Everyone has the right to music, both as a mechanism of expression and enjoyment. Freemuse, a Copenhagen-based international organization, established March 3rd as Music Freedom Day, in order to advocate for musicians’ right to freedom of expression; to carry out their craft without fear of oppression, imprisonment, or censorship. Since 2007, when Music Freedom Day was launched, more than 100 partners and collaborators in 36 countries have joined the annual event. The combination of campaigns such as Music Freedom Day, silent diplomacy, and political developments has helped foster the release of artists around the world.
The right to freedom of expression is articulated in international agreements on human rights. Article 19, of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and articles 27 and 15 of the UDHR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) respectively, convey one’s right to music. These articles include the right to freedom of opinion and expression via any media, as well as the freedom to participate in cultural life and enjoy the arts. These pieces of international law dictate musicians’ freedom to express themselves through their art, as well as the right of all people to experience music without fear or negative repercussions.
Despite its explicit protection in international law, the right to music remains in jeopardy today. In every region of the world, musicians are subject to persecution, censorship, and other threats to their personal safety and freedom. The statistics for 2021 noted 1251 violations in 103 different nations. These infringements included censorship, prosecution, oppression, and imprisonment. Freemuse breaks censorship down into four distinct categories: political, religious, corporate, and censorship against women. While the historical majority of violations are grounded in politics, there has been a significant rise in religiously motivated attacks on artistic freedom in recent years.
Following a global conference on censorship held in Istanbul in 2006, Freemuse determined an international day of advocacy would be a valuable tool to combat encroachments on musical freedom by providing an opportunity for local organizations and networks to organize around a specific cause. Thus, March 3rd, 2007 was established as the first annual Music Freedom Day with journalists around the world conducting interviews with suppressed musicians and with radio executives endorsing censorship. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was one of the most enthused partners and dedicated a week of programming to the event, featuring productions addressing censorship and a documentary on musical freedom. Freemuse also collaborated with a number of radio networks including the Daily Times Pakistan, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Iraqi National News Agency, and Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. Quotes from these programs and interviews were then publicized in the mainstream media across the globe.
The international platform has greatly expanded in the years following the establishment of Music Freedom Day. The event serves as a platform to coordinate with international musicians, organizations, and corporations, encouraging the inclusion of diverse cultural mediums and styles in the promotion of one like cause. The web of nations collaborating on the event now reaches every region of the world, with particularly notable networks in Africa and the Middle East, featuring a diversity of expressions such as:
- Radio and television agendas modified to include interviews with censored musicians, as well as programs discussing censorship and the freedom of expression.
- Exhibits and demonstrations have been measures of publicity, such as Afghanistan’s release of 1000 red balloons over Mazar-i-Sharif City, in order to convey the nation’s love for music.
- Seminars and roundtables are common events, such as a Polish organization, Indeks 73, hosted a public debate on “music freedom and freedom in music” in 2010.
- Concerts are prevalent, celebrating the freedom of music around the world, and have featured artists such as exiled Sudanese musician Abazar Hamid, formerly imprisoned Turkish singer Ferhat Tunç, and Norwegian Sami musician Mari Boine.
On Music Freedom Day 2011, Freemuse released three new songs from imprisoned musician Win Maw, which had been smuggled from his detention center in Burma; in 2016 they released a playlist of 60 songs which had previously been censored. The day is frequently dedicated to regional events or causes, including the deaths of persecuted artists or activists, tumultuous ethnic conflict, and ongoing revolutions. Freemuse dedicated the event in 2016 to victims’ memories from the November 2015 terrorist attack at the Parisian Bataclan Theatre; nearly 90 audience members were killed while listening to a rock concert. Music Freedom Day 2016 was an advocacy tool for the right to both perform and listen to music without fear of persecution. This goal was complemented by the widespread promotion of the 2015 documentary “They Will Have to Kill Us First.” The documentary is based on the 2012 militant group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) which put a total ban on music in Mali, modeled after the Taliban’s comparable initiative in 1990’s Afghanistan. The film follows several Malian musicians who, though forced to live in exile or hiding, still manage to perform their craft with fervor. On Music Freedom Day the documentary was either screened or broadcasted in 55 nations around the world.
The organization of a day of advocacy is an easily promotable, far-reaching event that can encourage collaboration between a wide variety of social groups, and incorporate the use of both local initiatives and media. Music Freedom Day has proven to be a flourishing tool in raising awareness for the rights of musicians in an increasingly polarized world. Despite fluctuations caused by variable local funding and engagement, the number of nations involved with the event overall has increased fivefold since its initial organization by Freemuse in 2007, now reaching every region of the world and a wide array of diverse societies and cultures. The means used to increase awareness have greatly expanded from radio broadcasts to include television programs, podcasts, seminars, demonstrations, and the use of live music. By continuing to engage local organizations and media, Freemuse intends to broaden the reach and impact of the event even further. While violations may still occur, Music Freedom Day has been an effective tactic to stimulate the enduring celebration of music around the world while raising awareness for campaigns which advocate on behalf of threatened and imprisoned musicians.
About Freemuse: Founded in 1998, Freemuse documents infringements on the rights of musicians around the world. Since 2011 Freemuse has broadened its scope to include projects advocating freedom of all artistic expressions and initiated the global network Artsfex for the protection of artistic freedom. Freemuse collaborates with associates around the world to incorporate their research in nations’ Universal Periodic Reviews to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.
Creating an annual day to celebrate and raise awareness of a particular issue is an effective publicity platform. A day of advocacy allows people and organizations to unite around a common cause and encourages collaboration. A day of advocacy allows for flexibility, where people and organizations can tailor the day of recognition to their own context. Setting up an advocacy day creates a stage to educate people about a particular issue, and encourages them to join the cause. These days of recognition can incorporate a wide variety of actions, such as marches, demonstrations, or concerts. This tactic requires partnerships, coordination, and publicity, whether on a single or multiple country level. Organizing advocacy may center on a significant day of a country’s history or remembrance, or using one of the United Nations observances. This tactic can be effective in engaging current allies in such a day of recognition and reach out to new allies to help further your goals. If you are unsure of how to identify new allies, there are resources available in our Strategy Toolkit, see Map the Terrain.