to easily communicate with your network once risk erupts. Many artists send simple messages notifying their contacts when they are attacked, arrested, or imprisoned. You should be able to easily and quickly reach them through a variety of communication channels, which should be as secure as possible. We recommend making sure that everyone in your network has encrypted messaging or email platforms (see the “Digital Safety” section for more specific recommendations). In urgent situations, such channels can include private messages on social media and email listservs that allow you to blast large numbers of people at once. You should also be able to quickly blast messages to the international organizations, or facilitate a way for your direct network of peers to do so, making the organizations immediately aware of your situation so they can dispatch aid.
Making a Plan
With your support network, you should develop an action plan “Protection of Editorial Cartoonists,” Cartooning for Peace, 2019, p. 39, e.g. to quickly and collectively respond to threats. Because no one knows more about your case than you, you must be prepared to be the locus and leader of this plan. At the same time, you must implement processes for your network to take action on your behalf in the event that you are detained or otherwise unavailable to take action.
Your plan might change over time as your adversaries and their tactics change. You must be flexible and make sure that everyone in your network knows about these changes as they happen.
When developing a plan, the first step is usually engaging your most intimate network: your family and attorney. CRNI 7. Sit down with them and evaluate your strengths and weaknesses and the resources at your disposal. Next you should evaluate your wider network, including peers, colleagues, like-minded professionals, and international organizations, to identify their assets and strengths. Each one can likely contribute something unique to your plan of action—a journalist friend might be able to cover your story, a peer might have studio space where you can store your artwork for safekeeping, an organization might have access to a safe house or urgent funds.
Most importantly, you should plan ahead. If you are about to, for example, share something online, release a song, or unveil a work of art that you know might put you at risk, contact your support network beforehand and make action plans to prepare for a number of outcomes.
Such plans should address:
- Your safety and security:
- If you are put at risk, what steps can your network take to keep you safe?
- Can your network provide safe housing or temporary shelter?
- Your family’s safety and security:
- If you are put at risk, what steps can your network take to keep your family safe?
- Will your family be vocal about your case, and if so, how can they prepare for risk themselves?
- Can your network provide a temporary or long-term safe haven and shelter to your family?
- Your legal security and plan:
- If you are placed at risk of legal threats, such as arrest or imprisonment, do you have legal counsel?
- Can your support network mobilize legal support, including fundraising?
- Can your support network be mobilized to help you post bail?
- If you are taken to jail, does your network have a plan for how to reach you, share information about your case, and ensure your physical safety?
Preparing with Your Lawyer
When making a plan, it is crucial to consult an attorney or legal expert. While not everyone has access to legal representation, a number of organizations offer pro bono services, and countless online sources can educate you on your rights in your country and under international law. A lawyer will be able to identify areas of the law that can be invoked to protect you from those who threaten you. If you are arrested, it is vital to have an attorney at hand to help you navigate the logistical realities of posting bail, ensuring your due process rights, and being represented throughout the criminal process. Integrating an attorney’s expertise into your action plan will help ensure that you know your rights, know your country’s laws, and know the legal recourse available to you. You should also discuss immigration possibilities with your lawyer, in case you need to obtain proper documentation and flee the country.
As noted previously, when a government wants to silence artists or dissidents, the first place it will often turn to is their finances. Martin Luther King Jr. was targeted for tax-related crimes, Kelly Phillips Erb, “Why Justice Matters: The Income Tax Trial Of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Forbes, January 15, 2018. which eventually proved spurious, as a pretext for imprisoning him on grounds unrelated to his civil rights actions. More recently, Kirill Serebrennikov, a Russian theater director, was charged with embezzling money from his theater company. Sadovskaya, Artists at Risk Connection. He was ultimately convicted of this obviously false charge, and though his sentence—a fine, probation, and a three-year ban on leading any state-backed cultural institution—was lighter than expected, it was seen by some as a warning meant to chill others who contemplated cultural expression that could anger the powers that be. When the chips are down, financial crimes are some of the easiest for hostile governments to pursue.
Ai Weiwei, one of the world’s most prominent political artists, was arrested by Chinese authorities in April 2011 and held for 81 days without charges. He was and remains an outspoken critic of the Communist Party of China and has conducted extensive research into government corruption and human rights violations. Despite a lack of charges, officials eventually hinted at “economic crimes,” a tactic often used by governments to silence critics by going after their finances—claiming infractions like tax evasion and fraud—instead of directly targeting their human rights activities. “Ai Weiwei,” PEN America.
ARC is not able to give financial advice, but we recommend taking action to ensure that, if a government wants to silence you, it cannot go after your finances.
Steps we recommend include:
- speaking to a financial adviser
- familiarizing yourself with your country’s tax laws and making sure you are paying all applicable taxes
- keeping accurate, detailed, and consistent records of all financial transactions and expenses, especially those related to your artistic practice.
While an escape plan should typically be activated only as a last resort, you and your network should prepare for any eventuality. If truly severe threats occur, you may be forced to go into hiding or flee your city, region, or country altogether, even if that means giving up some of your power as a voice of dissent and driver of change. When such drastic measures are required, having a plan already in place is crucial.
In drafting an escape plan with your network, be sure to address the following questions:
- If staying in your country is safe, can someone in your network offer you safe housing in your city, in your region, or elsewhere in the country? How can you get from your location to the safe house swiftly and without being identified? What do you need from your network to make this plan a reality, and how can you activate it while making sure to, in turn, protect your network?
- If staying in the country is not safe, can anyone in your network offer you safe housing elsewhere in your region of the world?
- If you need to flee the country, do you have all the proper documentation? Any escape plan should factor in which countries you can travel to without a visa and which ones require visas.
- Speak to your attorney about acquiring necessary documentation.
- If you anticipate needing to flee the country and wish to go somewhere that requires a visa for entry, you should arrange for this visa beforehand, as the process of obtaining one can take a while.
- If you intend to relocate for a long time but not permanently, make sure that your documents will not expire while you are abroad.
- If you have to flee to another country, which ones are safest? Do any countries have relationships with your country’s government that would allow them to extradite you?
- If you have to flee to another country, can you go someplace where you speak the language?
- Can an organization or host institution provide you with safe housing in your region or another country?
- How will you sustain yourself once you are in hiding? Can your network support you, or will you need to withdraw savings or apply for urgent funding?
- How long will your escape last for? Do you plan on returning, or relocating permanently? If the latter, do you need to consider seeking political asylum?
- Does your family also need to escape? If so, how can they do so safely? All the aforementioned questions will necessarily apply to family members looking to escape as well.
To ensure that your escape can be executed swiftly and safely, each of these questions should be discussed at length, thoroughly, and well in advance of any anticipated risk with your family, support network, and attorney.
You Can Never Be Too Prepared
There are countless further steps that artists should take to prepare for risk. But in short, you can never be too prepared. If you fear there’s a chance—even a remote one—that you might be put at risk, you should take all steps necessary to prepare for all possibilities, from the lowest to the highest threat. This way, no matter what happens, you will have a foundation to help you react. Support networks and action plans are two of the fundamental ways to lay this foundation and feel that you are ready and not alone when trouble arises. If you are ever looking for advice on how to prepare and/or want to make connections to help lay the groundwork for a contingency plan, you can contact ARC through our website.
Section III: Digital Safety
New digital technologies are transforming the art world. Social media and music streaming channels are becoming the platforms on which artists publicly display and promote their work. But these platforms have also generated an array of threats to artists’ rights and freedom of expression. Such threats can come from a variety of sources—state governments seeking to surveil and censor online spaces, abusive trolls seeking to intimidate artists into silence and self-censorship, hackers seeking to undermine or breach artists’ content and data, and more. One of the most effective things you can do to mitigate and prevent risk is to bolster your cybersecurity practices.
A large and growing number of ARC’s cases concern digital safety, and many requests for urgent assistance deal with some sort of online harassment. In 2017, PEN America conducted a survey of over 230 journalists and writers in the United States and found that 67 percent of respondents had reacted severely to being targeted by online harassment—refraining from publishing their work, permanently deleting their social media accounts, fearing for their safety or the safety of their loved ones. In authoritarian countries, many artists and writers are frequently surveilled or attacked online by state agents and have had speech or online content, sometimes from their personal social media accounts, used against them in courts of law. Online harassment and security breaches can come in so many shapes and sizes, and via so many different mediums and platforms, that merely contemplating how to prepare for them can feel overwhelming. But being proactive is infinitely more effective than being reactive. The following section will provide tips, guidelines, and best practices for protecting yourself and your personal information from hacking, doxing, impersonation, and other forms of online harassment.
