By Roger Tagholm
Let’s imagine you are an educational publisher. You have a range of books for children and young adults – reading schemes and storybooks and activity books and fact books, a whole range of material. You have a partner lined-up in China with whom you will co-publish. The arrangement is a huge deal for your company, and will see your titles distributed widely across that enormous country. Your titles will help in the education of millions of children.
But there is a hiccup. Before the deal is finally signed, the Chinese authorities raise an issue with one of your titles. It is a guide to great events in twentieth century history. The authorities pass most of it, but say they have a problem with the paragraph on the Tiananmen Square demonstrations that took place in Beijing in 1989. They want this section removed. You offer to alter the wording in some way, but they are not having it: they want the section removed and will cancel the entire deal if you do not comply. What do you do? Do you abandon the entire co-publishing partnership on a point of principle? Or do you remove that section and proceed, arguing that the greater good outweighs this one issue – and that by being in a relationship with the Chinese authorities, or indeed the authorities in any country where such an incident occurs, keeps dialogue open and may lead to a thawing of such uncompromising stances in the future.
Now this is a hypothetical example, but it is the kind of situation being faced by publishers. Or, in many cases, avoided by publishers who choose to self-censor because they know certain material won’t get through anyway. The issue of freedom to publish will be very much to the fore at the Frankfurt Book Fair which runs from 10-14 October. The fair is marking both its own 70th birthday and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) with a joint campaign and series of events that includes a focus on freedom to publish.
Together with the German Publishers and Booksellers Association (the Börsenverein) and media bodies ARTE, ZDF and Der Spiegel – with the support of the United Nations and Amnesty International – the book fair has created On the Same Page, a campaign that reminds people of the importance of the UDHR, and in particular Article 19 which states: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
On Friday, 12 October two family members of recipients of the International Publishers Association’s Prix Voltaire, its freedom to publish prize, will be interviewed on stage at the fair in a session called ‘Accidental Campaigners and International Diplomacy. Kristenn Einarsson who heads up the IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee will interview Angela Gui, who accepted the Prix Voltaire on behalf of her father, the publisher and bookseller Gui Minhai, currently held in detention in China. He will also speak with Ensaf Haidar, the wife of the imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi who received the prize in 2016.
In recognizing the On the Same Page campaign, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: “As the fundamental values of the Universal Declaration are being challenged in many parts of the world, it’s imperative we all stand up and reaffirm our commitment to these values which are essential if we are to keep our societies free, fair and stable.”
He continues: “Everyone can make a difference by standing up for the rights of others, and this initiative by Frankfurter Buchmesse and the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels is a very welcome effort to mobilize booksellers and publishers worldwide to ensure we are all on the same page.”
These are fine words, yet the difficulty arises when what one country sees as respectful criticism, another regards as insult. This is an extremely sensitive field of discussion and very much an ongoing issue – which is why it is good that Frankfurt is focusing on the whole freedom to publish question this year. For surely what everyone agrees on is the importance of dialogue and the recognition that books are part of our common humanity and that there is far more that unites us than divides us.