A Safety Guide for Artists

This statement was originally published on artistsatriskconnection.org on 26 January 2021.

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 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 to calls for a new constitution in Chile, 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 to the shutdown of borders, authoritarian regimes and declining democracies alike have exploited the pandemic to crack down on dissent. They have curbed protests through enforced curfews, criminalized activism under the guise of vague laws meant to curtail “spreading disinformation” about the virus, and more. The pandemic helped quell the protests in Iran and Iraq to Argentina and Venezuela to Hong Kong, where the Chinese legislature slammed through a disturbing national security law that many believe signals the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy and which has already been used to arrest countless outspoken voices.

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 to massive demonstrations rejecting the rigged 2020 presidential election in Belarus. Throughout this outpouring of dissent, artists have stood at the forefront, bearing witness to inhumanity and catalyzing solidarity through songs, slogans, and murals 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 – 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.” 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; article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; 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. 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 protected], or via our encrypted intake form. For more information about using ARC’s resources, please refer to the “Finding Assistance” section.

Read the full ARC report in English, French or Spanish.

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Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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