At Göteborg and Frankfurt: Kristenn Einarsson on the Freedom To Publish

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Two events, one this week at Sweden’s Göteborg Book Fair and the other at Frankfurter Buchmesse’s Weltempfang Salon in October, spotlight challenges to the freedom to publish.

At Frankfurter Buchmesse’s Weltempfang Salon. Image: FBM, Alexander Heimann

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

Freedom of Expression: ‘Non-Negotiable’

Image: Frankfurter Buchmesse, Weltempfang highlights page

Two events focused on issues of publishing in times of political oppression are just ahead.

The first is in Sweden, where Göteborg Book Fair, the largest annual event of its kind in Scandinavia, is opening today (September 27).

The second event is at Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 10-14), as part of the Weltempfang program of current-affairs and politically informed events set this year in Hall 4.1. At Frankfurt, the Weltempfang stage is co-sponsored with the Buchmesse by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany and takes as its theme this year, “Global Citizenship: Democracy and Engagement”—needless to say, at a moment in which democracy and our engagement with it are being sorely strained in many parts of the world.

Today, we will give you some context in which to frame these events, specific information about each, and exclusive commentary made to Publishing Perspectives by Kristenn Einarsson, who leads the International Publishers Association’s Freedom To Publish committee work, which includes the annual Prix Voltaire for courage in defending the freedom to publish.

The Book Fairs’ Directors Take a Stand

Both of these events are related to a strongly worded statement released by the directors of 13 of the world’s most visible and influential trade shows and book fairs. Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurter Buchmesse, is a signatory here, for example, as are Wang Hsiu Yin, who directs the Taipei International Book Exhibition; Iroo Joo, who heads up the Korean Publishers Association; Marisol Schultz, of the Guadalajara International Book Fair; Yoel Makov of the Jerusalem International Book Fair; and David Unger, secretary general of the Conference of International Book Fair Directors.

Of note, Maria Kaällsson, the former director of Göteborg’s fair, is not listed. She resigned her post after the furor around last year’s fair in which some critics felt that right-wing content purveyors had no place at a contemporary book fair.

It’s precisely that stance that the joint directorial statement is meant to counter, reading in part:

“The last 18 months have seen an increase in the number of violent clashes between politically and religiously motivated groups at international book fairs. There are also now regularly calls to censure and exclude objectionable content and companies. As the directors of international book fairs, we object in the strongest possible terms to the exploitation of our events by these groups as well as by the media. For us, freedom of expression is non-negotiable. …

“[And] we will not tolerate violence as a means of settling differences at our events.”

At Göteborg: ‘Welcome, Gui Minhai’

At Göteborg Book Fair in 2016, programming on the freedom of expression. Image: Bokmässan, Niklas Maupoix

At Sweden’s Göteborg Book Fair, the International Publishers Association is working with Swedish PEN and the Swedish Publishers Association to stage a seminar, ‘Welcome Gui Minhai’, at 4:20 p.m. Friday (September 28) at the space called the Scene on the International Square at the fair. Featured are:

  • Chair: Svante Weyler, publisher
  • Kristenn Einarsson, International Publishers Association Freedom To Publish chief
  • Elisabeth Åsbrink, journalist and author
  • Jesper Bengtsson, from Svenska PEN
  • Jojje Olsson, journalist and author<
  • Frida Edman, from Bokmässan, the Göteborg Book Fair

The title of this session comes from an open letter to China from Göteborg, written to offer the long-detained publisher Gui Minhai (who is a Swedish national) a speaking slot at the book fair and to recount the deprivations and limitations Gui has suffered since his initial disappearance in 2015. You can read an English translation of this letter at the International Association of Publishers’ site here and in Swedish at the  Göteborg site in the original here: Välkommen till Bokmässan, Gui Minhai. This open letter reads, in part:

“We are very interested in what you have to say. One of the themes for this year’s Book Fair is respect, and we are certain that you, with your experience in both Sweden and China, can give us important perspectives regarding literature.

“We understand, of course, that there is a problem regarding our invitation. …

“If nothing happens, the invitation stands. Year after year. There is a place for you, Gui Minhai, at Göteborg Book Fair. And until the day you are free and can decide for yourself where you want to travel, what you want to say, and what books you would like to publish, that place remains empty.”

