At the Free Word Centre this week, a panel of writers, publishers, and journalists came together to discuss and debate our right to read, and what happens when ideas are silenced.
The Times journalist David Aaronovitch hosted the discussion, and aptly summarised the difficult relationship so many people have with free speech: “The desire to be free seems to be matched by an equal desire to stop someone else saying or expressing what they want to say.”
The state of censorship
“Writing as a profession can be pretty dangerous, and it can occasionally be lethal,” Saqi Books publisher Lynn Gaspard tells the audience, referring to the problem of censorship in the Middle East. A sobering reminder that freedom of expression is very far from being practiced globally, and that a wrong word in the wrong place could mean a prison sentence, or even a death sentence. Religion, she says, is the biggest “no go area in the Arab world.”
Saqi Books is a Middle East specialist publisher, which has won an impressive collection of major awards. Lynn says that they publish around 100 new titles a year in Arabic, and that around 50-60 of those are censored or banned outright somewhere in the Arab world. Beyond bannings of individual titles, publishers risk being completely vetoed by an entire country for any number of years.
This does not stop Saqi Books, and it tries not to succumb to self-censorship. Lynn asks: “Is there any point in publishing if you’re not publishing valuable, probing books?”
Sometimes however, she admits she does have to practise self-censorship in order to protect her colleagues in Beirut. There are some things she would like to publish, but knows it could have a very real impact on them.
While states wield the censor’s pen, there are other threats to free speech for Saqi Books. Societal censorship has left the publishers at the receiving end of death threats by email and phone, and discovering the shattered glass of smashed windows in their offices.
Censorship has taken a different form for author Claire Hennessy. The Irish writer's work for young adults has come under fire from some readers for causing offence, by covering sensitive topics such as abortion and eating disorders. Are trigger warnings (a warning to alert readers about particular ‘triggering’ subjects that could cause serious distress) the solution? For Claire, the answer is no.
“Trigger warnings focus on the response of an individual, as opposed to the context of the text. We as creators have no idea what might trigger somebody,” she says.
She illustrates her point by describing a woman who is triggered by breakfast cereals. What might at first glance seem almost comical, soon becomes something quite disturbing. The woman was raped, and then made breakfast for her abuser. This dark anecdote demonstrates how anything could be a potential trigger, and questions whether it is the job of the writer to make those presumptions, and second-guess how people will react.
“Our response to trauma is so nuanced, and to reduce it all down to slapping trigger warnings on everything feels facile, idiotic, patronising, and offensive.”
Censorship is a world-wide issue, and the UK is no exception. The panel highlighted some worrying trends taking place close to home, which are all feeding into censorship, be it by the state, the self, or society: debate is becoming extreme, and aggression is infecting social media feeds and news site comment boxes. Universities across the UK have denied platforms to several high profile speakers because of their views, in a bid to create ‘safe spaces.’ This same term cropped up again when Theresa May vowed to eliminate ‘safe spaces’ for terrorists online.
Lynn Gaspard suggests that what there should be a safe space for, is disagreement: “We need to meet with people that we don’t get on with, and we need to have a conversation.”
The panel discussed whether some global political movements may also be a result of censorship, and whether the global rise of populism is partly a result of people feeling silenced and ignored.
At the event, there was also a living example of how censorship can directly affect human lives and families. Ege Dündar is the Pen International Turkey consultant. He is also the son of Can Dündar, a journalist and editor, who was jailed in Turkey for publishing secret state documents. He is one in a long list of journalists who have been jailed in the country.
Ege says his father is now in exile, scared for his life.