By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
An Auspicious StartNot that anyone thought the world would stand still after Norway staged and hosted Kristenn Einarsson‘s inaugural World Expression Forum (WEXFO) at the end of May in Lillehammer, it couldn’t have been foreseen that Oslo, less than a month later, would be rocked by a shooting on the eve of a pride parade.
BBC News reports that a 42-year-old man has been arrested and charged with murder in the assault that left two dead and 21 wounded in the early hours of Saturday (June 25). The national security police raised the Norwegian terror alert level from “medium” to “extraordinary,” and patrols on the streets made their rounds carrying firearms—not the norm in Norway. With the gunman having been classified as long ago as 2015 by security services as a “suspected radicalized Islamist,” support is being offered to the Muslim community as well as to LGBT citizens.
This, of course, capped a week in which the United States’ Supreme Court struck down a New York state law requiring citizens to apply for a license to carry concealed weapons, a victory for gun-rights advocates covered here by Dan Mangan and Kevin Breuninger for CNBC. And as the same court overturned American women’s right to an abortion on Friday (June 24), PEN America issued a statement declaring, “Free expression rights are threatened by overturning Roe v. Wade … PEN America will fiercely fight to protect the open discussion of reproductive rights and health care options for all.”
So fraught is the political setting today that it has brought into relief WEXFO’s welcome arrival last month, prompting some who attended to exchange notes, not only on the forum’s importance and successful debut but also on how its initial iteration was perceived. Those delegates with whom Publishing Perspectives have been in touch are steadfastly supportive of Einarsson and his team’s effort in creating this new gathering on the international stage. Many of them say they also have been, or will be, in touch with organizers with suggestions.
Einarsson is familiar to Publishing Perspectives readers, of course, as the articulate chair of the International Publishers Association (IPA) Freedom to Publish committee, and he has served as CEO of the Norwegian Publishers Association and chair of RiksTV and Norges Television. Just standing up a program of WEXFO’s breadth on its first outing was an impressive feat, with its deep bench of 66 speakers and two full days of production with hundreds of delegates in attendance, in person and online.
If anything, the biggest hurdle for WEXFO 2023 (May 22 and 23) will be to respond to this quickening context of political violence, whiplash upheavals in public policy, and the “seductive lure of authoritarianism,” to quote the subtitle of The Twilight of Democracy (Doubleday, 2020) by the author and analyst Anne Applebaum. She’s a singularly apt candidate for a future WEXFO keynote address.
Maria Ressa: ‘Real-World Violence’
She congratulated the Norsk Broadcasting Corporation’s (NRK) decision to leave Facebook in favor of its own sites. The NRK’s footprint is a comparatively small one, dedicated to its quite supportive Nordic national audience, of course, as the head of the news division, Helje Solberg, explained in a workshop session moderated by Publishing Perspectives. But, Ressa said, the move away from Facebook “is probably a very good thing because the incentive structure of the platform actually encourages bad journalism.”
Ressa—whose book How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future is scheduled to be released by Harper on November 29—had only 20 minutes to make her afternoon address but she gamely raced through her presentation, explaining the combine of tech-borne propaganda and intimidation that has come to serve as a pervasive cloak for the erosion of the world’s democratic framework.
“Online violence is real-world violence,” she told her audience, making it clear that disinformation in the political realm is a form of that violence: “How can you have integrity of elections if you don’t have integrity of facts?”
In outlining the relationship of factual authenticity and truth and the extraordinary lengths it has taken for journalists to develop and share fact-checking capabilities, Ressa said, “I have never been as pessimistic as I am now. But I’m still not stopping. So what are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?”
And in a chilling conclusion, she lowered her voice to warn a rapt audience, “I think we have two years [and] it’s going to be irredeemable. We will lose our democracies. Fascism will rise, and I don’t use that word lightly. But it all comes together.”
Ressa didn’t stop there. In what would become a discussion that many seemed to wish had been matched by many others in the two-day program, she challenged Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former prime minister of Denmark who now is co-chair of that Meta Oversight Board for Facebook and Instagram. It was one of the very few direct volleys of disagreement seen on the WEXFO stage. Intense, intelligent, unyielding.
“I’m holding your hand,” Ressa told Thorning-Schmidt with a smile, “and I say this with great respect: I think the Facebook Oversight Board is a deflection. … A supreme court of content that’s not actually what was needed to fix the problem.”
The algorithmic engines that replicate disinformation and other harmful content more quickly than any effort can counter it are, as she put it, integral to the “surveillance capitalism model. Is it right for our data to be owned by these platforms?” she asked.
