The question of self-censorship: to publish or not to publish


How do publishers walk the line between necessary business considerations and their industry’s commitment to freedom of thought and expression? A number of major international players were faced with this dilemma in recent months, having to ask themselves the question whether self-censorship might be the only way forward in countries where freedom of speech is restricted. Here, Juergen Boos, president and CEO Frankfurt Book Fair shares more. In August 2017, the world’s oldest publishing house, Cambridge University Press (CUP), performed an act of self-censorship that sparked a backlash from academics and authors: On the request of the Chinese authorities, the publisher had agreed to remove hundreds of politically-sensitive articles from its China Quarterly website, a leading China studies journal. In a statement on its website, CUP had explained that this course of action was taken in order “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market.” As a consequence of blocking the articles that all discussed sensitive issues such as ethnic tensions in Tibet or the Cultural Revolution, a petition was launched and signed by hundreds of academics, threatening to boycott the publisher if its act of self-censorship was not revoked. The articles were then reposted, with the author of the petition and Professor of Economics at Peking University’s HSBC Business School, Christopher Balding, commenting to The Telegraph: “Hopefully, this will prompt thinking by foreign universities and academics about how to best engage with China rather than accepting its censorship exports.”

Juergen Boos, president and CEO Frankfurt Book FairTwo more recent cases involving Chinese authorities saw Australian publisher Allen & Unwin as well as Springer Nature choosing the route of censoring, with the former actually deciding not to publish a book in its home market for concerns about Chinese retaliation. A step dubbed “a watershed” moment by Professor Clive Hamilton, author of the work in question, Silent Invasion: How China is Turning Australia into a Puppet State, that investigates the Chinese Communist Party’s influence on Australian politics and academia. The publisher’s official statement spoke about delaying publication “until certain matters currently before the courts have been decided.” In order to comply with local regulations, Springer Nature blocked access to, according to FT research, around 1,000 articles containing China critical content, using the same reasoning as CUP a few months earlier: “We’d rather make concessions affecting only a fraction of our output than risking accessibility to the rest of our output for our Chinese audience.”

Another note-worthy instance of self-censorship to avoid falling foul of local laws involved a publisher editing out part of a book’s plot in its Russian edition – without informing the author. Victoria Schwab’s Shades of Magic fantasy trilogy features LGBT characters and stories and its Russian publisher Rosman censored certain romantic scenes to comply with Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law, banning the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” Otherwise, the work would have been shrinkwrapped in plastic and given 18-plus rating, i.e., missed out on reaching the book’s major target readership.

The dilemma that publishers face in all of these cases is clear: On the one hand, their international and licensing business is of vital economic importance so that failing to comply with local legislation and thus risking legal action can have significant consequences. On the other hand, publishing houses are by nature committed to free speech and have a responsibility to provide international access to their content, no matter the topic or critical approach. There’s also their authors to consider and the message self-censorship sends to them. In the CUP case, the outrage and show of solidarity was immediate, creating pressure for the publishing house to react.

If regimes such as the Communist one in China have the power to resort to blackmailing techniques and publishers are confronted with laws, as in Russia, manifesting attitudes that are the polar opposite to liberal thought and enlightened thinking, how do you react as a content business whose very existence depends on openness and free expression of opinions? “No doubt, this is a vital issue for our industry, and publishers are being put in an incredibly difficult position by these restrictions on freedom of expression. As the Schwab-Rosman case in Russia has shown, there are certain principles, beyond all short-term economic considerations, that need to be upheld, since both the trust between author and publisher, and freedom of expression are core assets of the publishing industry,” says Dr Jessica Sänger, director for European and International Affairs, German Publishers and Booksellers Association.

Navigating the tricky business of publishing content in a country where it has the potential to break local regulations does not necessarily have to result in situations that require self-censorship. German publishing house Links, for example, didn’t encounter any issues when publishing a book in China on how readers in the former GDR undermined censorship, “I was surprised how easy it was and we had no problems finding a Chinese academic publisher, Social Science Academic Press, for our book,” says publisher Christoph Links. And adds, “Turkish publisher Belge will publish a book of ours on the Armenian genocide and although this topic is a political taboo in Turkey, its historical interpretation is not codified in law. In many other countries, however, national law defines how certain historic occurrences are to be interpreted, so publishing titles that infringe such legislation requires a dialogue with the licensee to find a common understanding how to handle the situation.”

Despite publishers succeeding in bringing critical content to countries considered to clamp down on certain sensitive issues, the fact that self-censorship crops up in so many different places and in various shapes and forms is a concern for the industry that requires cooperation on an international level, including sharing experiences on the realities of trying to walk the line between business interests, restrictive laws and freedom to publish: “Open discussion of the issue with all its implications is paramount for our industry in this context,” stresses Juergen Boos, president and CEO of Frankfurt Book Fair. When countries such as China sign up to the International Publishers Association, with its guiding principle of freedom to publish, while at the same time pursuing a policy of censorship, the industry is clearly faced with an issue that raises a range of complex questions that won’t be easily answered. Answers, however, and a long-term approach will have to be found.”

Juergen Boos will be speaking on Self-censorship at the upcoming IPA Congress 2018 in New Delhi, India.

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