The IPA, the Arab World, and ‘Building Dialogue’: Bodour on the Controversy

In Editorial & Opinion by Porter Anderson

In a Publishing Perspectives exclusive, Bodour Al Qasimi reacts to the International Publishers Association’s recent membership controversy and looks at the Arab world’s industry in globalization.
Bodour Al Quasimi and Rüdiger Wischenbart speak in an onstage 'fireside chat' during Berlin's Publishers' Forum. Image: Sven Serkis

Bodour Al Quasimi and Rüdiger Wischenbart speak in an onstage ‘fireside chat’ during Berlin’s Publishers’ Forum. Image: Sven Serkis

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘We Are Partly Responsible’
APublishers’ Forum in Berlin, Sharjah-based publisher Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi spoke with the conference’s director, Rüdiger Wischenbart, in a “fireside chat” titled “The Arab World, Opportunities and Challenges.”

One of the most charismatic and energizing figures in international publishing at the moment, Bodour is the founding patron of the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA) and holds a seat on the Executive Committee of the International Publishers Association.

Hachette's Arnaud Nourry is questioned about his comments on China's membership in the International Publishers Association at the IPA's 31st Congress in London. Image: Porter Anderson

Hachette’s Arnaud Nourry is questioned about his comments on China’s membership in the International Publishers Association at the IPA’s 31st Congress in London. Image: Porter Anderson

The IPA encountered a robust controversy last month during its 31st Congress in association with London Book Fair, triggered by Hachette’s Arnaud Nourry’s criticism in his conference keynote of IPA’s admission of China as a member.

Nourry’s comments — which were questioned immediately on the floor of the congress by a Chinese delegate — were prompted in part by the disappearances last winter of five Hong Kong publishers whose work had criticized Chinese leadership. What was being called into question were two things: the policies of IPA in considering applications by would-be member-nations, and, more broadly, the question of whether publishing’s international organizations should weigh membership against the actions of a given nation’s government.

In an extraordinary general assembly called for by nine member-nations while IPA was still in London, the organization worked through challenges to the organization’s provision of membership to the Publishers Association of China (PAC) but also to Saudi Arabia’s membership.

As described by a report in The Bookseller:

Congress“The changes made at the meeting, voted through unanimously, mean that from next October [2016], members of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee will have to be elected by the general assembly, while the need for members to demonstrate independence from government is to be “refined and reinforced”, IPA secretary general José Borghino confirmed.”\

“The step means China and other member countries will have to pass a further election stage and satisfy the independence requirement before having access to the Freedom to Publish Committee—although this will not apply until the next general assembly, in October.”

What’s more, the makeup of the membership committee now will be governed by the general assembly, rather than being determined by executive committee appointment.

IPA’s own brief statement reads:

The International Publishers Association in extraordinary general assembly in London. Image: InternationalPublishers.org

The International Publishers Association in extraordinary general assembly in London. Image: InternationalPublishers.org

“On 11 April, the IPA held an Extraordinary General Assembly (EGA) where members adopted several governance amendments that optimize the democratic mechanisms underpinning the IPA’s decision-making.

“Four IPA working groups had been reviewing the IPA statutes and committee guidelines since December 2015 to make sure they would continue to serve as an appropriate framework for the modern IPA.

“Their proposals to clarify the IPA statutes and governance of the Membership, Copyright and Freedom to Publish committees, were overwhelmingly adopted by the IPA membership.”

If you’d like to know more about the revised IPA statutes, we have some links for you at the end of this article.

In their onstage conversation in Berlin, Wischenbart had a chance to ask Bodour about her reactions to these developments.

She is in the interesting position of being both an Executive Committee member with IPA, and one of the most widely recognized representatives today of the Arab world’s developing publishing industry and markets. During the its Children’s Reading Festival earlier this month, Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri reaffirmed Sharjah’s Book Authority’s intent to establish a “publishing free zone” later this year. But, of course, some question the Arab world’s overall record on human rights in relation to its inclusion in the publishing world (as in the case of Saudi Arabia).

In that conversation, Bodour was careful to say that players in the Arab world can at times perpetuate rather than illuminate wider concerns, themselves, and that a reticence to come forward and engage on the broader stage is not helpful, of course.

