Norway’s WEXFO 2024: A ‘Global Free Speech Recession’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The third annual iteration of Lillehammer’s World Expression Forum features a programming segment focused on book publishing.

Irene Khan, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, speaks at WEXFO. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

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

Einarsson: ‘We Must Invest To Protect Our Inner Borders’
The global free speech recession is how the World Expression Forum (WEXFO, May 27 and 28) in Lillihammer is phrasing one of the most acute issues that publishing and its nearby creative industries face today.

Kristenn Einarsson, the founding CEO of this annual international gathering of thought-leaders on the topic, in an October address in Riga, referred to the autocratic encroachment on free expression in many parts of the world as a crisis impacting our “internal borders.”

“We must invest to protect our inner borders,” Einarsson said, “to invest in maintaining democracy. To preserve democracy requires enlightened citizens who—based on knowledge and information—make independent choices in society, and participate in the influence of social development.”

Kristenn Einarsson. Image: Kristi Hovde

As can be seen in the urgency of the 2024 “Freedom in the World” report from the nonprofit, non-partisan Freedom House in Washington, “Flawed elections and armed conflict contributed to the 18th year of democratic decline”  in 2023, according to a formula of metrics that 82-year-old organization uses to track the status of democracy at international scale.

“The breadth and depth of the deterioration were extensive,” the report reads. “Political rights and civil liberties were diminished in 52 countries, while only 21 countries made improvements.”

Einarsson at Riga told his audience, “In a global perspective, the democratic progress made over the past 35 years is gone.

“Nearly three-quarters of the world’s population lives under autocratic rule. Disinformation, polarization, and autocracy mutually reinforce each other,” he said, based on statistics from the University of Gothenburg’s V-dem Institute, which monitors the global development of democracies.

“Nearly three-quarters of the world’s population lives under autocratic rule. Disinformation, polarization, and autocracy mutually reinforce each other.”Kristenn Einarsson, WEXFO, IPA

In this year’s program, our international professional publishing readership will notice that WEXFO is staging an afternoon-length publishing-specific program on the afternoon of May 27: Access to Information, Books, and Ideas: How to Advance the Freedom to Read.

Publishing Perspectives will moderate this event, with documentation to follow, in which speakers will explore how “politicians must look at the funding to support reading, not as funding something ‘nice to have,’ but a pure necessity in the fight to uphold our democracies.

Among the most serious conference-setting examinations of the gathering pressure on publishing to date will bring together speakers including:

‘Access to Books’

While WEXFO’s holistic approach to its annual presentation has never skirted the issues facing the international book-publishing industry, its third-year programming is unusual in that it’s placing an afternoon’s emphasis on the mounting dynamic and expanding footprint of efforts in literary censorship and book bannings.

Related article: ‘Brazil’s Publishers Call Out Perceived Censorship.’ Image – Getty iStockphoto: Cabuscaa

Just last week, Publishing Perspectives reported on an apparent effort to pull a book from a Brazilian school system, and on several of the United States’ Big Five publishers’ objection to what appears be a cache of books being criticized and deliberately thrown at a public school in New York City.

“In the International Publishers Association, where I chair the Freedom to Publish committee,” Einarsson told his audience in Riga, “we are working together with the other stakeholders in the book world to start a campaign, not only for the freedom of expression and to publish, but also the freedom to read.

“There’s a global trend to limit the access to books in different ways, that we must counter. We need high-level readers, and they need to have access to books.”

And this, of course, is part of what prompted the presentation on March 14 at London Book Fair of a Main Stage event called A Trinity of Freedoms at Risk: Expression, Publishing and Reading, introducing a new statement that brings together “the freedoms to express, publish, and read,” in a widening international effort to pull together the “three freedoms” on which rest literature, its writing, its publication, and its consumption.