Because ARC does not specialize in digital security, and because there are far more comprehensive resources that offer specific recommendations, the steps outlined in this section are intentionally broad. Cybersecurity is such a dynamic and nuanced topic that platforms that are safe for an artist in one country or at one time may be dangerous for an artist in another country or at another time. For specific and continually updated recommendations and information, we suggest looking at the “Further Resources” section below.
Establishing secure passwords is a simple yet crucial first step for protecting yourself online.
- Use a password manager to create and store passwords. To access your password manager, you will need to create a long and unique password. If you feel you are being targeted by a government or you feel you are at risk of being detained then you should regularly log out of your password manager as you would your other accounts.
- A strong password, like those generated by a password manager, ideally has at least 16 characters and contains a mix of upper- and lowercase letters, symbols, and numbers.
- Avoid using personal data, such as your date of birth or address, in your passwords. This information can easily be found on social media and online databases.
- Do not reuse passwords—create a unique password for each individual account.
- If you feel that you are being targeted by a government or that you are at risk of being detained, you should regularly log out of your password manager as you would your other accounts.
- Using security questions is another important way to protect yourself from breaches to your accounts, but it is important to pick difficult questions and answers that aren’t searchable on Google. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recommends using a fictional or randomly generated answer in response to these questions.
Don’t forget all the different accounts out there! Email, social media, banking, household expenses like electric and heating, credit cards, health insurance, television and movie subscriptions, and memberships are just some of the online accounts you might have. Keep in mind: Even if the account itself is not that important to you, if it is breached, your private data (home address, credit card, etc.) could be exposed. If you have accounts that you no longer use, you should take steps to delete them, but remember to erase your personal information from the account first.
Turn on multifactor authentication (also known as two-step verification) whenever possible. This extra layer of security will help protect your accounts if your password has been compromised. There are three types of multifactor authentication:
- Provide your cell phone number and get text messages with access codes
- Download and install an authenticator app, which randomly generates secure codes
- Get a physical security key.
Any form of multifactor authentication is better than none. But if your threat comes from a government or a group with sophisticated tech capacity, we recommend using authenticator apps and physical security keys. These methods are more secure than text-message-based authentication, offering stronger protection against a phenomenon called SIM hijacking (see more information below).
Establishing a secure email account is crucial for protecting yourself from privacy breaches, unsolicited or threatening messages, and surveillance by state- or non-state agents.
Account Management and Security
- Choose your email address carefully. While many or even most people use email addresses that contain identifying information for business and commercial purposes, we strongly advise that artists aim for an address that does not reveal identifying information, like your name, ethnicity, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, location, place of employment, or interests.
- Use a password manager and turn on multifactor authentication.
- Keep your personal and professional emails separate. If you use a specific email address for professional purposes, use a different one to communicate with friends and loved ones. (Ideally, you would also have a third email for things like e-commerce, services, newsletters, etc.)
- If you need to send messages containing sensitive information, whether personal or professional, consider sending them instead via Signal, an end-to-end encrypted messaging app.
Handling Email Harassment
- Beware of spam and phishing. Think carefully before opening unexpected or unsolicited emails. Try to verify the identity of the sender via another channel, such as a website. Use the Preview option to view attached documents within the email instead of clicking on them or downloading them to your device.
- Ask your workplace, university, or volunteer affiliations not to publish your contact info in their online directories or on their “about” pages, to protect your email address from circulating and attracting unsolicited inquiries or spam.
- If you receive an abusive or threatening email, it is best not to respond to or engage with the attacker in any way.
- Screenshot or archive threatening messages to document them in case future threats appear, but do not forward the email—if you need to share it, copy and paste the content instead. Forwarding the email might cause you to lose important routing data encoded in the original email that law enforcement may require later on.
- If the behavior persists, you can report the sender to the platform that the email was sent from as well as where it was received, if different.
- To prevent future emails, block the sender by following platform-specific guidelines or set up an email filter in the settings of your email account. The filter will redirect the abusive emails to a spam folder or alternate email account. However, it is important to periodically monitor filtered emails for threats or escalation; if this feels too painful or scary, consider asking a trusted ally to help.
People can learn a lot about you just by looking at your social media accounts. The following steps help ensure that as much of your private or sensitive information as possible is protected and visible only to those you know and trust. These precautions are especially relevant today, as artists increasingly turn to social media platforms to promote their work.
Be strategic about which platforms you use for which purposes:
- Separate your work accounts from your personal account. Avoid mixing personal and professional content in one place so that if an account is breached, the attacker will gain access to information from only one area of your life instead of all of it.
- If you’re using a platform for personal reasons (like sharing photos with friends and family on Facebook or Instagram), review your privacy settings and check who is able to see your posts. If you’re using a platform for professional reasons (such as displaying and promoting your work), you may decide to leave some of the settings public—in which case, avoid including sensitive personal information and images that can be used to verify your identity or locate you, including your birthday, cell number, location, home address, and family members’ names and photos.
Pay close attention to privacy settings and select the most restrictive ones that you’re comfortable with. There are, of course, trade-offs––tightening privacy settings can impair audience engagement and reach. Keeping your profiles private ensures that your activity can be viewed only by people you’ve allowed to “friend,” “follow,” or “connect” with you, preventing strangers from accessing your profile simply by Googling your name. Ultimately, you’ll need to find the right balance that works for you.
Whenever possible, choose user names that do not reveal any identifying information about your name, ethnicity, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, location, place of employment, or interests, and don’t use your email address as your user name. Make sure that basic account info such as your bio, which may be visible to non-followers even if your account is private, does not contain sensitive or private information.
Internet Connections and Public Computer Use
Accessing your accounts from public devices, or using your own devices on public or insecure internet networks, can heighten the risk of breaches of your personal data and account info. It is important to understand the risks posed by public devices and networks and to protect yourself accordingly if you ever need to use them.
- When using your phone, tablet, or laptop in public, avoid connecting to free or public Wi-Fi sources, as these connections can be monitored. If you do connect, avoid accessing sites that hold a lot of your personal information, such as banking websites. Ensure that you only visit websites that are encrypted––look for the padlock symbol in the top left of the browser.
- Protect your online browsing on public Wi-Fi by using a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN will change your internet protocol (IP) address so it appears that you are navigating the internet from a different country. Be aware that the VPN company may be logging your browsing history, so you should choose a service that is not located in your own country and has transparent processes about what it is doing with your data.
- Try to avoid using public computers located in an internet café, hotel, library, or government building. Such devices may be being monitored and/or are infected with malware. If you need to use a public computer, avoid logging into personal accounts, such as your email, and ensure that you clear your browsing history when you’re finished. If you do need to log into an account, make sure you log out of it and all services associated with it, and clear your browsing history. Do not save passwords on shared computers. Do not leave the computer unattended while logged into your accounts.
Securing the information and correspondence that you store on your mobile phone is crucial for protecting yourself from breaches, hacks, and threats.
Securing Your Phone
- Always keep your phone locked with a pass code to prevent others from accessing your information in the event that your phone is lost or stolen. Aim for a pass code that is long and complex (at least 6 characters, but at least 10 if you are concerned about state surveillance), avoiding recognizable phrases or the repetition of numbers. Avoid using pattern-recognition pass codes, as patterns can often be easily seen by holding the phone screen up to the light. Think carefully about using biometrics (fingerprints, facial recognition, etc.) as an option to open your device. While such functions add convenience, they can give people easier access to your device, for example at border crossings.
- Keep your cell phone’s operating system up to date. Updates can protect your phone and the data it holds from newly discovered bugs and potential security threats. You can check to see if your phone’s operating system is up-to-date in the phone’s general settings, usually under System Updates or General Updates. Make sure that apps are also regularly updated.
- Disable geolocation tracking, commonly called Location Services, wherever possible in the settings on your phone and in individual apps. Disable location tracking in the settings on social media platforms as well, to ensure that you are not publicly broadcasting your location on social media.
- Keep in mind, however, that your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can also project location data when they are on, so if you’re seriously concerned about being surveilled or revealing your physical location, you may need to turn off location tracking, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.
- Be sure to stay alert when downloading anything, including apps or files from the internet, to your phone. Only download things when absolutely necessary, and make sure that they are from a secure source that you know and trust.
