Breaking down the Walls: Artists and Journalists Send a Strong Warning of the Dangers of Complacency

By Tanya Sakzewski

Audiences were warned by artists and journalists not to stay silent when freedoms are under threat and encouraged to be proactive in tackling polarization and divisions in society at a public event in Warsaw, Poland, on 11 May.

The warnings came during the event, ‘Breaking Down Walls: Artists, freedom and social cohesion’ organized by the Faculty of Journalism, Information and Book Studies at the University of Warsaw, in collaboration with the Media Diversity Institute Global and with the support of the Museum of Modern Art.

Hanna Azemsha, a TV journalist and reporter from Belarus, who is working in Poland for Belsat TV, made a powerful warning about being complacent. She said change in her country didn’t happen overnight and people didn’t take it seriously at first. As a result, freedoms have been lost and many of her fellow journalists as well as opposition figures and activists are in jail. Reporters Without Borders highlighted in its 2022 Round-up that Belarus is one of the world’s top jailers of journalists with more than 30 behind bars.

Azemsha encouraged audience members to “take action every time you see freedom of expression being threatened. Don’t close your eyes when you see something wrong.”

It was a message repeated by other speakers at the event, part of the MEDIAdelcom project, exploring the role of the creative and media sectors in preserving freedom and promoting deliberation. 

Agata Szczęśniak, a journalist, sociologist, columnist and activist, who works for a fact-checking and investigative journalism outlet in Poland, said people need to fight any actions that lead towards authoritarianism. She said presenting the facts and informing people about issues is not enough.

“There is a presumption that when facts are presented to people they become enlightened. It is not true.” Szczęśniak added that people read and absorb facts in the framework of their own culture and beliefs, but she still believes the media plays an important role in presenting the facts and making them available to the public. She urged people to support the media, especially independent media, to ensure its survival and ability to present responsible reporting.

Speakers agreed common ground was needed for deliberation to succeed and to tackle the problem of polarization, especially in Polish society.

Professor Andrzej Krakowski, a film director, producer, teacher, writer and cartoonist who lives in the US, spoke about his experience being expelled from Poland during anti-Semitic purges in 1968. He called for people to listen to each other and enter into dialogue to exchange ideas. “We can’t keep putting bandaids on wounds when we don’t understand where the wounds come from.”  Krakowski said there is an overload of information and media options, and people don’t know how to communicate.

Shady Lady, a Polish drag queen, artist and activist whose performances touch on the issues of the LGBTQ+ community, agreed it was important to listen and not just consume information. “For us in the LGBTQ+ community, we are open to discussion and to communicate and describe issues, but sometimes the other side doesn’t want to listen.” Shady Lady added that there was still a lack of respect for the LGBTQ+ community in the country.

In Poland, authorities in one-third of the country have adopted anti-LGBT resolutions since 2019, declaring themselves free of “LGBT ideology” which includes so-called LGBT “free-zones”.  Some towns have since had their “zones” annulled by courts.

Shady Lady said polarization is the biggest issue facing society and the arts provide an avenue for connecting people. 

Michał Janicki, a painter, creative art director, and head of painters and animators in BreakThru Films in Poland, agreed art has a role to play in helping solve problems. He said artists can provide a space for people to meet and exchange ideas. “I think art can do a lot, we just need to be brave. Deliberation is possible if only we are willing to meet in the same room.”

Krakowski also appealed to the audience to listen to each other and be more proactive in solving problems. “The most effective way is to do. Let’s not push for change, let’s make change.” 

Dr. William Tayeebwa, Senior Lecturer of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University in Uganda, sent a video message saying freedom of expression was also under pressure in many African nations, but artists have been speaking out on issues including governance, human rights and freedom of expression. He urged artists in Europe to do the same. ”With the rise of right-wing politics in Europe, the work of artists and cultural figures is even more important to spread the message of love and empathy towards the other.”

The event also featured art by Warsaw University students including a digital photographic display, Freedom! Where are you? and a dance performance interpreting freedom.

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