In addition, the publisher Norstedts on Wednesday (September 26) released a booklet about Gui’s treatment by Beijing, Imprisoned, Humiliated, and Discredited, by the journalist Jojje Olsson.

Offered primarily in digital forms for maximum distribution, the booklet is available this weekend at Göteborg and you’ll find an English translation of the work at Expressen.se’s Kultur magazine, free of charge and with a request for a donation at here at FreeGuiMinhai.org.

At Frankfurt: ‘Accidental Campaigners’

At Frankfurter Buchmesse’s Weltempfang Salon, 2012. Image: FBM, Alexander Heimann

In this session, “Accidental Campaigners and International Diplomacy”—at 10:30 a.m. on October 12, Weltempfang Salon—the closest family members of two recipients of the International Publishers Association’s Prix Voltaire for valor in support of the freedom to publish will speak with the association’s Einarsson about becoming human rights campaigners—as a result of their loved ones’ detentions–and about the status of such crises in the world today.

Einarsson is again joined by Angela Gui, who accepted Gui Minahi’s 2018 Prix Voltaire during the association’s congress in New Delhi, and also by Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Raif Badawi, whose 2016 receipt of the Prix Voltaire is in recognition of his imprisonment by the Saudi government.

The program, of course, is closely aligned with the special campaign mounted by the Buchmesse this year in support of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. You can learn more about the #OnTheSamePage campaign from Frankfurt and the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels—the German Publishers and Booksellers Association—in Publishing Perspectives’ coverage here.

Kristenn Einarsson: Constant Challenges

Kristenn Einarsson

In our exchange with the IPA’s Freedom To Publish lead Kristenn Einarsson—who is also CEO of the Norwegian Publishers Association and chair of RiksTV and Norges Television—we wanted to get his take first on the two sessions we’re highlighting here in Sweden and Germany.

In the Göteborg session, Jojje Olsson, the journalist and author behind the new Gui Minhai booklet, Einarsson points out, will update the audience on “what we know concerning the allegations made toward Gui Minhai. The Swedish ambassador to China has been very active in condemning the serious accusations made against Gui.

“Swante Weyler is planning to start the seminar by discussing this with Jojje. Then he wants to talk about how [tensions in] Chinese-Swedish relations have been escalated lately, as well as the work that’s being done on Gui’s behalf by us, among others.”

At Frankfurt, of course, the daughter of Gui and the wife of Badawi, will update Einarsson and the Weltempfang audience on the latest known reports of the detained Prix Voltaire winners’ situations and conditions.

Publishing Perspectives: Is there any new information from your Freedom To Publish committee on Gui’s condition?

Kristenn Einarsson: We have no news since Gui’s appearance on Chinese television just before the award ceremony in Delhi, when he said that he didn’t want any support from Sweden and that he didn’t want the Prix Voltaire. These obviously were not his thoughts [and are understood to have been the taping of a forced statement for the cameras]. We’ve heard that a Swedish doctor has been allowed to visit him, but I haven’t seen that officially confirmed.

Together with the Swedish Publishers Association and the Federation of European Publishers, we had a meeting with representatives of the European Commission last week. Both the EU and Sweden are working on many levels on behalf of Gui Minhai. As a Swedish citizen, he is also a EU-citizen. On the same day as we had our meeting, the EU issued a statement at the 39th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The statement urges China to ratify and abide by the international covenant on civil and political rights, and it specifies the EU’s concern about the expansion of political “re-education” camps in Xinjiang as well as the detentions and trials of human rights defenders and lawyers [including] Wang Quanzhang Tashi Wangchuk, Wu Gan, Huang Qi, Yu Wensheng, Gao Zhisheng, Ilham Tohti,  Qin Yongmin, Li Yuhan and EU national Gui Minhai.

Quoting from the statement, “The EU urges China to release Gui Minhai and all detained human rights defenders and to thoroughly investigate reported cases of mistreatment and torture while in detention. The EU reiterates its calls for China to respect freedom of religion or belief and expression, as well as the rights of persons belonging to ethnic minorities.”

PP: So many in publishing do today have had a chance this year to witness some extraordinary political developments that have brought issues of Freedom To Publish much “closer to home” in the West. We’re thinking specifically of the two times that Donald Trump has ordered his attorneys to try to use legal intimidation to stop American Big Five publishers from releasing books he wanted to stop. (Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House from Macmillan in January and Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House this month from Simon & Schuster. Isn’t it safe to say that to some degree these regrettable incidents actually can help a wider audience understand the dangers of authoritarian efforts to inhibit and curtail the freedom to publish?