Securing Your Data and Cellular Connection
- To protect the data on your cell phone, resist the urge to connect your phone to public Wi-Fi sources, which can often be insecure connections that can lead to breaches. Using your phone’s cellular data connection is typically much more secure than Wi-Fi hot spots.
- Consider calling your cell phone provider and requesting that a PIN number be required to make any changes to your account. Not all cell phone providers offer this service, but it’s worth asking. The PIN protects you from SIM hijacking, making it more difficult for hackers to hijack your cell number by routing traffic to a new SIM card that they control.
- Consider setting up a virtual phone number to use publicly (for work, to post online, etc.). See if your cell phone provider offers virtual phone numbers (some do so for free, some for an additional fee). Alternatively, Google Voice and MySudo are two independent services that may be available to you. You can use this virtual phone number as your primary number in order to protect your personal phone number. (You can forward all calls to your personal device.)
Securing Your Texts
When texting from your phone, consider using an encrypted messaging platform. As with encrypted emails, these platforms scramble the content of your text messages, making it much harder for a third party to read and surveil them. For an up-to-date list of encrypted messaging platforms to consider, see the Rory Peck Trust’s Digital Security Guide.
Encrypting Your Data and Devices
Encryption is a great option for keeping your documents, emails, photos, and search queries private. Essentially, this process scrambles and transforms your data so it can’t be read by prying eyes. Full-disk encryption (FDE) can protect your data in the event that your laptop is lost or stolen. A range of software services offer FDE. For an up-to-date list of encryption options to consider, see the Rory Peck Trust’s Digital Security Guide. Check to see if working with a full-disk encryption is legal in your country.
Protecting Your Computer and Your Files
- To protect against newly discovered bugs or security threats, it is crucial to keep your operating system and software up to date. To protect against fake updates, which hackers sometimes employ to trick users into downloading viruses or disclosing log-in credentials, always check directly with your computer’s operating system by navigating to system settings.
- To secure your files, make a habit of cleaning out your hard drive. Regularly deleting old files and apps that you no longer need can make you less of a target for hackers. If you need a record of something, consider backing it up on your personal computer, a flash drive, or an external hard drive and deleting it from your work laptop or mobile device. When possible, use password protection to keep sensitive files secure, even if they are only on your personal laptop.
- Stay alert when downloading anything, including software or files from the internet, to your computer. Only download things when absolutely necessary, and make sure that they are from a secure source that you know and trust.
- Cameras and webcams can also be hacked and accessed remotely, so it is a good idea to cover the cameras on your devices when they are not in use. Consider using a sticker, a Post-it note, or tape that can be easily removed if you use your camera frequently.
Protecting Against Malware
Malicious software, or malware, is a program or code that seeks to harm your computer system or access your personal data. Malware is typically activated by clicking on a spam link or accidentally agreeing to download unwanted and unfamiliar software. It can frequently be found in email, SMS, or social media messages. To protect against it, exercise caution when clicking on links and accepting software downloads and make sure that they come from sources that you know and trust. Avoid synchronizing your devices if you suspect that one is infected with malware, as the others can become compromised, too. For up-to-date information on protecting yourself from malware, see the Rory Peck Trust’s Digital Security Guide.
Choosing Security Software
While preventive best practices are important to protect your computer from malware, sometimes it can still find its way in—which is why it’s a good idea to invest in security software as an extra layer of protection against viruses. Consider installing a firewall—a security system that establishes a barrier between the internet and your secure internal hard drive, allowing it to block untrusted or unwarranted downloads or files. For more comprehensive protection, you can opt for an antivirus security package. Remember to keep these up to date by updating regularly.
When to Seek Legal Recourse
Because laws governing online harassment vary widely from country to country, no online resource can replace the advice of a local lawyer. If you are unable to explore legal representation, a range of organizations can give you guidance on digital rights, cyberlaw, and more. (See the “Finding Assistance” section for advice on getting legal aid.)
To help you decide whether to seek legal recourse, you should familiarize yourself with the laws governing cybercrime, cyber-related speech, and harassment in your country or locality. In some countries, it is hard to make the case that online harassment constitutes a threat, while others have robust anti-harassment and hate speech laws.
No matter what, we recommend documenting online abuse, including threats (as outlined in the section on “Documenting Risks”). Proper documentation may aid your efforts to involve law enforcement if and when you choose to do so. Involving law enforcement itself can be intimidating and overwhelming, and in many countries it may not be a safe, viable, or helpful alternative. Sometimes a hateful online message falls within the realm of protected speech, and the law doesn’t apply. Sometimes law enforcement is not adequately equipped to respond to online harassment. And sometimes law enforcement––or other state agencies and individuals––is directly involved in the harassment. That said, while filing a police report does not always result in effective action, creating a paper trail that proves a “course of conduct” (i.e., that the online harassment is not an isolated incident but a concerted effort) can be critically important to pursuing legal action. Trust your instincts about whether it is safe to engage with law enforcement.
Whether you feel you can engage law enforcement or not, consider seeking additional support. Options might include contacting organizations that deal with issues of online freedom, mobilizing a community of your peers to support you online, and using features built into social media platforms to block, mute, restrict, or report harmful content. (You can find more information on how to prepare for, respond to, and seek support for online abuse in PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual.) Hopefully, as online threats become more visible and awareness rises, greater protections for artists will be put in place around the world.
If you need urgent assistance with digital security issues, contact Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline, with 24/7 support available in nine languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Tagalog, Arabic, and Italian. They aim to respond to all requests within two hours.
ARC does not specialize in digital security, and all the information in this section has been gleaned and adapted from a number of highly detailed, continually updated, and accurate resources that we highly recommend you consider in greater depth if you are hoping to bolster your digital security. These include:
- Consumer Reports’ Security Planner
- Front Line Defenders and Tactical Technology Collective’s Security in a Box
- Global Cyber Alliance’s Cybersecurity Toolkit for Journalists
- PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual (for writers and journalists) and Threat Assessment (for writers and journalists)
- Rory Peck Trust’s Digital Security Guide
- Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Defense guide and Threat Modeling.
Section IV: Documenting Threats
No matter how many precautions you might take, risk is sometimes unavoidable, and when it happens you want to be as well-equipped as possible to respond to it. The first thing to do when you believe you have been put at risk is to conduct a threat analysis, assessing the nature of the threat against you.
Threat Analysis: What Is the Nature of the Threat Against You?
Because artists can face risks from many perpetrators and for various reasons, it is crucial to understand the nature of the threat against you. “New Protection Manual for Human Rights Defenders,” Protection International, 2009, p. 41. You can more easily do so by familiarizing yourself with the kinds of risks experienced by other artists. Such an assessment requires asking yourself a number of questions, including:
- What is the source of the threat? Who is threatening you? Is it a state or non-state agent?
- Why are you being threatened?
- How are you receiving threats? Is there anything you can do now to reduce the ability of the perpetrator to threaten you?
- What is the threat? Could it escalate, and if so, how?
- Has there been a pattern of threats over time?
- Who is the threat directed at: only you, or also at your family, your colleagues, or other artists working on similar topics?
Is there anyone else you know or know of who has experienced a similar threat?
What is the likelihood that this threat can or will be put into action?
- If the threat is from a non-state actor, is there a possibility of protection or redress from the police or authorities? Or will involving law enforcement create greater challenges?
Answering these questions will allow you to more easily determine what types of assistance you should look for and can help guide you toward past examples of artists at risk that might serve as a roadmap.
After conducting a threat analysis, your first priority should be to document your threats wherever and whenever possible. When assessing your case, the number one request from a lawyer or human rights professional trying to help you will be for robust, thorough, and accurate evidence that you experienced risk. The more information you can provide, the more swiftly they will be able to assess your case and activate assistance. The following section moves sequentially through stages of risk, from non-physical kinds, including online and verbal harassment, all the way to imprisonment and torture.
Documenting Online Harassment
Documenting online harassment—saving abusive emails, voicemails, and texts and taking screenshots and saving hyperlinks of abusive content on social media—is critically important. It might feel counterintuitive or upsetting to remind yourself of the harms inflicted on you, but documentation is an important step if you decide to alert your employer, report abuse to law enforcement, or pursue legal action against an abuser. Documenting online abuse provides a record of what’s happened, tracks available information about the perpetrators, and alerts you and others to patterns of abuse and escalations. Online Harassment Field Manual, PEN America.
