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PEN America has recently released its annual Freedom to Write Index, which tracks the imprisonment of writers globally, with China (90) and Iran (57) jailing the most authors and intellectuals, followed by Saudi Arabia (20) and Belarus (16), Myanmar (16), and Vietnam (16). Globally, 311 writers in 36 countries were imprisoned last year as a result of their writing or other free expression, with 84 of those newly imprisoned in 2022.
In other Pen America news, the organization is joining Penguin Random House in a legal action against the school board of the Escambia, Florida School District, over what they describe as “unconstitutional book bans.” Their lawsuit maintains that the district is restricting access to books about subjects such as race, racism, and the LGBTQ community.
NPR, in the meantime, has reported that conflicts over library curation in the United States have reached a new, “nuclear” stage, as library funding itself has become part of the fight, with some states threatening to cut funding to libraries that keep specific books on the selves, and other states threatening to cut funding if libraries remove them. In last month’s State of the Thing we reported on defunding threats in Texas and Missouri, while in our November issue we covered the case of the Patmos Library in Jamestown Township, Michigan, where residents voted to defund their library.
In the April State of the Thing we covered the American Library Association’s recent report concerning the sharp increase in the number of book challenges at American libraries in 2022. Now, as part of National Library Week they have released their annual State of America’s Libraries, highlighting their Top 10 Most Challenged Books list, expanded this year to thirteen titles, as multiple books had the same number of challenges this past year. The top three titles on the list were Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
Also as part of National Library Week (April 23rd-29th), ALA designated April 24th as Right to Read Day, a “national day of action” to defend libraries and the freedom to read, with a number of different events occurring nationwide.
At the recent London Book Fair the IPA (International Publishers Association) released the shortlist for the 2023 Prix Voltaire, which recognizes “publishers – individuals, groups or organizations – who stand firm on freedom to publish.” The five nominees include individuals and publishers from Egypt, Iraq, Ireland, Pakistan and Turkey. Kristenn Einarsson, Chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee, stated that this year’s shortlist was “a testament to publishers who put themselves at risk to publish the works of others and contribute to our societies by ensuring readers have access to multiple voices and perspectives.” The winner of the Prix Voltaire will be announced in late May.
Meanwhile, a controversy surrounding freedom of expression hit closer to home, as a French publisher was detained, questioned and then arrested by UK counter-terrorism police, on his way to attend the London Book Fair. Ernest Moret, who was representing Éditions la Fabrique at the fair, was arrested at St Pancras train station, and was questioned regarding his views of pension reform in his home country, and of the Macron government. He was also asked to name the “anti-government” authors published by Éditions la Fabrique. PEN International expressed concern regarding the arrest, while Éditions La Fabrique (Paris) and Verso Books (London) issued a joint press release on the issue, describing the UK police’s actions as “outrageous and unjustifiable infringements of basic principles of the freedom of expression and an example of the abuse of anti-terrorism laws.”
It has been reported that a third of libraries in the UK have been asked to censor or remove books. Cilip (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), which carried out the research, noted that this represented a significant increase from previous years, and that the most frequently-targeted titles were those addressing issues of race, empire and the LGBTQ community.
In Shanghai the editor-in-chief of Taiwanese publisher Gusa Press, Li Yanhe, has been arrested by Chinese authorities on accusations of endangering national security. Although no details regarding the charges are available—as is usually the case with Chinese cases involving national security—the assumption by many is that it is related to the titles Gusa Press has published that are critical of the Chinese Communist Party, and of issues such as the treatment of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang.
In the October 2022 issue of State of the Thing we reported on the conviction of award-winning Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga for “inciting violence,” as a result of her participation in a peaceful two-women protest march. Happily it has recently been reported that the conviction has been overturned.
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