Engaging the Threats Against Freedom to Publish

In Opinion & Commentary by Guest Contributor

Why publishers in countries with ‘inglorious track records on freedom to publish’ deserve the IPA’s support.
Richard Charkin in Sharjah

Richard Charkin in Sharjah

Special Guest Editorial by Richard Charkin,
Director of Bloomsbury
President of the International Publishers Association

The International Publishers Association (IPA) exists for two main reasons: to protect copyright wherever it is threatened (and it is under threat from many directions with many motives) and to support our members and the industry against restrictions on freedom to publish. There would be no recognizable freedom to publish without a vibrant industry, and that depends on copyright. Our two responsibilities are inextricably intertwined.

I want to focus on the second of these, which came under the spotlight with the expansion of our membership at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, and included publishers’ associations from some countries with inglorious track records on freedom to publish.

“The publishing industry in democratic countries and elsewhere needs to be on constant alert.”Richard Charkin

There are those who feel that we should exclude these associations until they can show tangible evidence of progress. Others feel that it is our duty to engage with them as closely and as soon as possible to help our publisher colleagues in these countries. This latter course is the one we at IPA are following.

We cannot claim that our activities have been able to halt the abhorrent activities of some governments, but we have been able to highlight their activities and the importance of publishing to economic, social and cultural development. We hope this leads to a more liberal future.

This year alone, we have had to deal with the absurdity of the Vatican’s attempts to silence its critics through intimidation and the courts; the abduction to China of the Hong Kong booksellers and publishers; the arrested Bangladeshi publisher, Shamsuzzoha Manik; the gagging of a number of Egyptian authors and journalists in a worrying backslide into pre-Arab Spring authoritarianism; the arrest of Turkish novelist Asli Erdogan and the summary closure of many Turkish publishing companies, as well as the arrests of their owners and managers; and a growing concern over the potential for censorship by the major technology companies as evidenced by the recent farcical Facebook excision of one of the great pieces of photojournalism from the Vietnam War.

We have visited Saudi Arabia, where the local publishers association has established a freedom to publish committee, and we awarded the first IPA Prix Voltaire prize to the imprisoned and flogged writer, blogger and online debate forum publisher Raif Badawi. We have visited Bangladesh twice to protest the dreadful murders and arrests of writers and publishers and the muted government response to them. We have been approached by many publishers associations in emerging economies wanting to join, not least because of our freedom to publish activities.

The publishing industry in democratic countries and elsewhere needs to be on constant alert. IPA (along with many national publishers associations and anti-censorship organizations such as PEN and Index on Censorship) is playing its part but, regrettably, the threats are unlikely to recede in the near future and we shall need to further strengthen our resources. We will be focusing our efforts on supporting our members in their battles and coordinating global support for them.

The IPA is both a shield for our members and a torch to hold the light to transgressions by governments, self-serving individuals, and commercial giants. The small team in Geneva, along with its associates and many executives and Presidents from our member associations, work diligently to allow the free expression of ideas throughout the world through publishing. We should celebrate and be proud of these efforts.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.