Make sure to save all relevant evidence and not just information that paints you in a favorable light. For example, if you contributed offensive dialogue or heated language to an online exchange that you’re planning to document, be sure to include those aspects of the exchange along with the rest.
Documentation can be time-consuming, draining, and trigger negative feelings, so consider enlisting a trusted ally to help you. Smartphones and computers have made screen grabbing a quick two-click process. The following links explain how to take screenshots on various operating systems:
- computers with Mac operating systems
- computers with Windows operating systems
- computers with Chrome operating systems
- computers using Linux operating systems
- iPhones and other Apple-operated devices
- Androids and other Google-operated devices.
Once taken, all screenshots should be saved in easy-to-access folders.
If your online harassment is repetitive, ongoing, or severe, consider creating a log to record specific information, including the following:
- date and time
- type of electronic communication (direct message, posted image, social media comment, etc.)
- name of platform
- any available geographic information
- nature of the online incident (a threat of sexual violence, a racially motivated attack, etc.)
Social media platforms have a number of built-in features, such as blocking, muting, and reporting, that help users react to abuse. These features should be used after you’ve completed documentation, as they run the risk of erasing the incriminating messages from the platform. Blocking the harasser will prevent you and the harasser from communicating and viewing each other’s content. Muting allows you to hide specific abusive content—but only from yourself. While very useful, blocking and muting have some drawbacks. Blocking––because abusers see that they’ve been blocked––can escalate abuse and muting can hide escalation or other harmful tactics, making it harder for the target to assess risk. Asking a trusted ally to monitor messages or mentions associated with your username can help. Finally, be sure to flag or report abusive content directly to the platform, a feature built directly into the interface of most platforms so you can report content the moment you see it.
Documenting Verbal Harassment and Threats
There are a number of steps you can take to document verbal harassment such as hate speech, threats of physical violence, or death threats. If you receive verbal threats over the phone, make sure to do the following whenever possible:
- log the time and date of calls
- log the phone numbers
- save voicemails
- record and save the conversations if possible. If not possible, take notes on what was said.
Receiving ongoing verbal harassment over the phone can be emotionally taxing and scary. We highly recommend documenting these threats whenever possible, but if you reach a point where you feel the need to stop the threatening calls, you may be able to block the caller. Nevertheless, we emphasize that you should take this step only after documenting the harassment in some way.
Documenting Physical Harassment, Threats, and Attacks
Being physically attacked can be terrifying and emotionally and physically debilitating. Documenting the attacks after the fact can seem like the last thing you want to do. Nevertheless, forcing yourself to take measures like writing down the date and time and taking photographs of yourself might severely reduce the likelihood of a recurrence and increase the likelihood of successful recourse. As with all forms of risk, make sure you keep track of when it happens in a log, recording the date, time, place, manner of attack, and motivation, if it can be determined. If the physical assault has left visible marks on your body, we strongly suggest taking photographs of yourself, logging the date and time they were taken, and storing these photos in a safe, accessible place such as the cloud.
You should also take measures—as safely as possible—to document who the perpetrators are. If it is possible to take photographs, all the better, but we strongly advise against doing so if it might risk provoking the perpetrators. Instead, if you experience physical assault, you should take time afterward to write down all the identifying features of your attackers that you can recall, including their size, their appearance, their voices, how many were present, and what they said.
Sometimes physical attacks can come from police and state agents themselves. Any evidence, including photographic evidence, of police mistreatment should be recorded immediately upon your release, as soon as you have access to a method of documentation. These pictures can be part of a forensic report that can be presented in court and in front of international law institutions.
Documenting Arrest, Detention, or Imprisonment
Being arrested, detained, or imprisoned for your art can leave you feeling helpless, but there are actions you can take to document your situation and control your fate. More than other threats, documenting arrest or imprisonment may require the support of family, peers, or colleagues.
If you are arrested, make sure to keep track of:
- when and where the arrest occurred (time, place, location)
- why the arrest occurred—was there a warrant? If not, what was the context and impetus for your arrest?
- who carried out the arrest
- whether there were any witnesses.
If you are detained, do your best to identify the location of your detention as well as the length, the circumstances, and the events that transpired during your detention. Sometimes you may experience physical assault, even torture, during your detention. If so, make sure to keep track, as much as possible, of when, why, and how the assault occurred.
If at any point you are formally charged, make sure you or someone close to you is able to keep records of all legal documents related to your case. If you are called to court, keep track of which court, which judge is presiding, and which prosecutors are on your case. If you are formally sentenced and imprisoned, make sure to keep a record of your sentence on file.
Unfortunately, maintaining such records for yourself may be nearly impossible during the draining and demoralizing experience of navigating jails, court hearings, and prisons. But many legal systems allow you at least some form of communication with the outside world. If so, make sure to dispatch all relevant information to a trusted source, including both an attorney and peers in your network.
Sometimes such communications are not possible or are actively prevented by state agents. In such cases it is crucial to have a safety network that can be mobilized to document your situation on your behalf (as outlined in the previous section on “Setting Up a Support Network”). Make a security plan with your network, addressing the following points:
- If you are arrested, who will log relevant information?
- If jailed, who will monitor your jailing, keep records, and make decisions on issues such as bail and counsel?
- If you go through formal proceedings, make sure your legal team and/or network is keeping records of all court documents.
While navigating such legal proceedings can be immensely difficult, making the effort to maintain detailed records will increase the likelihood of receiving reprieve and justice down the line.
How to React if You're Arrested:
Arrest can be disorienting, terrifying, and confusing, often intentionally so. While your rights vary from country to country, some recommendations hold true across the board. First of all, try to remain calm. Getting angry and challenging your captors can give them a reason to treat you violently or add trumped-up charges. Try not to answer any questions or sign anything before first speaking with your attorney. Above all, follow the advice of Masha Alekhina of Pussy Riot: “Know your rights.” If you know your rights before being arrested, you stand a far better chance of surviving your arrest without further endangering yourself. Read more about Alekhina’s case in the “Artists’ Voices” section.
Section V: Finding Assistance
After documenting the threats against you, the next step is to assess whether you should seek assistance. Assistance can take a variety of forms at varying degrees, from raising awareness to legal recourse to temporary or long-term shelter and exile.
When to Seek Assistance
Assessing whether to seek assistance requires making a calculation For useful literature and recommendations on assessing risk, see “New Protection Guide for Human Rights Defenders,” Protection International, 2009, “Protection Guide for Human Rights Defenders,” Front Line Defenders, 2005, “Practical Guide for the Protection-of Editorial Cartoonists,” Cartooning for Peace, 2019, and “Safety Guide for Journalists,” Reporters Without Borders, 2015, e.g. as to:
- the severity of the threats
- the likelihood of their abeyance, continuation, or escalation
- the effort involved in seeking reprieve
- the likelihood that assistance would alleviate risk.
The nonprofit group Protection International outlines a range of actions that human rights defenders can take when put at risk, and the same holds true for artists. “New Protection Guide for Human Rights Defenders,” Protection International, 2009, p. 67. These actions include:
- accepting the risk as it stands, because you feel able to live with it
- reducing the risk by seeking assistance to increase security and minimize threats
- sharing the risk with organizations and other stakeholders who might be able to raise the visibility of your case
- deferring the risk by changing your creative practice so that it might be less likely to incur backlash
- escaping the risk by seeking temporary safe haven or shelter, or even going into exile.
The acceptance and deferral of risk typically do not require assistance from a third party. If you choose such options, we nevertheless strongly recommend documenting as much as possible, in the event that the risk recurs or escalates. This way, you will be better prepared to identify a pattern of risk and seek more serious support.
Alternatively, if the risk is severe enough that you wish to reduce, share, or escape it, your best course of action may be to contact organizations that are able to offer urgent support, advocacy, or relocation and safe haven. Try to stay strong—while you may feel more isolated than ever, there is a vast world of organizations with resources that may be able to help you. Still, navigating the field of assistance can feel isolating and overwhelming in their own right if you don’t know where to turn. Many artists, for example, have never worked with human rights organizations, and vice versa. This section aims to give an overview of the field of resources that exist for artists and to outline some of the most common forms of assistance that artists at risk look for.
