Since the start of the Covid pandemic, there’s been a rise in instances of government censorship of books around the world. In October 2020, the International Publishers Association released a 106-page report, “Freedom to Publish: Challenges, Violations and Countries of Concern,” that outlined 847 instances of censorship in a host of countries, including France, Iran, Serbia, and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States. According to the report, in 55% of those instances, the censorship was undertaken by government authorities. The report is downloadable from the IPA website.
Since that report was issued, efforts to censor books have continued. In July, the Hungarian government imposed an $830 fine on the distributor of the Hungarian translation of Lawrence Schimel’s children’s book What a Family!, citing a law that bans the depiction of homosexuality and gender reassignment in material aimed at minors. The book tells the story of two families with young children—one with two fathers and the other with two mothers.
That incident follows another in Hungary, in October 2020, when a member of parliament put a copy of Meseorszag mindenkie (A Fairy Tale for Everyone), which also features LGBTQ characters, through a shredder. “So the publisher reprinted it as a board book” said Schimel, whose book had the same Hungarian editor.
Schimel, an American living in Madrid, has published dozens of LGBTQ-themed works for children and adults. “It’s important for all families, not just those who are LGBTQ, to see and read these books which show just how normal these families are,” he said. What a Family! is now sold in Hungary with a sticker, warning readers that it depicts families “outside the norm.” It was originally published as two books in Spanish, and Orca Book Publishers is releasing it as two books in the U.S. in September.
Russia led the way in overt European LGBTQ censorship with the passage of its “anti-LGBTQ propaganda” law in 2012. Today, LGBTQ books are routinely suppressed there, and those that make it to market are sold with warning stickers.
“The campaigns by the populist governments in Europe, such as in Hungary and Poland, against the LGBTQ community are in direct violation of the principles of inclusion and the celebration of diversity,” said Michiel Kolman, chair for inclusive publishing at the IPA. He noted that in Poland, several towns have declared themselves LGBTQ-free zones, forcing LGBTQ residents to move, while in Hungary the transgender community was first targeted, and after that the broader LGBTQ community.
“The policies manifest themselves through censorship of books and other media that directly contradict the freedom-to-publish mission of the IPA,” Kolman told PW. He added that the Hungarian laws are likely an effort to deflect attention from the country’s dismal economic and Covid-19 track record.
Following the news of the attack on Schimel’s book in Hungary, the IPA, the Federation of European Publishers, and the European and International Booksellers Federation all reaffirmed their support for Hungarian publishers and readers, and their solidarity with LGBTQ communities in Hungary.
Belarus and China clamp down
Also in July, the government of Belarus moved to dissolve the local branch of PEN after the freedom of speech organization released a report showing 621 instances of human rights violations, including arrests and imprisonments, against culture workers in the first six months of 2021. Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, was among those around the world who issued a statement in support of PEN Belarus. “When a government silences and stomps on its writers, it reveals a level of shame and decay that leaders are aiming to hide, but instead only expose,” Nossel wrote. “Belarus’ leaders may think they can suppress the truth by muzzling those who dare tell it, but the story of the will of the people and the scale of brutal repression will find its way to the world. We stand in solidarity with the writers of PEN Belarus and are determined to ensure that their vital voices are heard and their rights to express themselves vindicated.” As recently as last week, a dissident journalist from Belarus who disappeared was found dead in Ukraine.
Nossel told PW that this type of activity is an attempt by authoritarian governments to control the narrative, both at home and abroad, in a world where information is fast moving, freely available, and difficult to suppress. She cited China and the closures of bookstores and publications that express dissent in Hong Kong as particularly egregious examples of censorship. “[The Chinese] are reaching down to destroy the remnants of any challenge to their authority,” she said. “For organizations like PEN, fighting this is an ongoing battle.”
Nicholas Lemann, director of Columbia Global Reports, a publisher that offers short books on hot political and social justice topics, noted his house has been vigilant in covering the rise of authoritarianism, the curtailing of press freedoms, and China. In May, Columbia Global Reports published The Politics of Our Time by John Judis, a one-volume contemporary history of populism, nationalism, and socialism.
Lemann, the former dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, said he routinely gets reports from former students about the rise in persecution of journalists. “In recent years, I have heard more and more often from journalists in India about Narendra Modi and in Brazil about Jair Bolsonaro and what they are doing to limit press freedoms,” he noted. “At the turn of the millennium, we thought that the triumph of the American economic system inextricably went along with the triumph of the American freedom of expression system. And we thought these would be globalized. Well, that didn’t happen,” Lemann said.
It has long been known that the Chinese government keeps a close eye on which books are distributed there and maintains control of the issuing of ISBNs. Officially, censorship is not a state policy. Publishers have long held that if a book does not become too popular or influential in China, it will be tolerated. But unofficial policy is flexible, and recent trends have shifted toward a narrowing of what is considered acceptable. For example, there’s been a crackdown in recent years on what can be published on China’s wildly popular writing websites, such as China Literature, and works that are deemed too “salacious” have been removed. Last year, Fang Fang, who lives in Wuhan and published a blog about the early days of lockdown during the pandemic, was vilified by the government. Her blog entries were collected into the book Wuhan Diary, published by HarperCollins.
In July, the Chinese government outlawed foreign direct investment in education companies. The law is aimed at companies that offer tutoring to Chinese students—a business that has ballooned to an estimated $100 billion per year. The law is likely to impact numerous foreign education publishers that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the sector. “The government is operating with the idea that liberal Western ideas may be damaging the children,” Nossel said.
Different countries have different means of controlling book publication and exerting censorship. In Turkey, authorities require that any book sold in bookstores has a government “banderol”—a sticker testifying to its “authenticity.” The government claims this is necessary to combat piracy, but in effect it acts as a means of regulating publishers.
In Venezuela, officially, publishers can publish anything—but they may not be able to acquire paper and ink to print certain books. The same happens in Russia, where a printer might suddenly become reticent to produce a potentially objectionable book for fear of government blowback.
IPA fights for the freedom to publish
The IPA maintains a committee that monitors freedom-to-publish issues around the world and presents an annual award, the Prix Voltaire, honoring courageous publishers that have faced oppression. To reinforce its mission to support global publishing during the pandemic, the IPA also recently launched a program to promote publishing, dubbed INSPIRE (International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience). Two of the tenets of the program’s charter are maintaining that “freedom to publish is a prerequisite for diversity, creativity, prosperity, tolerance, and progress” and that “copyright and freedom to publish are mutually reinforcing fundamental rights that are essential to the practice and preservation of political culture, education, scholarship, and socioeconomic development.” The charter has garnered signatures from more than 100 organizations around the world, including Publishers Weekly.
“Many countries have introduced special laws to deal with the Covid-19 crisis,” said Kristenn Einarsson, chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee and former managing director of the Norwegian Publishers Association. “There is a growing concern that these might be maintained in the future, after the crisis has ended, and that some of them could be used to limit the freedom to publish and freedom of expression.”
Einarsson said in some authoritarian states, censorship can be internalized and become self-censorship. “The same fears that can affect publishers and lead them to self-censor can also infect authors, booksellers, and librarians. In the end, if these fears delay or stop the creation or publication of such reports and works, then it is we, the readers, who are deprived. Any discussion about what should be published is of course welcomed, but it is important that publishers stand firmly to defend the publishing of all that they deem worthy of publication, even—and perhaps especially—if those works challenge the boundaries established by the society they operate in.”