Monday, October 13, 2008

Censorship and Publishing

The Jewel Of Medina by Sherry Jones has created a literal firestorm of outrage from extremist Muslim groups and has struck fear in book publishers, including Random House USA. I say literal because the publisher who finally agreed to publish the book, Martin Rynja of Gibson Square, had his home firebombed by protesters of the book. Mr. Rynja picked up the novel after Random House decided not to publish it once Random House began to receive threats.

This isn't the first time Martin Rynja has stepped in to publish work Random House felt was "too controversial." He published Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud after Random House pulled out, afraid of being sued for libel.

There is an interesting article about the power of fear to propel censorship, written by Jo Glanville of The Guardian, at The Index Of Censorship, a website that tracks the growth of censorship worldwide. In the article, she writes:

Respect for religion has now become acceptable grounds for censorship; even the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has declared that free speech should respect religious sensibilities, while the UN human rights council passed a resolution earlier this year condemning defamation of religion and calling for governments to prohibit it. As the writer Kenan Malik has so astutely pointed out: ‘In the post-Rushdie world, speech has come to be seen not intrinsically as a good but inherently as a problem because it can offend as well as harm …’ Censorship, and self-censorship, Malik observes, have become the norm. What we have seen, over the past two decades, is an insidious new argument for curbing free speech become increasingly acceptable.

As publishers, we must think about what role we play in facilitating censorship. By our actions, or lack of, we are capable of silencing dissent and feeding fear, whether we are aware of that power or not. Every time we decide not to publish something because we might get sued, we are gagging an author whose work might genuinely need to be heard. Of course we need to protect ourselves; the world doesn't need any more martyrs. If we're not the right person to publish the work because we lack the resources to do so, who do we know who can? We must make the decision of whether or not to publish a book from our own knowledge and insight and not because we're afraid. Fear doesn't create social or religious tolerance, it creates blinders and muzzles.

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