Timing Is Everything
Above all else, when finding assistance, it is crucial to act quickly. We know how exhausting and taxing the experience of risk can be. Trying to find support may be the last thing you feel you have the energy for. Nevertheless, many organizations’ mandates have time limits on when they can offer support. Freedom House, for instance, can only assist human rights defenders who have experienced risk in the past three months. The further back experience of risk goes, the less likely you will be to receive support. Moving swiftly will give you the best chance of receiving aid.
Remember: Artists Are Human Rights Defenders
Although the field of human rights has been changing, in some cases the onus is still on artists to make the case that they should be classified as human rights defenders, or agents who act in defense of human rights and thus qualify for assistance. When contacting a human rights organization, it is crucial to “market” yourself as a human rights defender—in some ways, this status should be stressed more emphatically than your work as an artist. Some organizations typically want to know, for instance, that you are a human rights defender who uses your artistic practice to defend human rights, not an artist who makes art about human rights. Fair or not, presenting yourself properly will vastly increase your chances of finding support from human rights organizations.
“Cultural rights defenders . . . deserve the same level of attention and protection as other human rights defenders. . . . Many people may be cultural rights defenders, or function as such, without necessarily describing themselves in those terms. These include anthropologists, archaeologists, archivists, artists, athletes, cultural heritage professionals and defenders, cultural workers, curators and museum workers, educators, historians, librarians, media producers, public space defenders, scientists, staff and directors of cultural institutions, writers, defenders of cultural diversity in accordance with international standards and those promoting intercultural understanding and dialogue.”
––Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights Bennoune pp. 3-4.
Using ARC’s Database
ARC is connected to a global network of more than 800 organizations that work to defend artists at risk. Artists who wish to explore the breadth of resources available to them can begin by perusing ARC’s searchable database. From the Find Help page, this public database offers easy tools that can tailor searches by regions of assistance, demographics, types of support, disciplines supported, and more. When an artist finds an organization that is of interest, they’ll see descriptions of the organization, guidelines for its assistance, and links to further information, application forms, and contact information.
You can also get in touch with ARC directly: through our contact page, which allows artists to write to the ARC team using a highly secure, end-to-end encrypted form; through referrals from ARC’s network partners; and through ARC’s social media channels (@atriskartists) and general email inbox. If you are an artist in a sensitive situation, ARC strongly encourages you to get in touch via the encrypted contact page on the ARC website, as this is the safest method to communicate with us. Once an artist contacts us, someone will respond within 48 hours and share a longer intake form, which will request detailed information about the persecution you have suffered. As outlined in the “Documenting Threats” section of this guide, the more information you give us, the more effectively we can serve you.
Once ARC receives this information, our team assesses your needs and determines which organizations can best address them. ARC then connects you directly to these organizations, supporting you throughout the process by helping you fill out and submit applications, advocating for you directly during the organizations’ internal review, and generally acting as a facilitator to help remove some of the coordination burden from each party. Even after you receive assistance, ARC continues to help you navigate newfound problems, identify further support, or excel in your current situation.
Who Can Provide Support?
While artists may feel that they are confined to the art world when asking for help, ARC has found that human rights organizations tend to be more effective and proactive than arts organizations at supporting artists at risk. That said, various types of groups can play a useful role, among them artistic freedom organizations, governments or governmental organizations, and international mechanisms.
Human Rights Organizations
In recent years, there has been a major shift in the way that traditional human rights organizations recognize and engage with artists and cultural practitioners. More and more, artists are being mainstreamed as “human rights defenders,” even when they do not necessarily identify as such. See Bennoune, “Cultural rights defenders,” e.g. Because art often expresses cultural identity, bears witness to inhumanity, and calls for social change, it is often inherently involved with human rights defense. This means that artists at risk are frequently eligible for support from organizations that in the past would serve only traditional human rights defenders or victims of human rights violations.
Protection or Emergency Programs
A wide array of human rights organizations around the world have what are typically called “protection programs” or “emergency assistance programs” for human rights defenders. Whenever researching a human rights organization, be on the lookout for these phrases—such programs are typically the branch of the organization that disburses assistance to artists at risk.
Some prominent human rights organizations that have actively supported artists at risk in recent years include:
- Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l'Homme (AEDH)
- Freedom House
- Front Line Defenders
- Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights.
Many human rights organizations have region-specific protection programs. These can be good options if you meet their regional criteria, as they focus on a narrower range of applicants. (See the appendix for a comprehensive list.) Some organizations work together, operating as a sort of consortium of partners. For instance, ProtectDefenders.eu and Freedom House collaborate with a number of human rights organizations around the world, and artists who apply to them for support may be redirected to another organization within their network.
When contacting such organizations, it is crucial to review their criteria and determine whether they require a sponsor or partner organization. Many organizations require artists or human rights defenders to apply through, or with the support of, a third-party organization to help them more efficiently verify each case. In some cases, it may not even be possible to apply for support without the backing of a known and verifiable organization’s sponsorship.
Rather than offering assistance specifically to human rights defenders, a number of human rights organizations have assistance programs for anyone who has suffered a human rights violation. Amnesty International, for instance, has a global relief fund. If you feel that you do not meet the criteria for a human rights defender, you may instead be able to make the case that you suffered a violation at the hands of a state or private parties.
Arts or Artistic Freedom Organizations
An artist in trouble might first be inclined to turn to arts organizations for support. But the truth is that while there are numerous arts institutions around the world, the universe of those that serve artists at risk is notably smaller. More traditional arts institutions might be able to support artists through solidarity or advocacy, but for tangible assistance artists are better off contacting organizations dedicated to artistic freedom and general freedom of expression.
Arts Organizations and Institutions
Traditional arts institutions, such as museums and galleries, do not consistently support artists at risk. Arts Rights Justice report: RIGHTS. Legal Frameworks for Artistic Freedom, Laurence Cuny, p. 62, 2019. If you think an arts institution might be able to help you, it is best to do some research to confirm whether this is, in fact, the case. Other traditional arts organizations, such as residency spaces, might help artists looking to relocate. But such programs do not necessarily expedite their application process for artists who are imperiled. While applying for residencies is a wonderful avenue to pursue for temporary respite from your current location, residency programs vary in their application processes, and their timelines may not meet your sense of urgency. We encourage carefully reviewing each organization’s procedures to clarify such issues.
Artistic Freedom Organizations
While there is plenty of room for arts institutions to increase their support for imperiled artists, there is a growing field of organizations dedicated to defending artistic freedom. Such organizations specifically aim to straddle the line between art and human rights, working to defend artistic freedom by supporting artists whose creative rights have been infringed upon. While this field is smaller than the human rights field, because their programs are designed expressly to help artists at risk, we often recommend turning to them first.
Alongside organizations dedicated specifically to artistic freedom, there is an even more well-established field of support for writers and journalists at risk. If you are an artist whose work has a significant writing component, or if you practice journalism, such organizations might be worth pursuing. The PEN network, including PEN International, PEN America, and other regional PEN centers around the world, has small assistance programs for creative writers and journalists at risk. If you are interested in support specifically for journalism, we recommend the organizations that make up the Journalists in Distress (JiD) network, a consortium of groups that coordinate with one another to assist persecuted journalists. Please note, however, that most of these organizations will only consider supporting you if writing or journalism is your primary practice, makes up a significant portion of your work, or is in some way connected to the threats you experienced.
Governments and Governmental Organizations
Many governments have their own programs or agencies that deal with human rights, including artistic freedom. “Providing Support to Local Human Rights Organizations,” ProtectDefenders.eu. For example, many countries’ departments of state, or variations thereof, have international human rights programs that might be able to offer relief or support. These can vary by government and by who is in power within a government, so we recommend that you explore state-based options independently by looking into a country’s state department or ministry of foreign affairs.
There are a number of international mechanisms and institutions that at-risk artists can turn to for help. Most often, these mechanisms help with public and private advocacy and occasionally material reprieve. For example, Special Rapporteurs—independent experts working on thematic issues or “special procedures” for the United Nations Human Rights Council—operating in various fields accept “formal submissions” related to their mandates from those who have suffered work-related human rights violations.
If you feel that your risk amounts to a violation of your freedom of expression, you can formally submit a complaint to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression. Another potentially helpful official is the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, who focuses on the right to culture, artistic expression, cultural heritage, and more. Making a formal complaint to a UN rapporteur activates procedures that can, according to the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “intervene directly with Governments on allegations of violations of human rights that come within their mandates by means of letters which include urgent appeals and other communications. The intervention can relate to a human rights violation that has already occurred, is ongoing, or which has a high risk of occurring.” Information on submitting information to special procedures is available on the OHCHR’s website. A formal complaint is a great option if you want an influential international body to call attention to your case. Bear in mind, however, that publicity that puts pressure on your government is not always in your best interest. Before submitting a special procedure, you should assess the benefits and challenges that it might bring.
