At the end of May, I had the opportunity to attend the inaugural edition of the World Expression Forum (Wexfo) in Lillehammer, Norway. At the Forum, I participated in the announcement of the International Publishers Association (IPA) Prix Voltaire 2022 shortlist, and I attended several talks and panels. Events like Wexfo show that the publishing industry is committed to engaging in the difficult conversations necessary for progress on freedom to publish. With all of the inspiring discussions, I decided to reflect a bit on freedom to publish — the right of publishers to create and distribute their works in complete freedom — in this post.

The challenges to freedom to publish are continuously evolving which makes ongoing monitoring of the global state of freedom to publish critical. Recently, in leading the IPA’s International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience (Inspire) initiative, I had the opportunity to engage with a number of members on how the global pandemic is shaping the freedom to publish dialogue on the ground globally. IPA members reported heightened concerns about the impact of political fear and coercion and the erosion of the legal foundations for freedom to publish. Specifically, IPA members cited worries about self-censorship, government overreach, the use of government emergency powers to limit expression, and the influence of tech companies over expression.

I have been deeply engaged in the global freedom to publish dialogue for more than a decade as a publisher, through the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA), IPA, and as a thought leader and advocate for change. Of course, this discussion is difficult because what is meant by freedom to publish is extremely contextual and absolutist positions are often met with significant resistance. It is also very easy for the global dialogue on freedom to publish to surface prejudices that can hinder progress.

Socially conservative countries and regions struggle with the challenge of reconciling complete freedom of expression with resistance by some communities. An unanswered question is — how do societies initiate a change in cultural norms to embrace full freedom of expression while at the same time integrating socially conservative elements of societies that resist certain types of expression entering the cultural mainstream?

In thinking through this question, I believe there are prejudices that we need to overcome. There is not a single approach to effectively engage countries and societies on highly contextual issues like freedom to publish. We must also not use the politics of governments to form judgments about the commitment of individuals and publishing ecosystem institutions to freedom to publish.

In my experience, I have found that individuals and institutions that lack channels to express opinions about freedom to publish are often the most committed and passionate proponents. Prejudices can stand in the way of addressing freedom to publish in socially conservative societies because it cultivates an us vs. them mentality that can quickly turn dialogues about freedom to publish into monologues.

I believe in gradualist, dialogue-based approaches to engaging countries and societies utilizing the power of publishing to establish common platforms for change. Since 2007, when I founded my publishing house Kalimat Group, we have consistently pushed the boundaries of cultural and societal taboos. Our business is firmly rooted in pushing the frontiers of what is publishable.

I was also fortunate to work alongside a number of passionate publishers to establish the EPA which has played a key role in engaging decision makers publicly and privately on freedom to publish. EPA has also hosted several freedom to publish panels at local and regional book fairs which included senior government officials, prominent publishers, and other stakeholders.

I have led freedom to publish fact finding missions to countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Mauritania to personally lobby for publishers in peril and press for progress. From these experiences, I think it is important to acknowledge that not all governments work the same, and issues like freedom to publish benefit from engagement rather than isolation strategies. Of course, we don’t have all the answers, but I think global dialogue alongside strategies to support change from within have the most potential for progress on freedom to publish.

The publishing and creative industries are the single most powerful tool we have as cultures, nations, industry associations, and individuals to enable dialogue on difficult, highly contextual issues like freedom to publish. Publishers play a vital role in enabling human progress and development by enriching public debate, catalyzing critical societal dialogues, and giving voice to the marginalized. Freedom to publish is not just a developing world problem, and there is not a single silver bullet to effectively engage countries and societies on this issue. Change from within is possible — my work on freedom to publish over the last decade is the proof.

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