To tell a good story should not be a risk. To paint on canvas or shoot a picture should not land you in jail. A tweet, a blog, a film — non should cost you your life.
Look around the world, though, and worry. Storytellers are in jail, exiled or dead.
China is in the midst of a major crackdown on reporting. In Afghanistan, in a month that saw violence against reporters and producers, gunmen attacked two radio journalists, leaving one in a coma. In nearby Pakistan, independent journalists are harassed on a daily basis. In Turkey, two correspondents face life in prison for reporting, with 14 journalists imprisoned as of the end of 2015, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The situation for media in Egypt is grim. Africa is full of stories of censorship.
According to "Freedom in the World 2016," Freedom House's annual report on political rights and civil liberties, economic downturns and fear of social unrest have led Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes to crack down harder on dissent, while mass migration and new forms of terrorism in 2015 fueled xenophobic sentiment in major democracies. The report marked 2015 as the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
Extremists and repressive governments are targeting filmmakers, television producers, social media bloggers, painters and playwrights — from the beheading of a Syrian archaeologist last August to the trials of poets and writers in Egypt, to the terrorist attack on a concert hall in Paris, killing 89 fans of music, to vandalism against art exhibitions in Russia. No place is immune.
Enough is enough. We need to, collectively, wring our hands in despair for what is happening to art, culture, reporting and to those who produce content. We need stories and storytellers to push back against violent extremism and to build civil societies.
Through narratives, we consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and address biases in judgment. Stories change how we make distinctions about individuals and groups. From hieroglyphics to high-definition TV, the storyteller brings human experience to life, exposing ills and expressing hope. Without art, we lose culture, which is central to community and critical to building peaceful societies.
It is time to challenge the idea that by removing a storyteller, we blot out the story. Quite the contrary.
The attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last year did not end the movement to counter violent extremism; it emboldened it. More people know about the French cartoonists than did before, although they paid a high price for their work.
Issuing a fatwa against Salman Rushdie has not silenced him. It has made him a folk hero.
Attacking Malala Yousafzai and young schoolgirls did not end the fight for girls' education in Pakistan. It led to a major film and more attention to the cause.
This year must be the year we acknowledge, celebrate and tell the stories of artists whose works bring about positive social change. Their voices must be echoed, their efforts publicly represented and funded.
In the end, stories must be told if we are to find our better selves.
Shahabian is president of Layalina Productions, a nonprofit organization, and an award-winning filmmaker. Sonenshine is former undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and currently lectures at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.