Many other international mechanisms exist to support artists who have experienced human rights violations, including:
- Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)
- European Instrument for Democracy & Human Rights (EIDHR).
Types of Support Available
Many types of assistance are available to artists at risk. Usually an artist won’t need just one—for instance, if relocating, an artist might need both language classes and an emergency grant for living costs, or both advocacy and publishing opportunities to raise awareness of the artist’s plight and work. Over the course of ARC’s existence, we have found that the most commonly requested forms of assistance are emergency grants, legal assistance, temporary or long-term relocation, and advocacy. This section provides a short overview of each category, why you might want to pursue it, and several prominent examples of organizations offering such support.
Sometimes, when an artist is threatened, the simplest response involves financial assistance. Many organizations give urgent emergency grants to artists or human rights defenders whose rights have been violated. Often such grants go to those who have experienced risk as a result of their work, as opposed to those who have suffered human rights violations generally.
Emergency grants can range from small disbursements meant to provide short-term help to large disbursements of medium- or long-term support. Grants can typically cover a range of costs, but some of those most frequently covered include legal costs and trial monitoring, prison visits, medical costs associated with persecution, relocation costs, equipment replacement, physical or digital security, and dependent support. See ProtectDefenders.eu’s eligibility and criteria for a useful example. Some, but not all, grants also offer general humanitarian support. See Amnesty International or Freedom House’s fund for survivors of severe religious persecution, e.g.
Always check the criteria of emergency grants before applying for them, to ensure that you are eligible and that the costs you need covered fall within the scope of the grant. Additionally, many grants are time sensitive—you are eligible for only a certain period of time following your experience of risk. If you think you will need financial assistance, don’t wait.
Prominent organizations that disburse emergency grants to eligible artists at risk include:
- Al Mawred Al Thaqafy (Arab countries only)
- European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights
- Freedom House
- Front Line Defenders
- International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
- Protect Defenders.eu
- Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights.
As noted above, there are also many grants specific to those who come under attack for their writing or journalistic practice, including PEN centers and members of the Journalists in Distress network.
When an artist is imprisoned or prosecuted, legal assistance can be vital. The difference between good and bad counsel, or being able to afford such expenses as prison costs, visits, and trial monitoring, can radically affect the outcome of a case.
Many organizations that offer emergency grants, including a number of those mentioned above, provide funds specifically meant to cover legal costs. These grants tend to be applicable only when a case has been launched against an artist, not initiated by an artist. Some organizations that cover legal costs include:
- European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights
- Freedom House
- Front Line Defenders
- International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
- Protect Defenders.eu
- Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights.
Many organizations around the world offer direct, pro bono legal assistance and support to artists or human rights defenders at risk. Many law firms around the world also offer pro bono services. If you have a relationship with a particular firm, it is always worth checking to see whether it can provide you with free assistance or advice. Other organizations that may offer legal services include:
- Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l'Homme
- Association for Civil Rights
- Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
- Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA)
- Media Legal Defense Initiative
- Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
Beyond prison and trial assistance, artists may seek immigration assistance. For more on organizations offering immigration-related legal assistance for artists, see the “Asylum or Refugee Status” section.
When all else fails, artists may have to consider temporary or long-term relocation. For one of the most comprehensive studies of temporary relocation platforms to date, see Patricia Bartley, Martin Jones, Alice Nah, and Stanley Seiden, “Temporary Shelter and Relocation Initiatives. Perspectives of Managers and Participants,” Martin Roth Initiative, (2019). Sometimes relocation provides a much-needed respite from threats or attention, a cooling-off period. But it can also be a wrenching experience, pursued when you have no alternative but to flee your home or country and give up the life you have known. In such cases, staying put might mean risking assault, arrest and imprisonment, or even death, and leaving for an indefinite period of time might be the only safe option.
Undertaken as a last resort, relocation entails a number of complications and may require radically altering your life indefinitely. See Patricia Bartley, “Wellbeing During Temporary International Relocation. Case Studies and Good Practices for the Implementation of the 2019 Barcelona Guidelines,” Martin Roth Initiative, 2020, for a robust discussion of the psychological challenges associated with relocation and recommendations for how best platforms can ensure wellbeing during relocation. It also tends to be one of the hardest and slowest forms of assistance to receive. See Bartley et al. p. 29, for a discussion of lengthy processes associated with obtaining visas, e.g. Nevertheless, if you find yourself considering relocation, there are several options to consider.
Numerous programs around the world deal specifically with relocation. Some are expressly for artists at risk, See Artist Protection Fund, e.g. while others are for human rights defenders See Shelter City, Defenders in Dordrecht, and Scottish Human Rights Defender Fellowship, e.g. more generally, although, remember: Artists are human rights defenders; you just have to make the case for yourself.
Relocation programs typically accept applicants who go through a rigorous vetting process, assessing both the caliber of work and the veracity and severity of threats. Nathalie van Schagen, “Collaboration Between Temporary Relocation Initiatives. Potentials, Challenges and Next Steps," Martin Roth Initiative, 2020. Once accepted, artists can be placed in any number of locations around the world, often as “fellows” or “residents,” for allotted periods of time. Once these periods end, some programs offer follow-up or post-fellowship support. Bartley et al. p. 15.
Some relocations are closer to your home country than others. Ibid. p. 11. While we recommend relocating within your country or region whenever possible to minimize emotional and psychological upheaval, the majority of relocation programs accept applicants internationally but operate in the Global North. Ibid. p. 12. If you are an artist hoping to relocate through a structured program, some of the most prominent ones that offer both international and regional assistance are:
- Artist Protection Fund
- Artists at Risk—Perpetuum Mobile
- Brown University International Writers Project
- City of Asylum (Ithaca, Pittsburgh, Detroit)—application through ICORN
- Harvard Scholars at Risk
- International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN)
- Martin Roth Initiative
- New York City Safe Havens Program
- Scholars at Risk
- Scholar Rescue Fund
- Shelter City—Justice and Peace
- Westbeth Artists Housing
- Africa Human Rights Network—AHRN
- African Defenders—Hub Cities
- Al Mawred al Thaqafy (Arab Countries—offers relocation funding but not hosting)
Many more organizations without formal relocation programs nonetheless earmark funding specifically for relocation. Applying for such funds typically requires identifying a host institution that will support you in a third country. This kind of relocation requires much more logistical coordination on your part, as rather than participating in a structured fellowship, you are responsible for things like finding your own host, developing a budget, and arranging for immigration.
One of the best examples is ProtectDefenders.eu’s EU Human Rights Defenders Relocation Platform (EUTRP), a global platform of national, regional, and international organizations that provide temporary relocation services for human rights defenders at risk. In addition to relocation-specific funds, the platform offers a wide range of mobility grants, For the most comprehensive list of mobility grants available to artists, see On the Move, a network that aims to facilitate cross-border mobility in the arts and culture sector, contributing to the building of a vibrant European shared cultural space that is strongly connected worldwide. intended to help foster international cultural exchange by funding international travel for artists. Although not typically linked to risk, funds like the Prince Claus Fund and ASEF 360 offer many grants that artists can apply for to fund travel and cultural exchange.
In addition, artists are fortunate that countless artist residency programs around the world accept international applicants, are fully funded, and offer artistic support that human rights defenders programs do not. But those programs are not necessarily attuned to issues of risk and might not accept candidates solely on the basis of persecution. Furthermore, because they are not structured around the needs of at-risk artists, they may not be able to relocate artists urgently, even in emergency situations. For artist residencies, consider browsing databases of residencies such as TransArtists and Res Artis.
Asylum or Refugee Status
When you aren’t relocating through a structured program, the logistics and difficulties of navigating immigration and customs law may fall to you. Procedures for acquiring visas or legal status vary widely by country. Bartley et al. p. 29, e.g. Some have more restrictive laws, while others are much more lenient—but not necessarily safe to immigrate to.
