Self-censorship on sensitive issues such as religion and sexuality is a growing threat to the freedom to publish, the International Publishers Assocation has said.
The organisation made the claim in a report launched on 15th October by its Freedom to Publish committee at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which drew from case studies and a survey of IPA members.
It concluded that, although government interference was the main challenge, many publishers had flagged up self-censorship regarding controversial political topics and issues of sensitivity and harassment on social media as their main concerns. The misuse of “draconian” defamation laws was also an issue, the report claimed.
Self-censorship was a particular concern “regarding politics and religion, as well as LGBTQ-related themes”, the report said. It called for the issue to be “addressed strongly and continuously by the industry on a global level”.
Kristenn Einarsson, chair of the committee, said: “Although censorship by governments and authorities is the main threat to publishing in many countries, authors' and publishers' inclination to self-censor is increasing because of major pressure from different sources.”
He went on: “If we are to create and maintain free, healthy societies, then publishers must have the will and the ability to challenge established thinking, preserve the history of our cultures, and to make room for new knowledge, critical opposition and challenging artistic expression.
“Publishing has always operated in a social and cultural environment that is constantly changing and where the publishers themselves—through their commissioning or selection of material and as a result of the works they decide to disseminate—influence both what is discussed in society and how those works are received.
“Freedom to publish means that publishers must be allowed to publish all that they deem worthy of publication, even, and perhaps especially, if those works challenge the boundaries established by the society they operate in.”
According to the report, the Freemuse NGO reported there were 711 worldwide violation of freedom in 93 countries during 2019, including government censorship, book banning and imprisonment of writers or publishers.
In Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Turkey and Vietnam publishers face prosecution and detention, the report said.
It stated: “As we can see from the latest Prix Voltaire nominations, in Bangladesh publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan was killed, while China is silencing critical voices such as publisher Gui Minhai, and Egypt is sentencing publishers, like Khaled Lotfy, to jail. The same tendencies are seen in Turkey, with the government banning books and censoring publications. In Vietnam, we have addressed the harassment of independent publisher Liberal Publishing House. In countries such as Russia and Thailand, publishers need to execute self-censorship, primarily according to law, to be able to publish certain titles.”
A threat also comes from governments tightening their grip on school curricula, it said, with UAE publishers needing pre-publication approval by the Ministry of Culture & Development for learning material and literature. State production of learning material in Iceland and Hungary is also a threat, the report stated.
The IPA was also keeping an eye on the US where issues of concern include government obstruction of the press, the spread of misinformation and presidential attempts to stop publications.
A later IPA session included a video from Vietnamese publisher Pham Doan Trang warning of the dangers of making books in the country.
The video was made just before she was arrested following the publication of a book on Vietnam's largest land dispute. Trang, a Vietnamese co-founder of Liberal Publishing House, which won this year's Prix Voltaire, was arrested last week and charged with making anti-state propaganda. She faces up to 20 years in prison and is at risk of torture, Amnesty International says.
In the video Trang warned the business of releasing books was perilous at every stage of the process from printing, to distribution.
She said: “Independent publishing in Vietnam is a dangerous job. Publishers face risk of arrest, torture and imprisonment from the beginning to end of the process.”
Trang said all printing materials and machinery were under CCTV surveillance and those making banned books had to move from place to place to avoid capture. Those delivering books also risked being snared by undercover police posing as buyers.
She said: “For us, books are not simply books. For us, books mean life, books mean freedom.”