The risk of self-censorship

The International Publishers Association (IPA) broached the subject of freedom to publish at the recent London Book Fair, where the president of PEN International, Jennifer Clement, chaired a panel on censorship and self-censorship. Hearing how the censors work in Iran was fascinating—for example, there are words that cannot be used in publications, forcing translators to turn "wine" into "water". This is an amusing example, to Western ears at least, but it points to the arbitrary and heavy-handed nature of state-sponsored censorship (and it raises issues around violating the integrity of a publication).

Yet in a strange way, we are growing almost comfortable with this kind of censorship: after all, we can identify the censors and rail against them. Self-censorship, by contrast, is less obvious and more complex. It can apply at every step of the publishing chain—author, publisher, distributor, bookseller, library. It may be conscious or, in the most insidious cases, unconscious. How do we react to this spectre of self-censorship, as a publishing community? How do we fight something we may not realise we are doing?

To start with, we must support publishers in their decisions. They may find themselves in situations where no good option is available to them. Do they agree to censor a publication for a particular market? Do they withdraw from that market? Do they insist on publishing the original thereby breaking local laws? In a way, it is the very freedom to publish that enables publishers to change a title to satisfy a local market. How can we not support a company that uses its freedom in such a way? And let us not fall into the trap of believing that this is only a problem in regimes with notorious policies on what can and cannot be published.

Self-censorship is a worldwide phenomenon; the reason for it is usually fear. The source of that fear can be diverse: fear of punitive action from the state; fear of legal action from others through draconian libel laws; fear of a violent reaction of extremist religious groups; fear of public pressure.

Even in countries with legal regimes that protect freedom of expression, you can see it happening. Take France as an example. Emmanuel Pierrat, president of the French PEN Club, recently wrote in Livres Hebdo of two examples of French children’s book publishers coming under pressure to alter their publications: On a Chopé la Puberté is a book trying to help children through puberty; Tous à Poil! tries to help children see through physical differences between people. In one case, the publisher withdrew the publication. In the other, the illustrator announced not just the end of the publication in question but of the whole universe of characters the book was based on.

While the law protected these publishers’ freedom to publish, public reaction and online petitions forced them into acts of self-censorship. Would a French publisher working on a similar idea for a book now think twice? What about another author? Or a bookshop?

In the US, we can take the example of President Trump using legal threats earlier this year (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to try and halt the publication of a potentially unfavourable book, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, by Macmillan USA. Smaller publishers, or publishers in markets with different legal frameworks, may not have been so comfortable standing their ground against such pressure. In this case, the scandal probably helped sales, but we can easily imagine a publisher in another context not taking the risk and avoiding publication altogether—put off by a negative public reaction that might impact on sales or share price.

In our freedom to publish seminar at LBF, we heard of the horrific murder in 2015 of Bangladeshi publisher, and recipient of the IPA’s Prix Voltaire award, Faisal Arefin Dipan by religious extremists. His widow, Razia Rahman Jolly, a physician, has taken over the publishing business and is defending his memory. But with two children to raise, she is now careful about what she publishes. Who can blame her?

In other countries, where the suppression of certain information is long-standing, local authors and publishers may not even realise that they are censoring themselves. Certain subjects or ideas no longer even make it to paper or screen. In the case of the 2018 Prix Voltaire winner Gui Minhai, it is our duty to show other publishers in a similar situation that the international publishing community supports the freedom to publish unequivocally. You should not go to prison for books you publish. In the case of Dipan, publishing should not be a matter of life and death.

Fighting this fear is something we must tackle by creating an environment for debate and discussion, an environment that discourages violence. We must work towards this goal with freedom of expression NGOs and with policymakers. We must stand firm, in solidarity with those who are threatened for just doing their job.

At the 2018 International Publishers Congress in New Delhi (10th–14th February), Norwegian publisher William Nygaard said self-censorship indicated a lack of leadership. It is up to the IPA, and our members, to demonstrate true leadership and support publishers by opposing censorship in all its forms.