Once you are in a new place, if you decide that you need to extend your stay for the long term, you may consider seeking political asylum, a process with its own ins and outs that can take a long time and can drastically restrict your ability to travel. When applying for visas, asylum, or citizenship, having adequate counsel and legal representation will greatly help your chances. Grappling with immigration courts without support or advice is incredibly difficult. Whenever possible, we recommend seeking professional legal expertise. Sometimes this help will cost money, but many organizations and law firms around the world also offer pro bono immigration services. Some that do so include:
- Artistic Freedom Initiative (immigration to the United States only)
- CDH Fray Matías (immigration within Latin America only)
- Cimade (immigration to France only)
- Consonant (immigration to UK only)
- International Refugee Assistance Project––IRAP
- International Rescue Committee––IRC
- Tamizdat (performing artists only)
The websites of these organizations and others, including aa-e, the Agency of Artists in Exile, also have robust resources pages that offer useful information about immigrants’ and artists’ rights.
Support for Artists in Exile
If you are forced into exile, the experience can be isolating, emotionally taxing, and disorienting. See Bartley, “Wellbeing During Temporary International Relocation. Case Studies and Good Practices for the Implementation of the 2019 Barcelona Guidelines.” Fortunately, a number of organizations around the world exist for the sole purpose of supporting artists in exile, helping them to meet creative communities, learn about local opportunities, acclimate to their new homes, and more. If you are in a third country and are looking for support, consider contacting the following organizations:
- Agency of Artists in Exile (aa-e)
- Aid A—Aid for Artists in Exile
- ArteEast (MENA region only)
- Exiled Writers Ink
Around the world, there are countless organizations dedicated solely to advocacy, which is often the simplest and most effective way to help artists at risk. The release of press statements, petitions, open letters, and the like can raise awareness of human rights violations and lead to media coverage—which can in turn lead to widespread pressure from the public. Advocacy can lean on government or political leaders, and advocacy organizations can coordinate campaigns or concerted efforts around a cause.
If you experience risk as a direct result of your creative expression, getting in touch with an advocacy organization can publicize your plight. If you are arrested, advocates can apply regional or international pressure to the authorities who arrested you. Some advocacy occurs behind closed doors, such as in private letters from government leaders. The OHCHR’s special procedure mechanisms, e.g., “can intervene directly with Governments on allegations of violations of human rights that come within their mandates by means of letters which include urgent appeals and other communications.” Information on submitting information to special procedures is available on the OHCHR’s website.
Before contacting an advocacy organization, you should determine whether raising awareness will help or hinder your case. Publicizing a human rights violation is often one of the most effective and swift avenues to reprieve—but it can also backfire, provoking retaliation from the regime under pressure in the form of increased scrutiny, criticism, and security threats.
Some of the most prominent advocacy organizations that address violations of artistic freedom include:
- Amnesty International
- Article 19
- Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI)
- Human Rights Watch
- Index on Censorship
- PEN International and PEN centers around the world.
Many local and regional advocacy organizations work only in specific regions. Depending on where you are in the world, you might consider getting in touch with such organizations, as they could have strong local media contacts and region-specific expertise.
Section VI: Recovering From Risk
For artists who have faced severe risks, threats, or dangers, trauma support and medical services are critical to heal the mental and physical wounds. It is crucial that survivors are given the time, space, resources, and support to recuperate safely. See Front Line Defenders, “Wellbeing and Stress Management” and Bartley, “Wellbeing During Temporary International Relocation. Case Studies and Good Practices for the Implementation of the 2019 Barcelona Guidelines.” Many organizations that serve refugees, asylees, and victims of torture offer specialized services to aid every step of the recovery and rehabilitation process, from individualized health care resources to community events. For artists who have relocated to avoid threats, safe return to their home countries is often crucial to recovery. For a discussion of challenges to and recommendations for safe return after temporary relocation, see Stanley Seiden," The Challenges of Safe Return. Supporting Civil Society Actors After Temporary Relocation,” Martin Roth Initiative, 2020.
The trauma and medical support services offered by these organizations cast a wide net—they acknowledge the variety of ways that these scarring experiences can affect an individual’s mental and physical well-being, and they target the nuanced and individualized nature of recovery and healing. These services can include but are not limited to physical and mental health resources, community building opportunities, and support services for reentering society. Physical health resources can include access to nursing and primary care clinics, ongoing monitoring of physical mobility and preexisting conditions, and massage and physical therapy. Mental health resources include rehabilitation and direct healing services for survivors such as specialized psychiatric and psychological care, counseling, social work, specialized therapists, targeted support groups, outpatient rehabilitation services, and referrals to inpatient rehabilitation. Many programs pair those seeking support with caseworkers to provide ongoing case management and the development of a specialized treatment plan tailored to the individual’s needs. Community-building opportunities can include demographic-specific support and therapy groups as well as organized recreational community activities such as sports teams, youth programming, and partnerships with community organizations. Social support services aimed at easing individuals’ reintegration to society include language learning assistance, financial fluency programs, professional development, and accompaniment to public spaces such as museums, grocery stores, and parks.
Seeking assistance from these organizations typically entails a referral process in which an application must be filled out detailing the background and circumstances of the individual seeking support. Referrals can be filled out by anyone who can speak to the experience of the applicant—a medical professional, family member, or friends—and in many cases the artist seeking support can complete a self-referral and fill out the referral forms. For example, Companion House, an organization offering trauma support services, has a referral form on its website that allows for self-referral. The forms ask for basic demographic information as well more detailed descriptions of the experiences and trauma that have led the applicant to ask for assistance. By contrast, the Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors does not allow self-referral and requires that its referral form be completed by someone else.
In the event that an application cannot be found on an organization’s website, consider calling or emailing any accessible contact information provided to inquire about its services. For example, while Physicians for Human Rights does not have a formal application on its website, the organization welcomes prospective clients to send an email to its offices to inquire about services.
Seeking Redress for Torture
Torture, or the threat of torture, is a common method used by oppressive governments and political forces to censor and silence artists.
Many organizations work on behalf of individual victims of torture by mounting advocacy campaigns, providing thorough documentation of cases, monitoring the treatment of detainees, and taking other steps to ensure swift justice and accountability. Such organizations can both support you in your current situation and actively work to prevent mistreatment in the future. They can work with you proactively to meet your needs and ensure your safety, offering relocation or mobility services. In instances of detainment or imprisonment, some organizations offer direct legal assistance and can fight for your quick and just release. In the event of past or ongoing injury from torture, they can act as a resource for direct medical assistance. In addition, many offer access to emergency funds to pay for sudden, unexpected expenses even if they don't provide those services themselves.
To seek support from these organizations, artists can typically contact them and give background on their situation to have their needs assessed. For example, the World Organization Against Torture provides a form on its website that asks for basic demographic information as well more detailed descriptions of the experiences and trauma that have led to the request for assistance. Upon completion, this form can be sent to the organization’s intake office—firstname.lastname@example.org—for review. For other organizations, the process is less formal. At Agir ensemble pour les droits de l’homme, for instance, requesting access to emergency funds simply involves contacting the emergency fund staff, at which point an applicant’s needs can be adequately assessed and funds can be distributed accordingly. Similarly, in the event that an organization does not have an application or explicit guidelines for requesting support on its website, consider calling or emailing any contact information listed to inquire about accessing services.
Other organizations offering resources and assistance to artists who experience torture:
- African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
- Amnesty International
- The Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors
- The Center for Justice & Accountability
- The Center for Victims of Torture
- Committee Against Torture
- Freedom from Torture
- International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims
- UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.
For artists who have experienced danger in their homelands as a result of their work or human rights activity, applying for asylum or refugee status in a new country can be a crucial step toward a safe and secure future. But being displaced can itself be incredibly traumatizing, and the process of applying for and receiving asylum can be daunting. Fortunately, a number of organizations serve refugees and asylum seekers.
Many of these organizations assist first and foremost with the process of applying for and securing asylum. They often pair incoming refugees with caseworkers who manage every step of the individuals’ application and resettlement. This assistance can take many forms, from providing information on how to apply to offering direct services like pro bono or subsidized legal assistance, legal funds, and immigration help. These organizations and their devoted caseworkers also aid with relocation and mobility, to ensure that clients can live safely during and after the application process. Services might include connecting refugees with resources and emergency funds to provide medical help, temporary relocation or shelter, and basic necessities like food and clothing.
