Freedom of expression was a polarizing subject in 2015, sparking media stories and public debate all over the world, with some parties arguing for a universal legal standard and others calling for limits to freedom of expression, or at least claiming that an absolutist concept of free speech is impractical in today’s complicated world.
Salman Rushdie anticipated these concerns as early as 2012, saying that his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, might not get published now, because “there’s a lot of fear and nervousness around.” For Rushdie, the question is simple: can a book be published? And is there an immediate threat to its author or its supporters (publishers, critics, and translators)? In short, the challenges to freedom of expression now are not so much philosophical or religious but are more practical in nature.
Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was convicted and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for his writing. Saudi writer Ashraf Fayadh was convicted in 2008 for his volume of poetry Instruction Within and sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes. Recently, Fayadh’s sentence was changed in the Saudi courts to death by decapitation.
Nevertheless, at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2015, the International Publishers Association voted to welcome as new members the publishers associations of Saudi Arabia and China—two countries with restricted freedom of speech. This means that the IPA’s prestigious Freedom to Publish Award will now be cosponsored by the publishers associations of these two countries, in addition to all the other members.
The IPA expressed its reasoning for admitting the two countries with this statement: “Commitment gives us a chance to support our colleagues, whereas nonengagement brings nothing”.
Admittedly, it is not a clear-cut case. The IPA is actively lobbying with Saudi authorities in support of both Badawi and Fayad, and the impact of this lobbying must not be underestimated, given the few channels for such interaction that remain open. And IPA’s president, Richard Charkin, of Bloomsbury UK, has recently protested loudly against the disappearance of some Hong Kong–based publishing professionals, in which Chinese authorities are suspected of being involved.
There are many good reasons why governments and international organizations should maintain open conversations. But there are also sound arguments for nongovernmental organizations to be selective about whom they choose to engage with. And there is always ground for scrutiny when governments intervene directly in cultural and artistic creation and expression.
The IPA, thus far, has no written guidelines in its statutes defining which countries can participate. The controversy surrounding the decision to accept both Saudi Arabia and China as new members in 2015 highlights the importance of having such a statute.
In Poland, the new government, just a month after gaining power, has chosen a theatrical performance as a battleground over the role of the state in determining freedom of expression. A theater in Wroclaw was rehearsing the play The Death and the Maiden by Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek when Adam A. Kwiatkowski, the new minister of culture and the deputy prime minister, called for the suspension of the production days before the opening, saying he suspects that the actors are “porn actors” and noting that the theater received government subsidies. For clarity, it must be noted that many theaters in continental Europe are dependent on such public money. Crucially, the intervention was not due to a breach of Polish law, but as Kwiatkowski explained, “for breaking commonly accepted rules of social coexistence.”
The point is that when informal “commonly accepted rules” gain the upper hand over law and independent justice, we have lost the protections of constitutional rule. The legal norms under attack have evolved over time, materializing in a broad consensus. Replacing them with vague “commonly accepted rules of social coexistence” is not an acceptable formula for today’s complex societies.