Leveraging Celebrity Power to Expose Dictatorships

In an era of globalization, authoritarian leaders have taken a particular interest in celebrities as a means of legitimizing their political standings.

Join HRF in urging celebrities to join the conversation and uphold values of tolerance, free expression, and equality – which means no performing for dictators.


What’s wrong with artists performing in countries ruled by dictatorships?

Fans count on celebrities to use their platforms to bring wider attention to important issues. Celebrities often leverage their sizable public platforms to get involved in politics and human rights, support candidates for office that reflect their values, or endorse organizations that seek to bring about meaningful change in society.

The reverse can also be true. With the power of celebrity comes the responsibility to support just causes, or at the very least, avoid supporting evil and exploitative causes. It is disastrous for public figures of their standing — many of whom have hypocritically articulated a commitment to education, women’s rights, and social justice elsewhere — to accept invitations from authoritarian regimes and brutal dictators.

When celebrities move forward with an appearance sponsored by tyranny, they are in league with people who respond to freedom of expression with torture and murder. They are condoning and serving the public relations needs of governments that in some cases execute people for the “crime” of being who they are.

This hypocrisy tarnishes celebrities’ status as leaders and role models for fans and future generations. The loss of reputation and credibility on issues of substance is impossible to retract, even if they view their actions with regret in hindsight.


But it’s not like the celebrities are performing for the regime. Right?

In a fully or semi-authoritarian state, virtually nothing happens without the tacit approval of the regime in power. Celebrities who perform in countries ruled by oppressive dictators legitimize their repressive regimes, whitewash the human rights violations in those countries, and tarnish the good work the artist may be doing in other areas.

We believe that the participation of celebrities in events sponsored or authorized by murderous regimes such as that of Saudi Arabia sends the message that dictatorial governments can simply purchase the endorsements of high-profile celebrities while simultaneously discouraging those in the population seeking to bring about peaceful transformation.


How do you decide if a country’s human rights violations cross a line?

HRF is focused on promoting and protecting human rights in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes that persecute their citizens and deprive them of fundamental freedoms. These include the freedom of speech and expression, freedom of association, freedom from slavery and torture, and freedom from arbitrary detention and exile.

HRF has identified 95 authoritarian regimes wherein human rights violations occur regularly. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are jailed for speaking out against an unjust system which considers them second-class citizens who are not allowed to participate in most aspects of society without the approval of a male guardian.

In Turkey, tens of thousands of suspected dissenters are jailed by Erdoğan’s regime, and many thousands more are fired from their civil service jobs, universities, and media organizations. Turkmenistan has never experienced a free and fair election, and the judicial system is subservient to the dictatorship.

The Chinese Communist Party continuously cracks down on freedom of expression, its government censoring and imposing heavy prison sentences on pro-democracy activists. North Korea is ruled by a totalitarian dictatorship that restricts all access to outside information, allowing only government-sanctioned propaganda.

Corruption runs rampant in Venezuela, where 90% of the population lives below the poverty line and opposition leaders are frequently imprisoned. And in Angola, the regime murders journalists, opposition politicians, and activists critical of the dictator’s oppressive and exploitative regime.

Many other authoritarian countries commit gross human rights violations against their citizens, and their citizens have no way to push back like they do in democratic societies. Their citizens have no way, for instance, to publish an op-ed in their local newspaper, to sue their government to change policy, to organize a mass peaceful protest, to start a non-profit watchdog organization, or to even speak out without fear of reprisal.


What’s the point of asking an artist to cancel a performance?

Authoritarian regimes and dictators personally go to great lengths to give their governments the appearance of stability, normalcy, and calm. Canceling a high-profile event like a major musical concert brings media attention and scrutiny to the country in question. It raises questions among citizens and prevents dictators from legitimizing their regimes with glossy photos and smiling celebrities. It exposes the hypocrisy of rulers who want to appear progressive and open, while maintaining a brutal regime that persecutes the citizens who seek change.

HRF’s work is to motivate celebrities to prioritize morals over money by canceling their scheduled appearances for authoritarian rulers, and instead use their considerable fame and status as global personalities to issue public statements of solidarity with the billions of people worldwide living under oppressive rule.

Celebrities can use their large followings and dedicated fans to start conversations about the brutality and violence inherent in these regimes, perhaps leading to change for the better in these countries.


What can I do about all this?

Fans have the ability to move the needle on support for human rights in the right direction. Given the ability to connect on social media across continents, people everywhere can help denounce dictators, and support the struggle for freedom by boycotting events that advance the repressive agendas of authoritarian regimes.

We encourage everyone to join in the conversation and urge their favorite stars to live up to their responsibilities in a free society by upholding values of tolerance, free expression, and equality – which means no performing for dictators.

Join the cause.

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