Local officials in Pakistan have shut down an art exhibition that depicts alleged extrajudicial killings by the Karachi police. The closure is both an attack on free expression and an attempt to sweep under the rug a longstanding human rights problem.
The exhibit “Killing Fields of Karachi” by Adeela Suleman, a world-renowned Pakistani artist, is part of Karachi’s biennial art show. The Karachi parks division head claimed the exhibition was “vandalism, not art,” and said artists should not “showcase our dirty laundry to the world” but present a “good picture” of the city.
On October 27, authorities sealed off the exhibit – an installation of 444 tombstones and a video – from other works. The tombstones were also knocked down, although a group of art students and volunteers restored the installation the next day. As of October 29, it remained closed to the public.
Freedom of expression is an essential foundation of a democratic society and extends not only to information and ideas that the authorities receive favorably, but also to those that offend, shock, or disturb. The United Nations Human Rights Committee notes that freedom of expression includes commentary on public affairs and artistic expression and “embraces even expression that may be regarded as deeply offensive.” The UN special rapporteur on cultural rights says that the right to artistic expression includes every person’s right to “freely experience and contribute” to artistic expressions and creations, to have access to and enjoy the arts, and to disseminate their own expressions and creations.
The art installation is not the real problem, of course. As Human Rights Watch reported in “‘This Crooked System’: Police Abuse and Reform in Pakistan,” Pakistani police routinely commit arbitrary arrest, torture, and extrajudicial killings with impunity. Pakistan should focus on reforming the police, not stifling artists.