Srirak Plipat // Censorship in the US: A Global Perspective
In August 2018 I sat down with Srirak Plipat in Copenhagen to get a global perspective on artistic freedom and censorship issues in the United States.
Dr Srirak Plipat is the Executive Director of Freemuse, where he works with local and international partners to devise a comprehensive approach to defending artistic freedom and cultural expression through research, advocacy and policy influencing. Plipat was Director at Amnesty International (AI) in London, managing operations and regional projects in over 15 countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. Before joining AI, Srirak was a documentary film producer and writer with the debut “One More to Freedom” series broadcasted on TV5 Thailand. He holds a PhD in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh.
Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, Freemuse is an independent international organization advocating for and defending freedom of artistic expression. Freemuse publishes an annual report titled, The State of Artistic Freedom. The 2018 report was released just before this interview.
C: If you were to imagine a society that had real artistic freedom, what would that look like?
S: That would be the world where anyone can express any opinion, feelings, personal or political views, in an artistic way, without restriction. Except for very few cases, that have been agreed upon by international law, and that is any propaganda of war and inciting violence.
C: So something like hate speech would not be protected?
S: That’s right. According to international human rights standards, hate speech is not included. Many governments around the world now have been increasingly using hate speech as a rationale for censorship, to prosecute artists in various parts of the world. The issue becomes the definition of hate speech. An NGO called Article 19, has done the most thorough analysis of what constitutes hate speech. Based on the international human rights law, you have to look at the intention and the likelihood that people will actually do the violence, as the artist suggests. If a musician sings a song and says let’s burn the police station, then you have to look at how likely is it that the audience will go and burn the police station. In the latest State of Artistic Freedom, on the allegations against artists, there is an 8% increase in governments using the rationale of hate speech to imprison artists.
C: Have you heard about the concept of no-platforming?
S: Parts of it, but tell me a bit more.
C: I understand it as differentiating between the idea of censoring someone and choosing not to provide a platform for their opinion.
S: I think this has come up on our radar screen on a regular basis, when we establish whether there’s censorship happening or not and sometimes things are in the gray area. Let me give you one example: When you have a museum, especially private ones, they have the right to pick and choose the artwork. We recognize their right to pick and choose. If one artist didn’t get selected and comes to us saying there’s censorship, we don’t take that as censorship, because of the museum’s right to choose the artwork. When an artist faces allegations of sexual harassment and the museum decided to cancel or remove some of his artwork, then that’s where we look into details. On the principle side we think everyone should have the right to express himself artistically, regardless of their criminal records. If an artist kills another person, then we believe that the artist should be brought to justice. But during the process he or she should be able to express themselves, even in prison, regardless of the crime they’ve done. If a private entity chooses not to provide the platform for a particular person because their records or behavior doesn’t fit the values of the organization, we also respect that judgement call. So,, in a way we have to look on a case by case basis.
C: If a group is critiquing a work for its use of cultural appropriation or another offensive reason, and they don’t have as much structural power as a museum or government, how do you frame or call that action?
S: That’s certainly a big challenge in the U.S. We would approach the cultural appropriation in a very cautious way, because this is where the act of censorship normally comes under that branding. We protect any artists, or other individuals to express any view, regardless of whether we agree with them or not, whether it’s appropriate or not. At times we step up and defend opinions or expressions we absolutely disagree with, even when it’s not wise at all to express things like that. We defend them because we want to have debates, and that’s the importance of having a plural society, where you can agree and disagree. But when the public or organization removes certain expressions, under the name of [cultural] appropriation, that’s where censorship starts, when you try to silence views that don’t fit within your value system. That’s where censorship and the culture of silencing is growing. We’ve seen this increasing in the U.S. in the past few years. Once Trump came into power, we’ve seen society as more divided. If you have a look at our State of Artistic Freedom report you’ll see in some categories, the U.S. has been among the highest in the world in terms of censorship, but the scale is certainly different. The level of punishment in traditionally repressed regimes includes putting artists in prisons, and the U.S. doesn’t do it at that level.
C: In the U.S., are you seeing an even amount of voices on different sides of this polarized line, censoring one another?
S: Yes, absolutely, I think that’s the very case. Both during and after the presidential election when both camps were trying to silence the other, one would say this piece of work is supporting the other camp, or particular statues in the U.S. where it no longer serves a rational political narrative and they want it to be removed. On those particular issues we believe many are pieces of art and you should have access to those arts. Even if you remove them from public space, put them in museums where people can actually have access. We leave that to the judgement call of the public in general as long as people have access to it.
C: So moving a statue from one place to another would not count as censorship?
S: We do not count that as censorship.
C: Do you look at the influence of corporations or capitalist structure and how it relates to freedom of expression?
S: Absolutely. The corporate world also has legal responsibilities under international human rights standards to allow people to express themselves. Social media companies and internet providers, have the responsibility to provide access to people to be able to exchange without censoring peoples’ opinions. Facebook, Twitter, Google and other big tech companies, increasingly use arbitrary standards to say this piece of work must be removed because it contains nudity, because of this and that. The user guidelines are the criteria for censorship and it’s not consistent with international human rights standards. We’re looking at campaigning against the use of arbitrary standards. We documented the number of cases where Facebook removed pieces of art, even for education, because a masterpiece painting happened to show parts of a woman’s breast and so on. It’s a bit of a pity, and short sighted but to a larger problem, it’s arbitrary rules that private companies set without considering international human rights standards.