Freedom to Publish session at London Book Fair 2023

The Freedom to Publish highlight of the fair was the last session on the main stage – Authors and Publishers Fighting Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) and Censorship – followed by the announcement of the 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire shortlist.

The session was organized by IPA, English PEN, PEN international and the Publishers Association. It opened with Simon Dowson-Collins (General Counsel, HarperCollins UK) in conversation with Tim Burgis, the author of Kleptopia. Kleptopia was one of two HarperCollins UK titles subject to SLAPPs, the other being Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People. The pair discussed the different risks faced by publishers and authors (both were pursued in the courts both in the UK and the USA) and how the two worked together before and after publication. Dowson-Collins commended Burgis on his bravery in writing the book and exposing corruption. Noting that the case could have lasted years, cost millions to HarperCollins and him his house, Burgis recognized the incredible relief he felt as the Judge dismissed the claims against him and HarperCollins UK within just a few hours. Burgis thanked HarperCollins UK for its ‘spectacular and utterly heartening defence of the principle of free speech’ but recognized that there are many stories that are not published as newspapers due to legal threats. 

Burgis then became moderator to show the international scale of SLAPPs and how the rich and powerful can use the law to limit oversight. He invited Judha Su, (a founding editor & publisher of soi squad, Thailand), Tanja Tuma (President of PEN Slovenia and PEN International Trustee) as well as Dalia Nasreddin (UK Campaigns Manager at English PEN) onto the stage.

Tanja Tuma presented the situation in Slovenia, where libel is criminal, not civil, law. with the example of journalist Primož Cirman and the online news portal who is facing 46 lawsuits, that are at different stages. The current and potential costs are huge and Cirman faces financial and professional ruin. She labelled this ‘economic censorship’. Speaking later she noted the situation in Slovenia also existed in Croatia where there are 951 registered SLAPPs against journalists.

Judha Su, then outlined the context in Thailand where article 112, the lèse-majesté laws, prevent any criticism of the royal family and where anyone, not just those involved, can inform the police and start proceedings. She presented the challenges that are involved when publishing works, citing the example of SameSky, the 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire laureate, which has faced criminal defamation cases over its long history. She recognized the pressure to self-censor that the legal framework creates and that some feel they have to leave the country.

Dalia Nasreddin, described by Burgis as the encyclopedia of SLAPPs, was able to speak about her work authoring a report on SLAPPs in Europe which covered the period 2010-2021. The report records 570 cases but these were only the ones where people were willing to talk and share information and didn’t cover every case of legal threats. She noted that the ‘right to reply’ was even being weaponized as part of the process to silence authors and that the legal tools used weren’t only limited to libel laws, but also data protection and privacy laws, with authors being pursued in a range of jurisdictions. She closed by evaluating the promises of the UK Government to propose anti-SLAPP legislation, noting that it feels the process is stalling. She underlined the need for legislative change, particularly given the importance of London-based law firms in many SLAPPs. She identified 3 key areas for any legislation 1) an early dismissal process, 2) a right to public participation, and 3) a limitation on costs and potential damages, while enabling the award of exemplary damages in the case of multiple abusive processes.

After a round of questions with the audience, the session closed with Kristenn Einarsson, Chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee coming to the lectern to announce the 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire shortlist (here) which features five brave publishers from Egypt, Iraq, Ireland and Pakistan, Turkey who defend the freedom to publish.

  • Mazen Lateef Ali, Iraq
  • Günışığı Kitaplığı Publishing House, Turkey
  • Mehr Husain, Pakistan
  • Ahmed Mahmoud Ibrahim Ahmed, Egypt
  • Mercier Press, Ireland

He also seized the moment to comment on the case of Ernest Moret, the French publisher working for La Fabrique arrested (and since released on bail) on his way to London Book Fair. He was reportedly questioned by anti-terrorism police about the kind of authors he worked with and whether they were ‘anti-government’. His proceedings continue. The French publishers association subsequently issued a statement here.

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