“We have to distinguish between the politics of governments and the role that publishing associations play in furthering the interests of the publishers they represent.”Bodour Al Qasimi

As we have written, she is also one of the headliners of the October 18 conference, The Markets: Global Publishing Summit at Frankfurt Book Fair’s Business Club. In that day-long event, the UAE is one of seven regions to be featured in The Markets’ threefold examination with the presentations of visionaries, analysts and business players.

Bodour has prepared a commentary exclusively for Publishing Perspectives based on her Berlin talk. As you will see, the bulk of her commentary here is a response to the question Wischenbart asked her onstage in Berlin: “Will these new countries dilute or contaminate the values of IPA?”

We bring her essay to our world readership, not least because as the global industry prepares to assess the value and viability of the Sharjah Book City free-zone concept, the care taken by the IPA to address head-on its membership issues reflects the international industry’s responsibility to consider at every point what globalization means not only to business but also to the humanities of which literature is a part.

Here, then, is the text provided to us by Bodour.


Building Dialogue That Promotes Meaningful Change

Commentary by Bodour Al Qasimi

“Our community continues to be insular…Arab publishers, authors, cultural experts and enthusiasts have to engage their counterparts in meaningful interactions on a global level.”Bodour Al Qasimi

At the end of the first day at the Publisher’s Forum in Berlin, I was invited to speak at a fireside chat session about “The Arab World, Opportunities and Challenges.” Despite my obvious enthusiasm about the evolution of the publishing industry in the Arab region, I did highlight that we are partly responsible for the current misconceptions about the Arab world, especially about publishing and how our industry is viewed through the lenses of others.

In the bigger scheme of things, the Arab publishing industry has come a long way. However, we might be limiting our progress and international impact by not extending dialogue outside the region as often as we should.

Yes, we have esteemed Arab academics and Arab world-class authors who get together regularly to discuss matters of importance to culture and publishing. Yet this dialogue is mostly internal. It is mostly intra-Arab and that means our community continues to be insular. In my opinion, herein lies a formidable challenge, and it is one I hope will change with time and sincere efforts. These misconceptions will not vanish into thin air on their own. Arab publishers, authors, cultural experts and enthusiasts have to engage their counterparts in meaningful interactions on a global level. On the other end of the spectrum, their international counterparts stand to benefit from engaging the Arab publishers in a dialogue based on respect and acceptance.

It is my belief that growth and further understanding can take place only through sincere interaction and a noble exchange of ideas, something that has been time-tested through history. We have witnessed harmony, better relations and greater discernment between very diverse groups through dialogue. And, as a platform for cultural diplomacy, the publishing industry plays a crucial role, that of an enabler, making it possible for nations and cultures to interact. This is mainly because cultural dialogue, which emphasizes similarities rather than differences, is often more successful in promoting gradual change on complex cultural and social issues like freedom of expression.

“Rather than focusing on our differences, we should magnify the shared values within our publishing community, because it is only then that we can amplify publishing’s role as an  effective tool for long-term dialogue for change and influence.”Bodour Al Qasimi

I have had the privilege to experience firsthand the benefits that cross-cultural dialogue and exchange can bring to the publishing industry.

In the United Arab Emirates, for example, trade in the creative industry increased by around 11 percent between 2012 when the Emirates Publishers Association became a full member of the IPA. This helped us to form partnerships with key international industry associations which have allowed us to significantly enhance industry quality and global competitiveness. Many of the tough conversations we have had could only be facilitated by sincere and open dialogue with stakeholders focused on gradual change, which in turn respect our tradition of governance and decision-making.

Recently, many publishers’ associations have been concerned about the inclusion of countries such as China and Saudi Arabia as full members of the IPA. Voicing their concerns is a positive sign of a healthy debate inside IPA, and I was glad that Rüdiger Wischenbart asked me the following important question during my fireside chat with him:

Will these new countries dilute or contaminate the values of IPA?

My response to him was two-fold.