Related article: ‘At London Book Fair: ‘A Trinity of Freedoms.’ Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

The risk of self-censorship due to social, political or economic pressures remains high,” that statement says at one point, “affecting every part of the chain from writer to reader. Society must create the environment for authors, publishers, booksellers and librarians to fulfil their missions freely.” The Crisis of Trust: How to Fight It? follows, with Arizza Nocum, Andreas Motzfeldt Kravik, Khaled Harara, Arvinn Gadgil

And with this component of the “trinity of freedoms” being staged as part of the mix at this year’s WEXFO, here is a look at the programming overall.

Programming Highlights

Again this year set at the Scandic Lillehammer Hotel, WEXFO’s programming opens on May 27 with music of the singer Ghawgha Taban with Åsmund Reistad and Knut Nesheim and an opening event featuring Hans Olav Sundfør, WEXFO chair Mads Nygaard, Espen Aas, Sigrid Sollund, then moves to a keynote address of obvious timeliness: Activist Noam Shuster Eliassi on The Crisis of Trust in the Middle East.

Steffan Lindberg

Staffan Lindberg of the University of Gothenburg’s Varieties of Democracy Institute will then provide this year’s Status of Freedom of Expression keynote for a 2024 assessment out outline of what’s to come, followed by a discussion on The Crisis of Trust with Arizza Nocum, Andreas Motzfeldt Kravik, Khaled Harara, Arvinn Gadgil.

Questions around artificial intelligence will be addressed by Peter Shoppert, Sam Gregory, Svenja Hahn, Adele Matheson Mestad, Sam Gregory, Nataliia Romanyshyn.

In addition to the Access to Information, Books, and Ideas program, the conference will offer The Israel-Gaza Crisis: How to Secure Freedom of Expression, Narratives Used as Weapons for Autocrats and War Leaders; and Navigating the Pressures: Artistic Freedom in a Complex Landscape.

Arizza Nocum

During the conference dinner on May 27, the shortlist of the 2024 IPA Prix Voltaire will be presented, with Pansa and Einarsson’s participation, and it’s expected that a talk will given by Teren Tetyana, the director of PEN Ukraine, about the late Ukrainian war-crimes researcher Victoria Amelina, who was honored posthumously last year with a special award from the Prix Voltaire, which is directed by James Taylor.

On its second day, May 28, the WEXFO agenda turns to an opening keynote speech from Dartmouth College’s Ezzedine Fishere, Is the Burning of Religious Symbols Free Expression or Vandalism? with a follow-up discussion, An Unpredictable Dialogue After Ages of Violence and Hate with imam and attorney Seyran Ates Charlie Hebdo editor Gerard Biard.

Andreas Motzfeldt Kravik

Law System Against Expression: What Are the Possibilities and Dangers? will feature Anine Kierulf, Anders Lindberg, Ezzedine Fishere. A sequence on Pillars of Trust in Electoral Processes will feature presentations on the biggest state-perpetrated Internet shutdowns in 2023 and 2024 elections; democratic developments in Poland; Polarization and Disinformation Before the US Election; and the question of Why Do People Vote for Autocrats in the Information Age? with Kimberly Wehle, Vladyslav Troitskyi, Jakob Nilsen, Paulina Kieszkowska.

Lubna Jaffery

More sessions that second day include looks at advocacy for free speech; the question of fighting that “global free speech recession,” with the participation of Lubna Jaffery, the Norwegian minister of culture Lubna Jaffery and the UN’s special rapporteur for free expression, Irene Khane; and the place of Palestinian voices in the world discussion.

Ticketing and registration for the 2024 WEXFO can be had at an early-bird discount through April 5. Details, including optional events including a May 26 excursion to Utøya and the Youth Network Conference of May 29 can all be found here.

Associated Events for Young People at WEXFO

In addition to the  main two-day conference, WEXFO continues this year the multilayered and extensive program for young people initiated last year.

