Safe Havens & Freedom Talks

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In December 2013, the first international Safe Havens conference was held in Malmö, Sweden. The idea was to bring together an array of stakeholders in a then-emerging sector at the intersection of culture and human rights. The initiative was started through the Swedish Arts Council to strengthen both the concept of artistic freedom itself and the work of various organisations in this field, prioritising artists, smaller organisations and individuals working on the ground dedicated to supporting artists, journalists, writers and academics at risk. Since then, in various collaborative efforts, the Safe Havens Conference has gathered annually about 200 artists, writers, international NGOs, EU agencies, UN special rapporteurs, state agencies, shelter cities, pro bono lawyers, and others working to protect creatives and raise awareness on the threats to artistic freedom globally. Having started out with a Nordic perspective at the first conference, triggered by the expansion of shelter cities and NGOs in the region, the annual conference soon became the meeting place for artists and organisations vested in the full scope of protection and promotion of creatives at risk, on a global scale. While for security reasons, the date and time for each conference remain a well-kept secret within the network and its ever-increasing trusted circles of extended networks, comprehensive documentation is published after each meeting.[1]

As a strategy to influence decision-makers and aid organisations internationally and share knowledge and experiences from the field, participants from all walks of life, with profound proficiency in these matters, gather in workshops and discuss current issues. It is essential to have all sections of the field represented, i.e. artists, NGOs, lawyers, funders, etc., to see the whole picture together and to understand the landscape we operate in. Based on these workshops, recommendations and testimonials are extracted and presented to policymakers. Over the years, these meetings have given rise to a number of creative international collaborations. They have been one of the vehicles instrumental in uniting and elucidating this specific branch of the human rights/arts sector, which is sometimes referred to as the Arts, Rights, Justice sector.


Shahrokh Moshkin Ghalam performs a Keynote Dance at Safe Havens 2017, Photo by Ava Hanning


An array of organisations such as Freemuse, ICORN, PEN, Scholars at Risk, ARC, AFI, Reporters Sans Frontiers, Arterial Network, as well as speakers and panellists from around the world have contributed to the Safe Havens conferences. Some of these were late Nobel peace prize candidate Nina Ben Mhenni and UN special rapporteurs Farida Shaheed and Karima Bennoune, and Swedish Minister of Culture Alice Bah Kuhnke. However, although many of the speakers are internationally acclaimed, prestige is not an intrinsic goal for the Safe Havens gathering. Rather, it has always been the vision of the Safe Havens team to create a safe cosmopolitan space. The Safe Havens conference is a work-meeting where all voices count and all participants have important insights to share. To this end, for example, we opened the 2017 Safe Havens conference with a Keynote Dance instead of a Keynote Speech as we felt a need to illuminate the fact that the gathering is all about the protection and promotion of the international community of artists and their right to speak freely.

As a further development of the annual Safe Havens meetings, the Freedom Talks concept was launched last year as an open and streamed program series. This initiative aims to reach a larger target group to disseminate knowledge and insights from the skilled and knowledgeable Safe Havens network to the public and policymakers globally. The concept “Freedom Talks” invites organisations and artists in the global networks to co-produce conversations and/or artistic events, which are streamed courtesy of our collaborative partner Howlround for an international audience.The topics for Freedom Talks have ranged between the Uyghur situation in China, the conditions for artistic freedom in Southeast Asia, threats to the breakdance environment from criminal gangs in Guatemala, violations of the cultural rights of indigenous groups, and an event on Ramy Essam and the “Balaha case” – the tragic tale of the young video director Shady Habash who recently died in prison in Egypt.[2] Another member of Ramy’s team,  poet Galal El-Behairy is still in jail, sentenced by the Military Court in Cairo.


Monirah Hashemi, Safe Havens 2017, Photo by Fredrik Elg


There is a great need to protect and support artists, as the freedom of expression is threatened on a global scale, and human rights abuses are reported by organisations such as PEN, Freemuse and Reporters Without Borders. According to the 2018 Safe Havens conference report[3], artists and writers face threats from states and interest groups, limiting people’s rights — especially the rights of women and minorities. The goal of all initiatives within the Safe Havens concept is to strengthen the international network, which advocates and protects artists and cultural creators at risk at all levels.

UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights Karima Bennoune writes in her latest report that, “Cultural rights are core to the human experience, and essential for implementing other universal human rights and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. They are not a luxury, even during a global health crisis. In fact, as the Special Rapporteur has noted throughout 2020, culture is the heart of our response to COVID-19. Rights guaranteed in article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and in article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to take part in cultural life and the right to science, are even more vital during a pandemic[4].” Cultural rights and Freedom of speech, also in the form of artistic freedom, are interconnected with and even a basis for human rights as a whole. One important aspect highlighted in the recent Freemuse report “The State of Artistic Freedom”[5] is that in many cases, national laws are inconsistent with international laws and thus work against the protection of artists and their artistic freedom. This is one reason why disseminating knowledge from this field of human rights must be targeted at policy makers and the public.


Mai Khoi, Safe Havens 2017, Photo by Fredrik Elg


Some artists may indeed deliberately choose to practice their art as a form of resistance, a choice made in full awareness of the risks they face by taking such a position. On the other hand, some artists may also unintentionally find themselves at risk in specific contexts and societies without having had a pronounced intention to convey a political message through their artistic choice. In Iran, for example, women are not allowed to perform music in front of an audience, whereby the very act of a woman performing even an “innocent” love song would put her at significant risk; the performance in itself becoming a political statement – whether intended or not. [6]

The first Safe Havens conference in 2013 led to several tangible results, such as a broader understanding of both shared and specific threats against the range of artistic disciplines, which triggered subsequent political and organisational adjustments, such as opening shelter cities to artists. In preparing for Egyptian rock singer Ramy Essam[7] to arrive in Malmö as the city’s first musician in the ICORN[8] residency system, as the initiator of the Malmö ICORN programme,[9]I asked what his first priority would be for his two-year residency in Malmö; Ramy immediately replied that he planned to write as many new songs as possible and would also produce at least six music videos. The reason, he explained, was that he had every intention of going back – “I come straight from the revolution”, he said, and planning to return eventually, he would surely risk being arrested and possibly imprisoned for a long time. But according to this plan, twice a year for three years, his team would release his music videos on the internet as if he were not in prison at all. “Ramy Essam will still be there,” he said, “They can put me in prison, but my art will keep mocking the power.”


Bisi Alimi and Jude Dibia, Safe Havens 2017, Photo by Fredrik Elg


This anecdote may indeed be perceived as one of many adventurous and inspiring stories of activists and artists dedicated to resistance. But the approach also harbours carefully planned and crafted methodologies for identifying means of oppression and regaining control over the fundamental freedom of speech. Beyond our efforts to protect and promote artistic freedom as one of the fundamental human rights, there is also much learning to be made from these experiences and methodologies, also for those of us who work in grey zones under less flagrant oppression, but yet in an overall hardening environment for artists and other creatives.

Professor Oscar Ho Hing Kay of the Chinese University in Hong Kong writes in the newly published anthology Curating Under Pressure that, “One of the most powerful instruments of an authoritarian government is to exercise control over artistic expression and yet avoid setting clear regulations and standards.”9 This ambiguity regarding what rules actually apply in the practice of political censorship — even in the most overtly repressive environments, leaves the interpretation of artistic expressions to the capriciousness of the authorities and their censors — and is likely to insert fear and self-censorship. The oppression against artistic freedom is not only a matter of dramatic arrests and murder; in many cases, one might simply find oneself without assignments – not ever finding out if it is due to the quality of one’s artistic work or if someone in a power position was politically displeased with it[10]. On the other hand, when it is unclear what is permitted or not, this may also be where the artists find a gap where they can challenge the power and where the artistic intervention as a response can be equally ambiguous and fluid. In fact, one could argue that acting under clear oppressive laws would make our choices as artists, curators, and cultural developers in some respects easier and would allow for our protests to be direct and straightforward. In conclusion, the limits of artistic freedom are inconstant and ever-changing in most societies; in a Northern context, perhaps dictated more than anywhere by unwritten rules and unspoken assumptions and agreements within the cultural and political elite.[11]  To grasp the shading from the overt methods of oppression to mere excluding structures, Homi K. Bhabha’s postcolonial entry point, from his book The Location of Culture, may provide some clues,