While Thorning-Schmidt maintained the importance of the Oversight Board, though conceding that the issues are far too many to effectively handle, Ressa explained that she’s a partner with Facebook in the fact-checking operations she works with, “because that’s how I find the networks that spread disinformation.”
Indeed, she told Thorning-Schmidt that the Meta Oversight Board “uses your credibility to whitewash” the Zuckerberg platforms’ shortcomings.
“I totally disagree,” Thorning-Schmidt said, arguing that the board is “socializing content moderation decisions” by listing them online rather than having them remain out of sight in the companies’ internal operations.
The sheer magnitude of complaints registered about content on the platforms, Thorning-Schmidt said, will always overwhelm efforts to parse them.
“And I think these dilemmas about freedom of speech and content moderation will never disappear,” she said. “And we have to have considered discussions about that. And no government can solve this problem. Maria [Ressa] can’t solve this. So that’s why we will need some kind of help from an independent council organization to be part of solving them.”
Needless to say, the issues were not resolved in this discussion, which also included Anette Trettebergstuen, the Norwegian minister of culture and equality. And before it was over, Ressa would point out that she could be arrested for the kind of disinformation that political operatives in the Philippines spread on social media platforms.
“Where is the line between manipulation, insidious manipulation, and free will in this technology of behavior-modification systems that take away your right to make a decision on who to vote for?” Ressa asked?
Although it came late, this conversation, both respectful and heated, was the moment in which WEXFO would come the closest to reaching its potential.
None of this is to say that anything about WEXFO was not worthwhile. Quite the contrary, this shows that the forum can indeed call into being live, substantive, cogent debate. In the forthright exchanges of that late-day discussion, the program at last began to find itself as delegates had to think fast to keep up with the exchange and to evaluate the viewpoints being argued. WEXFO had arrived.
Cordial, Collegial, ‘Too Comfortable’
“Too comfortable” is the constructive qualm we’ve heard voiced most frequently by WEXFO delegates. There was, some attendees say, a hesitation among speakers onstage to disagree, an overly cordial bearing during much of the event. As valuable as it clearly was, the program did at times seem like a cross between a fine introductory survey course on issues in free expression and a kind of pageant in which players appeared not quite in touch with each other: enacting their own principles but not reactive to their colleagues’ positions.
Most frequently mentioned in this vein was a panel on “Technologies and Regulations” in which Christine Sørensen, the government affairs and public policy manager for Google, repeatedly invoked a notion of transparency. She and Dex Hunter-Torricke of Meta’s (Facebook) Oversight Board seemed almost unaware of each other though sitting side-by-side during a panel conversation, although later in the program, the Oversight Board would be called by another speaker “a way to put makeup on a dirty business.”
The show’s hosts Laila Bokhari and John Steinmark, both of them warm and gracious personalities, seemed less ready than international journalists would have been to pressure speakers to move beyond their talking points and grapple with the stark divisions that define today’s contemporary dangers to free expression and publication. Journalists are accustomed to the classic “adversarial relationship” of interviewer and interviewee, but Bokhari and Steinmark may not have felt licensed to challenge their speakers.
In addition to the kind of heartfelt urgency that we’ve written that Ukraine’s Oleksandra Matviichuk brought to her presentation—and the two deeply moving, achingly eloquent appearances made by Beirut’s Rasha Al Ameer, the International Publishers Association 2021 Prix Voltaire laureate—the two most compelling events in the program occurred at the opening and close. And they carried their punch not only because they were delivered by the two 2021 Nobel Peace Prize co-winners on the bill but also because those speakers were pulling precious few punches.
Dmitri Muratov: ‘Like a Media Holocaust’
In a taped and English-subtitled address to the assembly on the first morning, the Russian journalist Dmitri Muratov provided an unstinting account of Vladimir Putin’s disruption of independent journalism in the capital. A pig’s head was delivered to the doorstep of the editor-in-chief of the broadcaster Ekho Moskvy, Muratov said with disgust, as “Street violence and private terror has been committed against media people, journalists, human rights activists, and politicians. And this has become a part of the massive practice of violence in the streets of Moscow.”
In multiple incidents, Muratov told the audience, “neither the police, the investigative committee, or the FSB” has ever found or arrested anyone. On April 7, Muratov recalled, he was covered in red paint while on a train journey and yet, “Seven weeks have passed without them finding anyone” responsible for such an unthinkable affront.
More than 300 media sites have been blocked, Muratov confirmed. “The blocking of large social networks and Web sites and the persecution of journalists, including the use of street terror,” he said, is “like a media holocaust.”