Related article: ‘Norway’s New WEXFO Youth Comes of Age.’ Image – Getty iStockphoto: Dennis Wegewijs

The 2024 events involved in that division of the presentation include:

  • WEXFO Youth Voices (May 27 and 28 May): one-day gatherings in Lillehammer for secondary and upper secondary students to speak up and learn about freedom of expression
  • WEXFO Youth Network Conference (May 29): network conference for organizations, activists, and youth all over the world working with youth and freedom of expression
  • WEXFO Utøya Young Experts (May 24 to 29): five-day workshop and gathering for innovators, activists, and community leaders to showcase how young people fight for freedom of expression
  • WEXFO More Young Voices (May 24 to 31): group exchange for young people and youth organizations from countries in Europe to learn, share experiences and discuss challenges related to youth freedom of expression

In both the depth of its youth programming and the range of its main-conference agenda, the World Expression Forum is, in its third year, reaching for its potential to pace, evaluate, and address fast-surfacing challenges to the freedoms of speech, publication, and reading.

Whether staging a debate among adults or a Q&A session among young thinkers, the goal, as Einarsson put it in Riga last autumn, is nurturing and supporting “enlightened, participating citizens”—the walking-talking embodiment of international democracy.

Update: Bologna Programming Notes

Kristenn Einarsson, Enrica Manenti (center), and Barbara Hoepli speak on April 8 at the Bologna Book Plus stage of Bologna Children’s Book Fair on the “trinity of freedoms” that international publishing professionals are coming together to promote

One event in which publishing professionals can engage is set for Bologna Children’s Book Fair (April 8 to 11) at the Bologna Book Plus theater in Hall 29, on April 8 at 4 p.m.

In that event, Publishing Perspectives will moderate a discussion titled Supporting a Trinity of Freedoms: To Express; To Publish; To Read.

Speaking will be:

  • Kristenn Einarsson, chair IPA Freedom to Publish committee and WEXFO CEO
  • Enrica Manenti, librarian, Modena
  • Barbara Hoepli, Hoepli bookshop, Milan

The session will look at the joint action of these five international organizations and at the pressures that authors, booksellers, librarians, and publishers are encountering. The question is what the book-business sector can do to ensure these freedoms are preserved, protected, and employed by people throughout the world.

Karine Pansa and, from left, Kristenn Einarsson, Christoph Bläsi, Luis González, and moderator Miha Kovač speak on April 8 at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair Authors Café on the Ljubljana Reading Manifesto

Another Bologna event in the WEXFO and IPA Trinity of Freedoms context is also set for late on April 8, this one at 5:30 p.m. and presented by the Frankfurter Buchmesse Guest of Honor Slovenia program from Slovenian Book Agency, JAK, and Aldus Up and set in the Authors Café in Hall 30.

This discussion is titled Higher-Level Reading, AI, and Book Publishing: The Ljubljana Reading Manifesto.

Speaking will be:

  • Karine Pansa, IPA president
  • Kristenn Einarsson, chair IPA Freedom to Publish committee
  • Christoph Bläsi, University of Mainz and Aldus Up
  • Luis González, Fundación Germán Sánchez Ruipérez, Aldus Up
  • Miha Kovač, Frankfurter Buchmesse Guest of Honor Slovenia curator

From text provided to Publishing Perspectives about this session: “Digitization is one of the fastest accelerators of change in human history. But we also live in a time when stupidity and vulgarity are not only on public display but are becoming a political virtue, and social media enclose us in bubbles. How can we communicate all these complexities in book formats without getting lost in simplifications? And what role does higher level reading play in understanding the complexity of today’s world? Is it an obscure intellectual technique that is becoming obsolete, or is it something that cannot be replaced by a range of new media activities? Do we need to rethink its position both in publishing and in the cultural landscape as a whole?”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the freedom to publish and the freedom of expression is here, more on the International Publishers Association is here, more on its Prix Voltaire is here, and more on the World Expression Forum (WEXFO) is here. The chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee, which awards the Prix Voltaire, is Kristenn Einarsson, and the director of the Prix Voltaire program is James Taylor.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s world media partner.

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 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.