“It is crucial that countries like China and Saudi Arabia should be welcomed into the IPA fold to begin building bridges of mutual understanding and cooperation.”Bodour Al Qasimi

Firstly, the IPA was created to support national publishing associations at various stages of development, and this includes countries with emerging publishing industries and associations, countries such as China and Saudi Arabia whose publishing industries are still in the nascent stages. It is actually countries like them that need IPA for support, engagement and encouragement. One must not forget that IPA’s role in helping national publishing industries develop and grow according to international standards is critically important.

I believe that IPA, and by extension the people of these newly joined countries, stand to benefit tremendously from expanding membership to countries with upcoming publishing industries. By enhancing industry performance and competitiveness, besides engaging in effective dialogues around sensitive socio-cultural issues, IPA will be able to narrow political and cultural divides and bring about sustainable change. Denying fledgling national publishing associations the benefits that come from membership, will only limit the IPA’s potential to create real impact and to fulfill its mandate in influencing the global publishing dialogue.

Therefore, it is crucial that countries like China and Saudi Arabia should be welcomed into the IPA fold to begin building bridges of mutual understanding and cooperation. The Chinese publishing industry, valued at [US]$8 billion a year, is second only to the United States, and Saudi Arabia is the Arab world’s largest publishing market. Its main trading partners include the United States, United Kingdom, and Finland.

While market potential should not sway IPA membership decisions, wouldn’t it be helpful for the progress of our industry to include emerging publishing associations such as the Chinese and Saudi Publishers’ Associations based solely on the potential for real and enhanced dialogue?

“In certain countries, openly challenging government positions can put representatives of publishers’ associations in grave danger, limit their ability to represent the interests of their members, and reduce their capacity to effect change from within.”Bodour Al Qasimi

Secondly, we have to distinguish between the politics of governments and the role that publishing associations play in furthering the interests of the publishers they represent. IPA admits members of national publishing associations and not national governments. So even if certain governments do not fully ascribe to IPA ideals, we need to remind ourselves that it is the publishers we represent and during turbulent times they need us the most.

In certain countries, openly challenging government positions can put representatives of publishers’ associations in grave danger, limit their ability to represent the interests of their members, and reduce their capacity to effect change from within. In certain circumstances, IPA may be the only hope publishers and their audiences have under strict regimes.

Therefore, rather than focusing on our differences, we should magnify the shared values within our publishing community, because it is only then that we can amplify publishing’s role as an  effective tool for long-term dialogue for change and influence. Membership admission should be based on mutual respect which can catalyze open and frank discussions with an aim to narrow political and cultural divides and bring about sustainable change.

From 50 members in 2012, it is encouraging to see that the IPA membership has grown to almost 70 today. However, more work needs to be done. With close to 200 countries in the world, IPA still has to cover a lot more ground to become a truly global organization that represents the interests of all publishers worldwide. I firmly believe that the IPA will benefit tremendously from expanding membership to countries with emerging publishing industries.

In my perspective, the publishing industry is a valuable tool for cultural diplomacy, and, as the main industry association representing publishers around the world, the IPA has an important role to play in diminishing political and cultural chasms.

If the IPA wants to be a more effective partner in promoting dialogue focused on respect among nations, it must fully embrace diversity and cherish our differences. Here, I cannot help but reflect on what Jimmy Carter once said in addressing his nation: “We are of course a nation of differences. Those differences don’t make us weak. They’re the source of our strength.”

This philosophy requires courageous decisions and forward-looking perspectives, and I truly believe that IPA, as it stands today, is capable of both.

Bodour Al Qasimi and Rüdiger Wischenbart listen to speakers at Publishers' Forum in Berlin before their 'fireside chat.' Image: Sven Serkis

Bodour Al Qasimi and Rüdiger Wischenbart listen to speakers at Publishers’ Forum in Berlin before their ‘fireside chat.’ Image: Sven Serkis


For more on the controversy at the 31st Congress of the IPA and the extraordinary general assembly called to address membership issues, see several resources at the IPA’s site:

Information on this year’s Prix Voltaire honor for jailed “Free Saudi Liberals” creator Raif Badawi is here.

And here are full details on Frankfurt Book Fair’s The Markets: Global Publishing Summit, which in addition to the UAE, will feature the UK, Spain, The Netherlands and Flanders, Brazil, Poland, and The Philippines.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.