Gui Minai. Image: From Nordstdts’ publication of Jojje Olsson’s new booklet on Gui

KE: It’s so important the bodies like the International Publishers Association’s Freedom To Publish committee keep working to challenge such incidents wherever they occur in the world, without restrictions. In both incidents you mention with Trump, the committee has reacted. This does bring these actions by those in power closer to home.

Obviously, the conditions governing and restricting freedom to publish vary around the world.

In some places, it’s governments and state regimes that prevent the publication of material or works deemed “dangerous” or “inappropriate.” In other cases, there are pressure groups–religious, social, commercial—trying to prevent publication of certain information. Increasingly, large technology companies are influencing what we as readers and consumers can and can’t see—often secretly, behind our screens.

The significance of this sometimes overt and at other times insidious manipulation of what we’re allowed to read is simple: laws that compromise the freedom to publish must be constantly challenged. There are actually very few instances where public welfare is increased or maintained by the blocking, removal, or censoring of information.

In the educational sector, a growing concern is the interference by government in the production of learning materials. The IPA’s Educational Publishers Forum is monitoring the rising trend of educational authorities who aim to produce one authorized book per subject per student. This is not only an impediment to the freedom to publish of educational publishers–meaning that they can’t produce a number of competing textbooks on any given subject area–but it’s also a grave threat to the free exchange of ideas. … The IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee is working with the Educational Publishers Forum to monitor and respond to this worrying trend.

Another common challenge to publishers in all countries is the question of self-censorship. Even in countries with few regulations on freedom to publish, publishers might have to consider the negative consequences of producing and distributing certain content. Prime examples of this are the draconian libel or criminal defamation laws of some countries, which take no account of the public interest when a critical statement is made about people or even corporations. Instead they place an extraordinary legal burden on authors or publishers.

Similarly, a growing number of jurisdictions are punishing whistle-blowers and investigative journalists who expose malpractice, corruption, or official incompetence, when the public interest is more clearly served by the protection of these writers and their publishers.

In that way, the same fears that 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’s the readers who are deprived.

The International Publishers Association is working on a policy position that addresses such laws. It’s important that the publishing community, all over the world, stands together and supports the necessity of challenging all laws and actions that prevent the publication of work or information for other than very strict reasons of public safety—and those reasons must be constantly questioned and scrutinized.

Below: The Göteborg fair’s communications lead is tweeting out the event’s empty chair reserved for Gui Minhai, detained in China.

PP: As Publishing Perspectives has reported, the Association of American Publishers on Thursday (September 20) awarded its own Freedom to Publish honor to the Iranian publisher Azadeh Parsapour, who has been shortlisted for the IPA’s award twice in the past. Because we do tend to see several candidates for the Prix Voltaire come up for repeated consideration, is there a need and a chance for the IPA and/or its sister organizations to do more to recognize a wider roster of champions of the freedom to publish than any one of these awards can honor?

KE: This is an important and valid point. We’re working on reaching out to our members organizations in a better way. The nomination process for Prix Voltaire is open, and we ask all our member organizations to nominate candidates. We also ask other NGO’s [non-governmental organizations] to do the same and the committee and the secretariat try to examine all sources to find worthy candidates.

This year we’ve participated in a number of regional seminars, including events at New Delhi’s world congress; Tunis’ Arabic publishers associations conference; Lagos’ African publishers associations conference. And we have more coming up, at Oslo, Göteborg, Frankfurt, Sharjah, and Guadalajara.

PP: The event at Frankfurt on the Weltempfang stage on the 12th of October will feature Deutsche Welle’s Peter Craven, you, and Angela Gui and Ensaf Haidar. This is a rare chance to hear from the closest relatives of two champions of the Prix Voltaire program, isn’t it?

KE: It certainly is. It’s important that we keep on talking about those still imprisoned, and we might also get some insight into the difficult position relatives ends up in, when their world is dramatically changed. There might also be some learning points for us who work for these prize winners.

At Frankfurt Book Fair’s Weltempfang Salon. Image: FBM, Alexander Heimann


More from Publishing Perspectives on the freedom to publish is here; on the International Publishers Association’s Prix Voltaire is here;  on the Göteborg Book Fair is here; and on Frankfurter Buchmesse is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.