Procedures vary by organization. For example, many—such as the International Refugee Assistance Project—offer robust resources on their websites that spell out the application process depending on your personal circumstances. On the Get Legal Info page of the site, visitors can answer a series of background questions that, upon completion, trigger a specific set of guidelines for what steps must be taken to apply for refugee or asylum status, including what forms need to be filled out and where they must be submitted. This page also gives visitors the option to request further assistance from an individual caseworker. Other organizations accept incoming cases primarily through a referral process in which service providers refer eligible clients for support. In the event that an artist does not yet have an established relationship with a service provider, there is typically an option for the individual to contact the organization directly—for example, while the Migrant and Refugee Settlement Services’ referral form is open only to service providers to refer their existing clients, the organization welcomes individuals seeking support to visit or contact its offices themselves.
Other organizations that offer refugee assistance:
Around the world, state and non-state actors regularly violate the right to artistic freedom, and artists find themselves harassed, attacked, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. Some repressive and nationalist regimes use legislation to curtail artistic freedom—by regulating the cultural sector and determining what can be created; by muzzling and imprisoning artists through laws that govern cybersecurity, antiterrorism, defamation, and anti-state activities; and by prosecuting artists for spurious economic crimes. Alongside government actors, non-state agents like extremist groups, private telecommunication companies, and powerful corporations can threaten artistic freedom, cracking down on those who don’t align with their narratives or using arbitrary content regulation standards to disrupt free expression. These threats both rob artists of their ability to express themselves and deprive the public of the artists’ contributions, insights, and inspiration.
But there are steps that can mitigate these threats. We hope that the strategies outlined in this guide give artists a better understanding of the risks as well as a stronger capacity to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and ultimately overcome repression. At the most fundamental level, there are several takeaways from this manual that we recommend artists always keep in mind:
- You can never be too prepared. Hopefully, you will never have to employ the strategies outlined in this manual. But artists all over the world can unexpectedly find themselves facing a range of threats for a range of reasons. You don’t need to be a political artist calling for radical social change to come under attack. We therefore believe that artists can never be too prepared for risk and that you should proactively follow many of the protocols outlined in this guide. These protocols include:
- conducting a risk assessment of your work to determine whether it might incite backlash
- strengthening your security, especially through cybersecurity measures such as the encryption of messages and two-factor authentication
- building a strong support network
- designing an emergency plan to be ready in case the need arises.
- Document as much as possible. If you are threatened, remember to keep thorough records without further compromising your safety. Having evidence of harassment, even if it is as basic as a written log that tracks when and what occurred, will be crucial down the line if you need to turn to organizations for assistance. Those organizations will always take steps to verify your case, and the more information you have on hand, the faster this vetting process will be.
- Timing is everything. If you are harassed, remember that speed is key. Many organizations have restricted time frames for their services and will provide emergency support only if the harassment occurred recently, usually within a matter of months and not much longer than a year. If you need assistance, we suggest seeking it early.
- Artists are human rights defenders. While many organizations exist specifically to support artists at risk, the field of human rights support is much larger and better equipped. Increasingly, organizations that assist human rights defenders in general are recognizing that artists act in the defense of human rights. When contacting human rights organizations for support, it is crucial to present yourself not solely as an artist but also as an agent acting in defense of human rights, whose defense has put you at risk. Artists express cultural identity, bear witness to inhumanity, and encourage social change—all of which are forms of human rights defense.
- You are not alone. Facing persecution can be an isolating and taxing experience. While the institutions designed to support you may feel distant and intimidating, you must remember that you are not alone. There are organizations all over the world whose missions are solely to protect and assist people in situations like yours, and there are countless artists across the globe who have undergone similar situations, who will stand by your side and help you through travails that they too have endured. Don’t lose hope.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “By descending down into the depths of the soul, and not primarily by a painful acquisition of many manual skills, the artist attains the power of awakening other souls.” Emerson: Essays and Lectures, Library of America, 1983, p. 244. Artists are at the center of social change and the just, equitable, and sustainable development of societies. Through their work, they represent cultural identities and tell stories that help us understand difference and envision more inclusive societies, give voice to social movements, challenge orthodoxies, stimulate innovation, reinvent media, and effect change by advancing the discourse of society. If you find yourself at risk, do not give up, and do not lose sight of the importance of your work.
In addition to strategies and recommendations, this manual features an appendix with a list of resources, advice from prominent artists who have experienced risk, further data on threats to artistic freedom, and more. If you need assistance, we also recommend exploring the more than 800 resources available on the Find Help page of ARC’s database, or you can get in touch with ARC directly.
Please take care, stay strong, and stay safe.
This appendix aims to provide a list of global organizations that offer a wide range of support to persecuted artists. This list is by no means exhaustive and many more resources can be found on ARC’s searchable database, which is constantly growing. Furthermore, this list is organized by each organization’s primary service, not their exclusive service.
For more detailed summaries of each organization, you can download the PDF version of the guide, which offers a full appendix that includes summaries, services offered, contact information, etc. Whenever an organization administers more than one form of support, this has been listed, but we always recommend checking their websites for specific information as types of assistance can evolve and organizations may offer a vast array of options not fully reflected here.
You can also navigate below to each organization's profile in the ARC database.
- Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l'Homme (AEDH)
- Civil Rights Defenders
- Freedom House
- Front Line Defenders
- Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights
- World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
- Artist Protection Fund (APF)
- Artists at Risk (AR) - Perpetuum Mobile
- Brown International Writers Project
- Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York
- Cité internationale des arts
- City of Asylum - Detroit, Ithaca, Las Vegas (Black Mountain Institute), and Pittsburg
- Hamburg Foundation for the Politically Persecuted
- International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN)
- Martin Roth Initiative
- New York City Safe Havens Program
- Scholar Rescue Fund
- Scholars at Risk (SAR)
- Shelter City
- Westbeth Artists Housing
- Amnesty International
- Article 19
- Cartooning for Peace (CFP)
- Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI)
- Human Rights Watch
- Index on Censorship
- International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (ICFR)
- International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX)
- National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC)
- PEN International & PEN Centers
- Physicians for Human Rights
- Protection International
- The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
- Amani: Africa Creative Defence Network
- Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA)
- Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
- Center For Justice & International Law (CEJIL)
- Fundación Acceso Costa Rica
- Guatemala Human Rights Commission
First and foremost, we would like to thank the artists who, through their work, advice, and experiences, contributed to the creation of this guide. We are especially grateful to the artists who participated in our 2018 survey and those who spoke to us at length for the “Artists’ Voices” section of this guide so that future artists at risk might feel less alone: Aslı Erdoğan, Betty Tompkins, Dread Scott, Hamed Sinno, Kubra Khademi, Masha Alekhina, Nanfu Wang, Oleg Sentsov, Shahidul Alam, Tania Bruguera, Valsero, Wanuri Kahiu, and Yulia Tsvetkova.
A special thank you is necessary for Tania Bruguera, whose brilliance originally helped us conceive the idea for the guide and complementary artist interviews.
We also wish to acknowledge all the organizations and individuals who help ARC achieve its mission. This guide would not exist without the extensive knowledge of our global network of partners, and we are grateful for their research, reports, publications, campaigns, and collaborations, all of which have been invaluable. Particular thanks go to the members of ARC’s Advisory Committee for their continued support of this project and for enriching the guide with their feedback and observations and to Mary Ann DeVlieg, Sara Whyatt, and Laurence Cuny from International Arts Rights Advisors (IARA) for their crucial support on our 2018 survey.
Thank you to the Safe Havens Global Stream team for allowing us to present the guide at their conference, where participants from within and outside our network were able to share crucial input in advance of the release. We also feel very fortunate to have such a close working relationship with UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Karima Bennoune and are grateful to her for writing the foreword to this guide.
PEN America staff members provided generous support in the creation of this guide. We extend our thanks to: Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs, and Manojna Yeluri, ARC’s regional representative in Asia, for their expert reviews; Viktorya Vilk, program director of Digital Safety and Free Expression, and Ela Stapley, for their vital input on the “Digital Safety” section; and CEO Suzanne Nossel, COO Dru Menaker, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs Summer Lopez, and Senior Director of Communications and Marketing Stephen Fee for their thoughtful feedback and unflagging support. ARC also thanks Cobie-Ray Johnson, Piper Morrison, and Statz Tatsumi Saines for their research and contributions.
Finally, our deep and abiding appreciation goes to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Elizabeth R. Koch Foundation, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; and the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy for their support of this project. The guide was edited by Susan Chumsky, translated by Lamia Badr (French) and Eugenia Mahiques (Spanish), and designed by Studio La Maria.