Promoting Cultural and Artistic Expression in Africa

Promoting Cultural and Artistic Expression in Africa

By Ashnah Kalemera

As humans, individual artists enjoy rights as enshrined in national laws and international instruments on freedom of expression, assembly and association. However, there are variations between countries on what the laws provide for and the level of freedoms of creative, artistic and cultural expression that citizens enjoy.

In Africa, various factors impact upon these freedoms – including political, religious, social-economic and cultural issues. According to the ArtWatch Africa 2013 report on Monitoring Freedom of Creative Expression, national constitutions, laws, regional and international conventions of which African countries are signatories support cultural rights. However, while some national constitutions expressly protect arts and creativity, others only “implicitly” refer to the sector through guaranteeing the rights to freedom of expression or cultural life.

The report indicates that only a few African countries have ratified international conventions on cultural and artistic expression, and even less have national cultural policies. The situation is further compounded by little or no state and civil society mechanisms to monitor adherence to countries’ commitments to upholding cultural and artistic rights.

Table 1: Status of the Legal Framework of Cultural and Artists Rights in Select East African Countries

Status of International, National and Regional Instruments related to Cultural and Artists Rights
 Country National Cultural Policy University Declaration of Human Rights UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights International Covenant on Economic, Social, Cultural and Political Rights The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights
Burundi None Recognises the Declaration as state party to the United Nations Ratified 2008 Ratified 1990 Ratified 1990 Ratified 1989
Ethiopia Cultural Policy 1997


Ratified 2008 Ratified 1993 Ratified 1993 Ratified 1998
Kenya Culture and Heritage Policy 2009


Ratified 2007 Ratified 1972 Ratified 1972 Ratified 1992
Rwanda Draft Cultural Policy in 2010


Ratified 2012 Ratified 1975 Ratified 1975 Ratified 1981
Uganda Culture Policy 2006 Not party Ratified 1995 Ratified 1987 Ratified 1986


Accordingly, ArtWatch Africa is working to advance freedom of creative and cultural expression in Africa. In November 2014, ArtWatch Africa in collaboration with Culture and Development East Africa (CDEA), organised a workshop to deepen key Tanzanian stakeholders’ understanding of cultural and artistic rights and to explore approaches in addressing the challenges faced in the national cultural sector. The three-day event was part of a series of workshops organised by ArtWatch Africa’s project that monitors the challenges and constraints on freedom of creative expression in Africa towards developing democracy and human rights on the continent.

Participants at the Tanzania workshop identified a number of challenges faced by local artists, including  limited networks and alliances that advocate for artists’ rights. The few existing artists associations had prohibitive member subscription fees. Meanwhile, low media coverage and interest in arts and culture affected information availability in the public domain and advocacy campaigns.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) offer a potential to promote cultural and artistic expression but can also act as platforms for negating these rights. For instance, tools such as social media can be utilised to advance freedom of expression, build networks of like-minded organisations and enable individuals to share, seek and impart relevant information. On the other hand, the tools can be used to control arts and culture through classification restrictions on publishing and dissemination of content on grounds of age, blasphemy and censorship, among others.

During 2015, the OpenNet Africa project will be seeking to work with visual and performing artists to understand and promote freedom of expression, notably on the internet through their work and networks in Africa – both as targets for education campaigns and as agents of activism. This is in line with the project’s objectives of promoting access to information, privacy, safety and security online. OpenNet Africa is an initiative of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) in partnership with the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos) and the Open Technology Fund.


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