“It becomes crucial to distinguish between the semblance and similitude of the symbols across diverse cultural experiences – literature, art, music, ritual, life, death – and the social specific of each of these productions of meaning as they circulate as signs within specific contextual locations and social systems of value. The transnational dimension of cultural transformation – migration, diaspora, displacement, relocation – makes the process of cultural translation a complex form of signification. The natural(ised), uniform discourse of ‘nation’, ‘peoples’, or authentic ‘folk’ tradition, those embedded myths of cultures’ particularity, cannot be readily referenced. The great, though unsettling, advantage of this position is that it makes you increasingly aware of the construction of culture and the invention of tradition.”[12]

A narrowing of the artistic freedom is a surging reality on a global scale, where the open interchange of ideas is increasingly being discharged [13] in exchange for authoritarian claims for culture as the “natural(ized), uniform discourse of ‘nation’, which Bhabha refers to.

Artists find themselves extremely vulnerable when dedicated to fully exercising their right to artistic freedom and may sometimes even feel they could also risk their position among benign helpers. The interaction between artists/activists and NGOs, intergovernmental institutions and institutes is inter-reliant of cases, the production of reports and sponsor priorities. Most NGOs are, of course, sources of profound knowledge, hard work, and good intentions, but their role in the system must also be challenged. In an article from 2014, writer and activist Arundhati Roy turns a critical eye on what she refers to as the “NGO-isation of resistance”:

“In the long run, NGOs are accountable to their funders, not to the people they work among. They’re what botanists would call an indicator species. It’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs.”[14]


Farzane Zamen. Safe Havens 2017, Photo by Fredrik Elg


Therefore, anyone who runs an operation to support and advocate for artists at risk must know our impact and what structures we create, uphold, or challenge. We must indeed make sure to be accountable to the people we work among. Subsequently, it is crucial that the Safe Havens conference remains a meeting that always builds on the voices of creatives at risk. The platform is there for us to trustingly share our knowledge; to better sharpen our tools together.

Safe Havens network evaluations have led to the decision that rather than meeting every year in the same place, it would be beneficial to travel to different regions each time to better global balance and more complex content. Following this decision, the Safe Havens conference departed from Malmö, Sweden, and the Museum of Movements,[15] where it thrived in its first years for a global venture. The Safe Havens “tour” started with a successful Safe Havens Cape Town 2019 conference. An array of relevant organisations from the Sub Saharan regions joined in, and a new southern African network — AMANI was formed.  Perspectives will continuously be added from different regions where artists and NGOs operate under diverse circumstances. Our findings show an expressed need for support for local organisations on the ground and for further exchange between them and the larger, international organisations. The Safe havens meetings benefit from expanding to include more NGOs and small organisations in this crossover sector. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to meet only through digital channels. Still, we could also see how this opened up an excellent opportunity to be truly international – and we named it the 2020 Safe Havens Global Stream. Despite not being able to meet in real life for the first time, the conference became surprisingly fruitful, much due to the team having made thorough preparations and the participants having such energy that distance and form would not get in the way of engaging discussions.

The Safe Havens and Freedom Talks initiatives are essential to many stakeholders in the network, and to secure the continuity, this year, we formed an administrative body; a non-profit organisation under the name of Safe Haven & Freedom Talks (SH&FT), which will carry the torch and sustainably develop these initiatives further into the future. During the start-up period, Norwegian non-profit Safemuse has generously stepped in as a fiscal sponsor to secure stability and organisational credibility to SH&FT. The Safe Havens initiative remains an open, collaborative forum to discuss concerns for the whole landscape of global protection, promotion and advocacy of censored and threatened artists, writers, journalists, and academics globally.


Cover photo: Abazar Hamid, Safe Havens 2016 by Fredrik Elg







[4] Bennoune, Karima, COVID-19, culture and cultural rights Report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights,


[6] Musician Farzane Zamen in a panel discussion at the Safe Havens conference 2015,



9 Ho Hing Kay, Oscar; The complexity of taking curatorial risks. Mincheva, Svetlana & Marstine, Janet (editors), Curating Under Pressure; International Perspectives on Negotiating Conflict and Upholding Integrity, (Routledge, London & New York, 2020), p 53

[10] Hajihosseini, Reza, lecture at Teaterdagarna in Jönköping, 2015

[11] Farahani, Fatani 2020, Women Making HERstory,

[12] Bhabha, Homi, K, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994)

[13] Bennnoune, Karima, COVID-19, culture and cultural rights Report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights,

[14] Roy, Arundhati, 2004


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