By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Einarsson: ‘This Filtering of Search Results’Following Karen E. Weise’s Wednesday (June 29) article in The New York Times, news articles have proliferated around concessions that Amazon reportedly has made “to restrict items and search results related to LGBTQ issues and people on its site in the United Arab Emirates.”
Books are reported to be included among products the UAE has proscribed, Weise reports, under a threat of penalty if Amazon doesn’t comply by today (July 1).
There are two main international reactions in the press: one focuses on Amazon’s compliance with UAE orders, the other on what Natasha Turk, writing today for CNBC, describes as “a series of pushbacks against same-sex themes in the Gulf region.”
In response to this news, the offices in Geneva of the International Publishers Association (IPA) today have released a short statement. It reads:
Following reports in The New York Times and the Guardian (by Julia Kollowe) on the filtering of LGBTQ+ related search results in the United Arab Emirates, affecting books among other products, Kristenn Einarsson, chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee commented:
“A global business like Amazon should not be pressured to introduce this filtering of search results, which is essentially censoring books in the UAE.
“Following the terrible attack in my own country, Norway, it is clear that we need books about LGBTQ+ issues to foster understanding, dialogue, tolerance, and ultimately progress. I urge the UAE authorities to reconsider this heavy-handed approach.”
Einarsson’s reference, of course, is to the appalling gay-community shooting assault on June 25 in Oslo that left two dead—a man in his 50s and another in his 60s—and at least 20 wounded on the eve of the Norwegian capital’s gay pride parade. Whether by design or coincidence, the reported pressure from the Emirati government on Amazon has arrived just at the end of June, internationally recognized by many as gay pride month.
By contrast, it’s also coming to light in the same week that the NPD Group‘s Kristen McLean reports “surging” sales of LGBTQ literature in the United States. Our story is here. Sales are reported by NPD’s McLean to have reached close to 5 million units in 2021—double the previous year’s sales in LGBTQ content. So far in 2022, LGBTQ fiction book sales have increased, year-over-year, by 39 percent through May 28.
These statistical insights are emerging even as the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade highlights Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas’ reference to other rights, alarming the human-rights community that same-gender marriage, gay sex, and contraception in the States might also face Supreme Court setbacks, per Jay Reeves’ story today (July 1) for the Associated Press. And in book markets of the world, the States included, instances of attempted book bannings have been rising–with key targets frequently being books that involve LGBTQ+ themes.
Amazon: ‘We Must Comply With Local Laws’
As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the United Arab Emirates is a prominent leader in the Arab world in international events, activities, and programs intended to engage residents in literature, reading, and the book business, as well as to develop international recognition and translation of the Arabic language and its literature.
World publishing professionals who regularly travel to the UAE for scholarly symposia, professional programs, and book fairs in Sharjah, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi might be surprised by news of such pressure by a market that in many of its cultural and business overtures to other parts of the world is seemingly committed to literature’s embrace of the panoply of human experience.
In fact, in its warning to travelers about a negative UAE stance on homosexuality, the United States’ State Department’s information for travelers points out that it’s not aware of actual punitive action in recent times. The State Department writes under “Local Laws and Special Circumstances”:
“LGBTI travelers: Consensual same-sex sexual relations are criminalized in the UAE. Penalties may include fines and imprisonment. Under interpretations of sharia, the punishment could include the death penalty. Although the US Embassy and US Consulate General are not aware of any recent arrests or prosecutions for such activities, they remain illegal.
“Cross-dressing is also a punishable offense and there have been reports that the government took action against cross-dressing individuals. Seeour LGBTI Travel Informationpage and section 6 of our Human Rights report for further details.”
What’s more, even as Einarsson calls out the UAE’s pressure on Amazon, the IPA itself has a hugely popular president in Bodour Al Qasimi, an Emirati royal family member who is, herself, a ground-breaking publisher who established the Kalimat Group and its international charity, the Kalimat Foundation; founded the Emirates Publishers Association; and now has created the UAE’s first reprographic rights organization, considered an essential component of modern copyright protection.
Al Qasimi, who has traveled extensively to understand and support other cultures’ book businesses during the still-ongoing pandemic years, is at the 26th biennial São Paulo International Book Fair today. On Thursday (June 30), she gave the keynote address to São Paulo’s professional program. Our story, from Brazil, on her appearance is here. And she is today (July 1) leading the first Brazilian meeting of PublisHer, the network of women in the international publishing business she established in 2019 during London Book Fair. As a publisher herself, Al Qasimi has steadfastly endorsed the IPA’s freedom to publish programming (she’s a former committee member) and the Prix Voltaire program that awards publishers who bravely work to produce often in the face of oppression and danger.
Turk, writing today at CNBC, reports, “This is the second year that a US diplomatic mission in any Gulf country has openly commemorated Pride month and gay rights; in 2021 the American Embassy in Abu Dhabi hoisted the rainbow pride flag, triggering condemnation from prominent Emiratis angered by what many of them described as a lack of respect for their laws, religion, and values.”
And in the States, Weise at the Times writes, “Amazon has typically avoided removing sensitive or controversial books. ‘As a bookseller, we believe that providing access to the written word is important, including content that may be considered objectionable,’ its policy states.”
Amazon is coming under fire from some quarters for complying with the UAE’s demands—that acquiescence confirmed by Amazon spokesperson Nicole Pampe, who told Weise at the Times, “As a company, we remain committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we believe that the rights of LGBTQ people must be protected.
“With Amazon stores around the world, we must also comply with the local laws and regulations of the countries in which we operate.”
More from Publishing Perspectives on the United Arab Emirates and publishing here, more on censorship is here, more on LGTBQ issues in the book business is here, and more on the International Publishers Association is here.
Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s global media partner.
More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.