Sverre Pedersen: “We are not suprised by Spain’s bad ranking in violations of artistic freedom”

  • Interview with the Campaigns and Advocacy Manager at Freemuse, the organisation defending freedom of artistic expression.

Martí Estruch Axmacher
18.05.2020 - 13:27
Actualització: 18.05.2020 - 15:27

Sverre Pedersen joined Freemuse in August 2019 as Campaign and Advocacy Manager. As a filmmaker he has been the president of the Norwegian Film Makers Association since 2005 and a member of the board of the Federation of European Film Directors since 2015. He studied sociology at the University of Bergen and he also holds a bachelor’s degree in social work from Oslo University College. He has been an activist in human rights, solidarity work, anti-racism, environmental protection and has worked with refugees since his early teenage.

– We live extraordinary times caused by Covid-19. Are the offices of Freemuse open or do you work from home?
– All in the Freemuse team are now working from home offices in 5 different countries.

– How would you descibe the task of Freemuse to someone who has never heard about it?
– The core of Freemuse’s work is advocating for and defending freedom of artistic expression. We believe that at the heart of violations of artistic freedom is the effort to silence opposing or less preferred views and values by those in power, politically, religiously or societally, mostly due to fear of their transformative effect. With this assumption, we can address root causes rather than just symptoms – if we hold violators accountable. Our approach to artistic freedom is human rights-based as it provides an international legal framework and lays out the principles of accountability, equality and non-discrimination, and participation.

– Extraordinary times are often an excuse to cut on basic rights and attack freedom of expression or artistic feedom. Are you afraid this might happen again now?
– As we come out of the coronavirus, we will probably face increased nationalism and populism due to the economic crisis, maybe just something to bear in mind in the light of current circumstances. Artists around the world continue to face severe infringements on their human right to free expression through detentions, threats, prosecutions and imprisonments. This proves the importance of our work and it motivates us to work even harder to advocate for and defend freedom of artistic expression.

– Are terrorism and alleged threats to national security an infallible excuse to silence dissonant voices?
– In our understanding, there are no infallible excuses to violate artistic expression or silence dissonant voices. Artistic freedom is crucial in enabling the space for open and fearless debate in democratic societies. States carry the legal responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil obligations to artistic freedom, a responsibility that needs to be fully implemented to ensure artistic freedom is ultimately and implicitly free.

– According to the anual report on artistic freedom violations that you recently made public, the situation gets worse every year…
– Yes, we are very sad to witness that violations on artistic freedom are getting worse year by year. We see this as a direct result of growing nationalism, populism and fundamentalism, with its intolerance, stigmatism, myths and prejudices. We see leaders spreading hatred and creating fear. We see growing attacks, threats and persecution on “the others”. And artists who represent criticism and alternative visions to these restrictive political trends are seen as enemies.

– Spain hits specially bad in the violations ranking, with 14 cases, more than followers Iran or Turkey. 
– Unfortunatly we are not suprised by Spain’s bad ranking in violations of artistic freedom. We have seen this over the years. But we strongly hope and advocate for a change in the Spanish praxis. Freemuse believes that Spain should ensure that the full array of states’ obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the right of every person to freedom of artistic expression and creativity is taken as the core driver of all developments of law, policy and measures related to the issue.

– The report also states Spain is misusing anti-terrorism legislation…
– Antiterrorism legislation continues to be used to undermine fundamental freedoms in the name of strengthening national security. Vague definitions of what constitutes terrorism allow for governments to investigate artists on charges of “glorifying” terrorist organisations, as seen in Turkey and Spain. In Spain, 14 artists were sentenced to prison and 1 was censored due to the use of anti-terror legislation in 2019.

– Freemuse has shown interest in he case of Catalan political prisoner Jordi Cuixart. Why?
– According to our researchers, Jordi Cuixart is the president of Òmnium Cultural, a non-governmental organization founded in 1961 in response to the censorship and persecution experienced by Catalan culture under the Franco dictatorship. As well as working to promote and preserve the Catalan language and cultural heritage, Òmnium Cultural has been involved in the promotion and defense of human rights in Catalonia. The organization has helped to organize a number of peaceful demonstrations in support of the right of people in Catalonia to free and democratic self-determination. As our researchers see it, his work has less to do with his freedom of expression and way more with Catalan independence. In addition, he is not artist himself, but a businessman turned into human rights defender.

– So his case falls out of target?
– Freemuse is focusing on artists, artwork and the exploitation of art. We are not working on violations of human rights as such. Our area is artistic freedom and other human right organizations, like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, are better equipped to work on violations of human rights as such. We cooperate with organizations like PEN Spain and PEN Catalan in our common efforts to defend artistic freedom in Spain. And we have been and will be campaigning for Spanish artists who are facing any sort of violation to their rights for artistic expression. We are actively advocating for changes in Spanish legislation and practice on the right to freely express artistically. But our focus is and will be on artistic freedom.

– Do you think artistic freedom should have limits? Are there any red lines an artist should not cross?
– Of course, artistic freedom has its limits. Artists who support, encourage or even commit violence and abuse to other people can in no way be supported, given legitimization or be advocated for.

– We still don’t know how the post-Covid19 world will look like. What role do you expect artists to play?
– Artistic expressions have a genuine ability to shed light on the complex challenge’s humanity faces. The Covid19 pandemic is such a challenge that we expect artists to treat and work on through their artwork. Creative treatment of human challenges gives people the opportunity to work and repair wounds we suffer through traumatic experiences.


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