Culture and Entertainment

Culture and Entertainment

Authoritarian-induced censorship permeates the art, film, television, professional sports, and video game industries in democratic settings.



Authoritarians recognize the powerful appeal that entertainment and cultural expression can generate, particularly in the digital era as new multimedia channels and social media formats enable the rapid dissemination of messages and can reshape perceptions among mass audiences. In the culture and entertainment industries—including the arts, film, television, sports, and video games—authoritarian powers have developed ever more sophisticated forms of cultural propaganda. Through a combination of traditional and digital mechanisms, they are also moving beyond censorship and propaganda to manipulate public expression through artistic and cultural mediums at their source.

Authoritarian regimes use multiple methods, including leverage of the private sector, to harness information resources within their borders and amplify their power beyond them. The economic clout of Beijing, in particular, allows it to exploit commercial and financial relationships to insist that foreign cultural institutions and entertainment firms comply with its censorship preferences. While overt censorship mechanisms are easier to observe, these efforts also induce an implicit understanding of taboo issues among the purveyors of culture, potentially resulting in self-censorship on a far wider basis that is more difficult to measure. 

Sharp Power Influence

In the realm of high culture, art galleries, museums, theaters, and cultural festival organizers have faced both financial and official government pressure not to host shows and exhibits featuring artists whose work offers an independent perspective that differs from the version of history or events preferred by an authoritarian regime.

The global film industry is becoming an instrument for authoritarian powers to advance their preferred narratives. Filmmakers in Hollywood and beyond are increasingly making decisions about their films—including the content, casting, plot, dialogue, and settings—based on an effort to avoid antagonizing officials who control whether their films gain market access. Both state and private Chinese media and internet firms have bought up studios, talent agencies, and top human resources to further establish their influence abroad. 

Authoritarian states also invest resources in international sports, both through sponsorship and broadcasting rights as well as ownership of professional sports teams and hosting major sporting events. This level of financial influence allows authoritarian actors to erase figures and issues they deem undesirable, including teams and individual players whose public remarks run afoul of political sensitivities. 

Sharp power also enters the video game space, where foreign companies have catered to authoritarian political priorities by censoring terms and phrases from online gaming forums, withdrawing prize money from players critical of the authorities, and altering game settings and characters. 

Autocrats are not agnostic about freedom of expression or association. The organizing principles of these systems require the control of speech and ideas and the elimination of independent groupings or power centers in society.

Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig

A Full-Spectrum Response to Sharp Power: The Strengths and Vulnerabilities of Open Societies

Democratic Responses

Cultural institutions and entertainment firms serve as important gatekeepers of expression and constitute a critical sector of civil society that can contribute to ensuring the vibrancy and authenticity of cultural expression within open societies.

Norms and Standard Setting
  • Leaders in the entertainment industry that have historically championed free speech should make a commitment to resisting censorship from governments around the world that seek to sideline certain topics.
  • Authors should resist censorship that alters their arguments or distorts major historical and political events. 
  • Industry leaders must develop a set of best practices on how to respond to governmental requests to modify and censor content, and those practices should affirm and protect artistic freedom. 
Cross-Sector Collaboration
  • Journalists can help draw attention to and expose individual examples of censorship of artists, performances, museum exhibits, and other public displays in the cultural and entertainment sphere that might otherwise go unreported. They can do so by creating and publicizing open solicitations for information about instances of censorship that allow whistleblowers to remain anonymous.
Education and Awareness
  • The entertainment industry must shine a light on the more generalized and less explicit pressures that censorious governments can bring to bear, specifically the types of pressures that encourage self-censorship and that shrink the space for honest and fearless storytelling.
  • Entertainment companies commit to publicly sharing information on all censorship requests received by foreign governments for their films. Such disclosure could take the form of an annual report similar to the disclosures that technology platforms make regarding government take-down requests and their responses.

Culture and Entertainment

The reporting and analysis catalogued in the Portal illustrates how authoritarian powers exert influence beyond their borders in the arts sector and the film, television, sports, and video games industries.

Latest Resources

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Source: Voice of America

Publication Date: March 6, 2023

South Africa’s ANC Received Big Donation from Russian Oligarch-Linked Firm

Authoritarian Country: Russia

Affected Region: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa

Author: Kate Bartlett

View Resource: South Africa’s ANC Received Big Donation from Russian Oligarch-Linked Firm

The African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, received a large donation from a mining company used by a Russian oligarch to evade sanctions. Critics say this gift is a bribe in exchange for the ANC’s support for the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Source: The Guardian

Publication Date: February 12, 2023

Australia Foils Iran Surveillance Plot and Vows to Bring Foreign Interference ‘Into the Light’

Authoritarian Country: Iran

Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, Australia

Author: Daniel Hurst

View Resource: Australia Foils Iran Surveillance Plot and Vows to Bring Foreign Interference ‘Into the Light’

The Iranian government attempted to surveille dissidents and members of the diaspora living in Australia in order to threaten relatives or protesters back in Iran. Iran’s goal was to prevent criticism of the regime from Iranians living abroad.

Source: BBC

Publication Date: February 6, 2023

Disney Removes Simpsons ‘Forced Labour’ Episode in Hong Kong

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: North America, United States

Author: Nicholas Yong

View Resource: Disney Removes Simpsons ‘Forced Labour’ Episode in Hong Kong

An episode of American TV show The Simpsons was blocked in Hong Kong because of references to the human rights violations and forced labor camps in Xinjiang. American companies have had a tendency to comply with Chinese government demands to retain access to the Chinese market.

Source: All Africa

Publication Date: February 1, 2023

Africa: Taking a Toll – Lessons from Nairobi’s Expressway

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya

Author: Msingathi Sipuka

View Resource: Africa: Taking a Toll – Lessons from Nairobi’s Expressway

A new Chinese-built highway was billed as a benefit for citizens in Nairobi. However, an exploitative toll agreement benefitted the Chinese operators and made the expressway inaccessible for Kenyans.

Source: The Guardian

Publication Date: January 31, 2023

Saudi Arabia Tourism Body’s Sponsorship of 2023 Women’s World Cup Condemned by Human Rights Groups

Authoritarian Country: Saudi Arabia

Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, Australia, New Zealand

Author: Mostafa Rachwani

View Resource: Saudi Arabia Tourism Body’s Sponsorship of 2023 Women’s World Cup Condemned by Human Rights Groups

Saudi Arabia paid millions of dollars to become a sponsor of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Organizations have called this a ploy to distract from Saudi women’s lack of political and economic rights in the kingdom, acting to whitewash their reputation on the world stage.

Source: Gulf International Forum

Publication Date: January 4, 2023

Saudi Investment in Africa Surges as Iran’s Influence Sputters

Authoritarian Country: Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates

Affected Region: Senegal, Mali, Sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Mozambique, Guinea, Benin, The Gambia

Author: Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

View Resource: Saudi Investment in Africa Surges as Iran’s Influence Sputters

In an effort to diversify its investments and counter Iran, Saudi Arabia developed new relationships across Africa. For the Saudis, Emiratis, and Iranians, African economies present an opportunity to develop political influence outside of the Middle East, while reaping Africa’s natural resources.


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