As was reported by Bobby Caina Calvan for the Associated Press on June 21, Muratov sold his Nobel medal to raise money for Ukrainian refugee children. The sale, conducted by Heritage Auctions in New York City, brought US$103.5 million, vastly outstripping the $4.76 million record for a Nobel medal paid in 2014 for James Watson’s 1962 prize in DNA research.
Muratov immediately donated the proceeds from the sale to UNICEF, Calvan confirming that the agency had received the funds.
Comments for a Daunting Future
Several structural and technical suggestions have come our way in the weeks following WEXFO.
One delegate we spoke with has suggested that the workshops that occupied the second morning were less productive than hoped, and that an alternative might be to use such efforts to bring together various organizations represented in the audience, helping them explore how to amplify their work in cooperative efforts, not unlike the fact-checking cooperative of 16 news media described by Ressa.
Another idea was that breakout sessions could be forgone completely in exchange for “opening up” what was a rather densely packed program, allowing more time to absorb commentary and to see more deliberately pointed, engaged one-on-one discussions onstage. Often the “he said, she said” format is conducive to more targeted repartee than can be managed by four people on a sofa and deferential hosts.
Another audience member wished aloud that questions from the delegates’ floor had been allowed during the program—if for no other reason than to provide some tough questions when they seemed scarce onstage. Still another pointed out that unlike many comparable programs, WEXFO provided no attendees list to delegates. While producing such a list might well require the listed attendees’ permission, this could at least have helped delegates get a better feel for who was in the event’s large turnout with them. As it was, this delegate said, the most common question heard was, “But who is this audience?—Who’s here at WEXFO?”
Along those lines, as the 2022 shortlist for the IPA’s Prix Voltaire was announced by Einarsson and IPA president Bodour Al Qasimi, some were reminded that the Nordic publishing markets have been the ones taking a handsome lead in supporting the cost of the honor. This year, three German houses have stepped forward to assist two Swedish houses and Norway’s Det Norske Samlaget, as we reported when announcing the shortlist. But much of Europe, the Americas, and Asia remain on the sidelines, curiously not stepping forward to be reliable partners in funding world publishing’s important recognition of book-industry professionals braving punitive and sometimes lethal hostility.
Here at Publishing Perspectives we looked at this problem in December after Rasha Al Ameer was given her award in Guadalajara. And more recently, our colleague Roger Tagholm wrote about it at The Bookseller. It’s concerning that so few have signed on as sponsoring partners in the Prix Voltaire.
However, there may be a corollary between the issue of funding the Prix Voltaire and a part of what the WEXFO program encountered in its inaugural outing: sheer overwhelm.
By anyone’s standards, this is a time of wrenching, too often dangerous, dependably volatile challenges. If anything, the kind of robust debate needed onstage almost seems to run counter to the soul-wrapping quiet of Lillehammer’s forested setting. It’s a place so serenely peaceful as to be unnerving to city dwellers who gather there for WEXFO’s events.
As world publishers work to track and respond to complex issues and trends—and may not have stopped yet to consider supporting the Prix Voltaire—so Einarsson and his associates’ fine first presentation of WEXFO would benefit from some focus. Now that “The Current State of Freedom of Expression” logically has opened the opening outing, the organizers and shareholding backers of the program should give themselves permission to focus on one or two elements of the topic each year.
There are myriad entry points, of course, and there’s one that makes the weekend’s awful news from Oslo all the more hurtful: In transit to Lillehammer, many delegates elected to tour the island of Utøya, where a youth camp on July 22, 2011, became the scene of Anders Behring Breivik’s unspeakable domestic terrorist attack that left 67 people dead and 32 wounded. That assault followed Breivik’s car-bomb attack a couple of hours earlier at Oslo’s Regjeringskvartalet.
The spirit and rich potential of WEXFO is clear and welcome. And it will become only more urgent. The grace of a unifying theme for each year’s staging may give hard-working organizers their best chance to put into place the compelling programming we saw in the event’s final hour in May.
This is Publishing Perspectives’ 118th awards-related report produced in the 119 publication days since our 2022 operations began on January 3.
More on WEXFO is here. More on the freedom to publish and freedom of expression is here, more on the International Publishers Association is here, more from us on Kristenn Einarsson and his work in the freedom of expression is here, more on the Prix Voltaire is here, and more on the Norwegian publishing market is here.
Follow our coverage of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and its impact on the country’s publishing players and international industry reactions.
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More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.