The London Book Fair put the issue of censorship in the spotlight with a seminar run by the International Publishers Association called “Censor, Advocate, or Disruptor?”
Mark Stephens, a well-known human rights lawyer, said that when it comes to censorship around the world, publishers and freedom of speech advocates “have a nest of trip wires we have to navigate.” He offered an overview of several trouble spots around the world, noting that that the big question is whether to “engage in dialog with a country that engages in censorship or to leave it alone.” This question is particularly relevant to the IPA, which is still criticized by many in publishing for elevating China, in particular, to full membership.
Several seminar sessions referenced Turkey, where press freedom has been in significant decline since the political crackdown following the attempted coup in 2016.
Maureen Freely, president of English PEN and translator of Orhan Pamuk, noted that a crackdown on intellectuals and the media has put a significant amount of people out of work. “The people who have been dismissed from their jobs had their passports confiscated and can no longer find work, include 116,250 people dismissed from public service; another 5,822 from 118 public universities; 2,500 media workers have been sacked; 140 media organizations have been shut down, as have 30 publishers and 18 magazines; there are 80 writers in prison, but only 3 are in prison for their books, while the others are there for alleged membership in terrorist organization,” Freely said.
She noted that when Pamuk was tried in 2005 for his public statements about the Armenian genocide, the Turkish government opted to punish him in ways that were more discrete than imprisonment. “They made sure he was a hate figure, which was actually more dangerous than his being in prison,” said Freely. “They took away his privacy, and that was an impediment to his ability to think, to imagine and to play.”
Kristenn Einarsson, CEO of the Norwegian Publishers Association and chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee, pointed out that there are other countries in Europe where there are threats to free speech. “The governments of Poland and Hungary are becoming increasingly problematic,” he said.
Bangladesh is another country that was described as especially troublesome.
Dr. Razia Rahman Jolly, whose husband was a publisher and murdered in Bangladesh for his work, noted “For the last two-and-a-half years, I have not been able to get justice. And there have been many people murder there, particularly for criticizing religion.” Jolly, who at times makes public appearances in a white sari of mourning bearing an image of her husband’s face, “ said, “I am wearing this wristwatch in which my husband was murdered, I am feeling he is holding my hand. It’s symbolic that you cannot stop time, but I am carrying out his work. I was trained and work as a physician. But for the last year-and-a-half I have been carrying on his publishing house. Now I too am at risk.”
Rarely is censorship a black and white issue. Azadeh Parsapour, who runs U.K.-based Nogaam Publishing, which publishes books in Farsi that it distributes in Iran, explained that what is censored changes as the governments change. “We are required to submit our books to the book department of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for approval,” Parsapour explained. “They require a print book and a PDF, which they use to search for keywords that are banned. Of course, these words change depending on which government is in power.”
Among the words that have been banned in the past are wine, tattoo, park, dance, and mediation. “You will then get a letter dictating ‘corrections’ to the text. It does not come with letterhead or an official stamp, but you know who sent it,” she said.
Worse is when a book is banned, a situation that often happens after the book is published. “It is then pulled from bookstores and burned, which is is very expensive for the publishers.”
The result has been a worrying form of self-censorship, with publishers keeping a member of staff on hand to police texts for potentially volatile material.