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The responsibility of publishers as the “gatekeepers of information” was underlined in the first speech by the new president of the International Publishers Association (IPA), Hugo Setzer, at the London Book Fair.

Speaking at the freedom to speech session entitled ‘Paying the Price: Is Truth to be Trusted, or Just an Outdated Trend?’, he said: “Publishers have had the responsibility to act as the gatekeepers of information for many hundreds of years, each publisher opening and closing various gates while competing with other publishers for audiences, and each gate letting through diverse and sometimes contradictory versions of the Truth. Whereas, according to Franklin Foer in his book World without mind, in Amazon’s vision of the future, there is just one gate: theirs.”

Publishers have borne the responsibility of “accuracy and truth” over the centuries, but it is today’s online platforms that are the new distributors of information and “they are not handling it well”, Setzer believes, adding: “In fact, their business models are often built on them not being responsible at all”.

He went into more detail on this point.  “There is increasing consensus that leaving these platforms unregulated poses a great risk to democracy. But as the discussions on the European Copyright Directive have shown us, such regulation is challenging to draft and we hear complaints from other regions of fake news and anti-terrorism laws that over reach into the realm of freedom of expression.”

His address included a depressing overview of the challenges to freedom of expression around the world.  “In Turkey and other countries many publishers, teachers, writers and journalists are paying the price for exercising a freedom of expression that we take for granted. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 68 journalists are currently in jail in Turkey. Other reports

suggest Interpol red flag notices are being abused to harass publishers outside Turkey, like Prix Voltaire [the IPA’s freedom to publish prize] laureate, Ragip Zarokolu.  In places like Bangladesh, we see publishers paying the ultimate price for the freedom to publish: their lives.”

But he added that despite this deplorable situation, the writers and publishers nominated for the IPA’s Prix Voltaire prize showed how publishers are “standing up to corruption and shining light into the shadows in countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Hungary, Turkey, Iran, Hong Kong and Bangladesh”.

He talked about the rise of President Trump, the worrying trend towards populism in many parts of the world and the challenges to ‘truth’ in a world of ‘fake news’.  Here he re-emphasised the responsibility of publishers, concluding his speech with these words:  “Our industry bears that burden of trust and does so proudly. We have earned it over centuries. We must stand together to make sure the price to pay is not a publisher or author’s silence, much less their life.”