All forms of artistic creation—from music and visual art to writing and filmmaking—share a common goal: the exploration of personal expression. One of the numerous obstacles that prevents artists from expressing themselves fully in their work is pressure from society or government restrictions.
On February 22, Selam Talks hosted a discussion on the subject using the findings of a survey of Ethiopian artists titled “An appraisal of artistic freedom in Ethiopia.” Trigona Development Research and Consultancy carried out the research that examined the state of artistic freedom in Ethiopia, with a particular emphasis on the many fields of the arts and individual artists’ ability to freely think, create, and share their work without restrictions.
According to the study’s primary definition, artistic freedom is the “freedom to imagine, create, and distribute diverse cultural expressions free of governmental censure, political interference, or the pressure of non-state actors.”
Individual artists from the National Theatre, Hager Fikir Theatre, Ambassador Cinema, Addis Ababa University Culture Center, Children and Youth Theatre, and Oromo Cultural Center, as well as from the private sector’s Alem Cinema, Vamdas Cinema, and Adot Cinema, were surveyed for the study.
The research found that, legally, the freedom of expression in the arts is protected under Ethiopian law. The copyright act’s protective role, the arts’ economic rewards, and public access to the works all scored poorly as indicators of artistic freedom.
Financial limitations, limited human capacities, a lack of equipment and facilities, a lack of recognition by the government, and insecurity were also named as the five challenges to artistic freedom.
Based on their findings, the researchers recommended that the government should provide extensive support in areas such as land allocation for premises, budget subsidies, and training opportunities.
In addition to creating an implementation strategy for a cinema policy and putting it into action by fusing the policy with the visual arts, they advised that policies be created in the fields of literature, performing arts, and visual arts. One of the recommendations was that the new curriculum should include practical sessions taught by professionals and amateur artists to help teach performing and visual arts.
A panel of four, including Yikunnoamlak Mezgebu (lecturer in Ethiopian language and literature at Addis Ababa University), Sosina Wogayehu (CEO of Ethio Circus Entertainment), Dawit Tesfaye, a filmmaker, producer, director, screenwriter, and songwriter, and Mesenbet Asefa (PhD), a lawyer, discussed the study’s findings and recommendations.
The panelists and the audience, which consisted of artists, professional associations, concerned government bodies, and representatives of civil society, discussed the importance of artistic freedom, its necessity, and the benefits it can offer Ethiopian art and artists.
“Artistic freedom, I believe, is one of the main topics of our day-to-day stress, argument, and discussion. In my opinion, the biggest challenge that artists, including myself, face more than the topic of self-censorship in Ethiopia is the freedom to imagine,” Dawit said. He says it is self-evident to any reasonable person that this aspect of the constitution is very well expressed, grants a wide variety of freedoms, and conforms to international norms.
The right law exists, and it has even been updated, but the major problem, in his opinion, is in applying the law in practice.
Mesenbet, for his part, spoke about how freedom of expression impacts people’s actions, the economy, and politics. Article 34 of the Human Rights Commission’s overall analysis, he argues, makes it quite clear that artistic freedom is a part of the right to free expression.
Bealu Girma and other literary figures, in Mesenbet’s view, are the targets of some of the most significant political assassinations in Ethiopia’s history of censorship. He bemoaned the lack of discussions surrounding how creative artists might shield themselves from the scrutiny of the state and the community at large.
“There is a very sophisticated history of political censorship, and although the political climate is better now, there are many things other than the government that bring censorship. Artists have to push for freedom not only against the government, but they also have to fight the censorship brought by religion, culture, and the norms of society,” he said.