Is it time for a ‘Day of the Imperilled Publisher’?

Sharjah International Book Fair at Expo Centre, Nov 4, 2015, Sharjah. Pawan Singh / The National
Sharjah International Book Fair at Expo Centre, Nov 4, 2015, Sharjah. Pawan Singh / The National

Since 2005, the International Publishers Association (IPA) has given a prize to publishers who have shown exemplary courage in upholding the freedom to publish and for enabling others, chiefly writers, to exercise their freedom of expression.

Although the IPA Prix Voltaire (formerly the Freedom to Publish Prize) is only 16 years old, freedom to publish itself was a founding value of the IPA at the time of the association’s creation 125 years ago. In fact, the first “Object” of the IPA, as cited in its statutes, is “to uphold and defend the right of publishers to publish and distribute the works of the mind in complete freedom”.

Last month, as I was preparing a speech for the UK Publishers Association’s Annual General Meeting,I discovered just how pivotal a cause the freedom to publish had been for my predecessors. Sir Stanley Unwin, the IPA’s longest-serving president – with two terms, from 1936 to 1938 and 1946 to 1957 – was a staunch defender of the freedom to publish. He even served as a defence witness in the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial, in which DH Lawrence’s scandalously purple novel, published by Penguin Books, tested Britain’s 1959 Obscene Publications Act.

The submissions of the first nominees for the 2021 Prix Voltaire have made me reflect upon the importance of prizes and dialogue for meaningful progress on the freedom to publish. In particular, I was reminded of a pivotal moment in 2018, when I moderated a panel at the Sharjah International Book Fair with Razia Rahman Jolly, the widow of Bangladeshi publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan, who was murdered by religious extremists over the titles he had published.

Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi on a panel with Razia Rahman Jolly, the widow of Bangladeshi publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan, at the Sharjah International Book Fair in 2018. Wam
Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi on a panel with Razia Rahman Jolly, the widow of Bangladeshi publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan, at the Sharjah International Book Fair in 2018. Wam

During the discussion, titled Freedom to Publish in Peril: Threats and Emerging Challenges, Ms Jolly called for the creation of an annual day to honour publishers in danger. She said a “Day of the Imperilled Publisher” would throw a spotlight on the many unseen cases of publishers who are imprisoned, persecuted or threatened, or whose lives are at risk.

Open dialogue between countries and cultures is critical

I thought then – and still do – that it is a great idea, especially as publishers today face an even greater danger of censorship, political and economic pressure, intimidation and worse. I am convinced that Ms Jolly was right, and it would be an effective way to scale up the important work already being done by entities like the Banned Book Week Coalition and the German Publishers and Booksellers Association to bring together publishing ecosystems – including booksellers, teachers, printers and readers – in mutual support of freedom of expression.

Pondering how these ideas could be enacted, I looked into some global awards and commemorative days related to the freedom of expression and reached a few conclusions. Writers and journalists have commemorative days to recognise their contributions to freedom of expression, but publishers do not. Also, while most international awards focus on journalists, media institutions and activists, the Prix Voltaire is the only global award focused on publishers and the publishing industry. Publishers, moreover, rarely receive freedom of expression awards, which underscores the importance of the Prix Voltaire.

In the Middle East, and increasingly in the US, Europe and beyond, societies are engaging in difficult conversations about freedom to publish. The Prix Voltaire is unusual in honouring the freedom to publish, and I’m very proud to represent an institution that has spearheaded this discussion for more than a century.

In the UAE, I have witnessed firsthand how progress on freedom to publish can be achieved through continuous, multi-stakeholder dialogue. At the Arab Publishers Conference in 2015, the Emirates Publishers Association hosted a “freedom to publish” panel, which openly discussed the limitations on publishing freedoms in UAE and the wider Arab world, and affirmed the positive impact the freedom to publish has on development and democracy.

The critical importance of freedom of expression and, specifically, the freedom to publish also featured prominently in the Sharjah World Book Capital 2019 programme. Through engagements like this, change is beginning to happen here and elsewhere.

I am very interested to know if there is a broader appetite for a “Day of the Imperilled Publisher”. Were it to happen, I am convinced that such a day would be made ever more impactful if the global publishing community also got behind a global “Banned Books Week” campaign.

Open dialogue between countries and cultures is critical to promote change on difficult, highly contextual cultural and social issues like freedom to publish. Could this be the time to take Razia Rahman Jolly’s idea forward?

In the meantime, I encourage you to submit a nomination for the 2021 Prix Voltaire before the June 20 deadline.

Bodour Al Qasimi is the President of International Publishers Association

Updated: June 6, 2021 12:58 PM

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