The arrest of Yonas Berhane Mewa, a highly regarded filmmaker from Ethiopia and the founder of the prestigious Gumma Film Awards, on 9 June, followed by his subsequent release on bail on 12 May, has sent shockwaves through the artistic community, igniting an urgent call for authorities to embrace and support artists, ensuring that they can freely express their thoughts, ideas, and perspectives without fear of retribution.
Artists have long been recognized as the mirrors of society, reflecting its beauty, struggles, and aspirations. They possess a unique ability to capture the essence of the human experience and channel it through their artistic creations. In the case of Mewa’s arrest, the authorities cited his connection to Lij Magna, a TikTok artist whose makeup powerfully symbolised the prevailing silence and fear felt by Ethiopians amidst escalating violence. It is precisely because of this symbolism and the responsibility that artists carry that their voices become crucial in times of societal unrest.
When artists find themselves in positions of influence, they have a moral obligation to speak on behalf of the masses, shedding light on their struggles and advocating for change. Artistic expression is not merely a form of entertainment; it is a means of amplifying the voices of the marginalised, challenging the status quo, and sparking vital conversations that can lead to positive transformation. By arresting and suppressing artists like Mewa, the authorities are not only stifling artistic freedom but also silencing the powerful voices that have the potential to inspire empathy, provoke thought, and incite positive change.
To foster a thriving creative culture, artists must be allowed to express themselves as long as they do not violate the rights of others. To that end, PANAF strongly condemns Mewa’s arrest and rejects the notion of holding him accountable for the artistic expressions of others at the event. The network also urges local authorities to drop the charges against him and calls for a more inclusive and supportive environment for all citizens, including those in the cultural sector.
By ensuring artists can create without fear, Ethiopia can nurture a vibrant creative culture that enriches society and contributes to national growth. However, artists must also recognize their responsibility to avoid inciting violence or discrimination. Peaceful and thought-provoking artistic expressions, like Lij Magna’s makeup highlighting societal issues, should not lead to arrests.
PANAF also stands in solidarity with Lij Magna, urging civil society and human rights organisations across Africa to monitor the government’s restrictions on freedom of expression. The protection of artistic and creative expression is crucial, both in Ethiopia and beyond. It is imperative that we recognize and protect the invaluable role that artists play in society, allowing them the space and freedom to fulfil their responsibility of speaking truth to power and being the vanguards of societal progress.