(This is part of my speech during the ceremony for the Voltaire Prize awarded by the International Publishers Association during the marvelous Guadalajara Book Fair)
They wanted to burn the books. “I think we should throw those books on the fire,” one said. Another said he wanted to “see those books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.” This did not happen in Nazi Germany, or during the Inquisition in the Middle Ages in Italy or Spain. It happened last month in the United States, the most powerful and technologically advanced country in the world.
Two school board members in Spotsylvania County in Virginia wanted to ban “sexually explicit” books from school libraries. One is about three adolescents who escape from prostitution and sexual abuse. Another tells the story of a 19th Century girl who dressed as a boy to get into medical school.
All the board members initially voted to remove those books from the libraries. But when their vote became national news – specially because of the proposal to burn the books – the board reversed its decision. The two members who wanted to burn the books did not change their votes or apologize.
This happened in a small town 90 minutes from Washington, the nation’s capital. Unfortunately, what happened in Virginia is happening in other parts of the world. The American Library Association has a list of the 100 most banned and challenged books 2010-2019. Many of them focus on racism, discrimination and gender inequalities.
At the global level, it is impossible to keep a list of all the books banned by governments. It would be extremely long. But the Encyclopedia Britannica has a lists of the “most censured” throughout history that includes Ulysses by James Joyce, Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, 1984 by George Orwell and even Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. In fact, some of the most influential books of our time have been banned by a government, a religious authority or a school board scared of characters from the LGBTQ+ community.
To publish nowadays can sometimes be an act of courage and defiance.
A report by the International Publishers Association in 2020 confirmed that the freedom to publish is being challenged and attacked in many parts of the world. Especially by governments. With prison, harassment, self-censorship and the abuse of libel laws.
The report says that some books simply cannot be published in countries like Cuba and Venezuela. Publisher Lokman Slim was murdered in Beirut this year. His sister and co-publisher, Rasha Al Ameer, accepted the Voltaire Prize, which highlights the work of courageous publishers, in his place. We also know that publisher Faisal Arepin Dipan was murdered in Bangladesh and publisher Khaled Lofty was sentenced to prison in Egypt. The report’s conclusion was unequivocal: publishing a book must never be a death sentence.
Freedom is team work. For every writer and journalist we need a courageous publisher and media owner willing to sacrifice their work – and sometimes their lives – so that we can read a controversial book and receive news without censorship.
Censorship is always linked to power. And it requires two elements: one that imposes a point of view by force, and another that obeys it. That is why if we allow governments – especially the more authoritarian ones – to determine who is the enemy and dictate what we should watch, write, read or listen to, then we’re in trouble. Why? Because inevitably they will do everything possible to remain in power.
That is why the first rule of any free nations should be this: No official censorship. That’s where they start to dismantle democracies. In his book on tyranny, Timothy Snyder, a Yale history professor, warns of the dangers of bowing to governments. “Do not obey in advance,” he wrote. “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.”
Publishers and journalists must always reject censorship, wherever it comes from. But that does not mean that we are required to publish everything that reaches our emails or social networks. Our work is precisely to identify what is news and worth publishing. And leave out what is not. That’s why governments must never meddle in our work.
Publishers and news media are not public relations agencies for government. For example, reporters were never morally obligated to publish the thousands of Tweets and all the statements by former President Donald Trump. On the contrary, many of the things he said were lies. In the same way, no medium in Mexico has been required to disseminate in full the morning news conferences of President Lopez Obrador over the past three years. That would not be good journalism. What’s more, we must challenge him constantly. Specially when has “other facts” that do not match reality.
The ethical requirements for publishers and journalists are exactly the same. If we have to decide between being friends or enemies of the people in power, it is better to keep our distance. Eventually, we will have to publish what they want to hide. And that means that we cannot remain neutral in the face of racism, discrimination, corruption, public lies, human rights abuses and dictatorships. In those cases, we have to chose sides and become the counterweight.
Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci summed it up masterfully in a letter to a foreign correspondent. “For me, to be a journalist means being disobedient. And being disobedient means being in the opposition. And to be in the opposition, we must tell the truth. And the truth is always the opposite of what people say.”
I believe that publishers and journalists do our best work when we disobey the powerful, when we question their authority and when we risk everything to tell the truth. Our work, in the final analysis, is to fight against censorship even at the risk of being burned.
Publishing books is not a job for those who want to be neutral or those who want to remained silent. Behind the publication of a banned or censored book there’s always a courageous publisher. Our freedom depends on them.