Banned Books Week: Amnesty International Guest Blog

Banned Books Week Image by Camden Forgia

Banned Books Week:

Amnesty International calls attention to the plight of people who are persecuted because of what they write or publish.

 

 

It’s September, which means that Banned Books Week is almost here!  For libraries across the United States – and increasingly around the world – the last week of September is a time to celebrate freedom of expression and freedom to read while calling attention to very real threats to these freedoms. During this time the American Library Association highlights the work it does to document book challenges in (mostly) American libraries, meanwhile Amnesty International USA brings to light abuses of the human rights of people in the publishing world — particularly those who have been harassed, threatened, imprisoned, exiled, or killed because of what they write, publish, or read.  As such, the work of the two organizations complement each other.

In late August 2020 AIUSA launched a reinvigorated approach to Banned Books Week, calling attention to ten people in seven different countries who face harassment, long prison terms, and even death for what they have published, as well as their work as journalists, photojournalists, writers, and online activists. This year four cases are drawn from across Asia (China, India, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam) as well as Yemen, Russia, and the United States.

Several of the featured writers, artists, and journalists have been detained, charged with crimes, or sentenced and imprisoned. Three of the cases — an artist/activist from Russia, an award winning photojournalist from India, and a short story writer from Sri Lanka — are facing between six and ten years in prison if found guilty of the charges against them. One journalist has already been sentenced to seven years in prison for reporting on an environmental disaster in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, a Chinese / Australian novelist, academic, and blogger has been detained since January 2019 and charged with crimes that carry a penalty from three years’ imprisonment to death, and in April 2020 four journalists, detained since 2015 in Yemen, were sentenced to death.

Finally, AIUSA is calling attention to a journalist in the United States who was pepper sprayed, arrested, detained, and charged in the context of her work as a journalist covering the Black Lives Matter protests.

In honor of Banned Books Week, Amnesty International USA asks people around the world to take action to support these individuals and the right to freedom of expression. The easiest way for individuals to take action is to visit the 2020 Banned Books Week website, learn about the cases, and sign the online petitions.

HOW CAN LIBRARIES PARTICIPATE?

By supporting the Banned Books Week initiatives of both the American Library Association and Amnesty International, libraries can reach out to their communities while further advancing the principles of free expression as articulated in the IFLA Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom and elsewhere.

Libraries and bookstores can get in on the action in an organized fashion by reviewing the “Libraries & Bookstores” toolkit and exploring the ways that they can support the effort, connect with the community, and promote freedom of expression.

Augment Book Displays

Ideas in the toolkit include creating a simple “banned books” display that features information about the Amnesty International cases and links to the ‘take action’ webpages amid a display of books that have a history of censorship and books written by authors whose rights have been violated because of what they write. See the Banned Books Week website for printable case sheets, flyers, bookmarks, and a related booklist.

Reach out to Local Amnesty International Groups

Libraries and bookstores can also reach out to local Amnesty International community and college groups to explore ways to partner. Information about how to find a nearby U.S. based Amnesty International group is in the toolkit. International partners may view Amnesty International country contact information via the Amnesty.org website in order to get in touch with their national section.

Add Case Stories, Words, and Images to Virtual Readout Outs

With the COVID-19 pandemic many events may have to move online. However, organizing a virtual read-out with links to online actions would be an exciting local event if a live in-person read-out is not possible. Perhaps local authors, librarians, and booksellers could speak about censorship while Amnesty International members or others from the community tell the story of the people featured this year, including their words and images in the event where possible.

Add and Feature Books Written by Authors Imprisoned or Killed for their Writing

While there are many booklists related to censorship available on the web, libraries and bookstores may be particularly interested in the 2020 AIUSA Banned Books Week Book List that features more than two dozen books written by or about authors who have been harassed, imprisoned, killed, or exiled because of their writing.

Making these books available to the community takes a stand against censorship. By raising awareness of these creators and their ideas, the intent of censorship is thwarted while your community gains a greater understanding of the world around us. In the words of  Russian LGBTI activist/artist Yulia Tsvetkova, published in The Art Newspaper, “the government, ironically, did not silence us, but made it possible to loudly declare injustice.”

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Join Amnesty International USA for Silenced Voices: A Banned Books Week Event, featuring the voices of journalists facing criminal charges for what they publish, on September 24 at 8pm Eastern Time and take action throughout October on these important cases.

The American Library Association (ALA) has been leading Banned Books Week in the United States since the early 1980s to celebrate the freedom to read and call attention to book censorship efforts. During the 1990s Amnesty International USA began to call attention, during Banned Books Week, to “the plight of individuals who are persecuted because of the writings that they produce, circulate or read.” In 2013, ALA honored Amnesty International USA with an Office of Intellectual Freedom award recognizing AIUSA’s approach to Banned Books Week that focuses on the “logical consequences … that follow when governments are allowed to censor” noting that “beyond the removal or burning of books comes the removal and physical harm to authors, journalists and others.” Following the 2011 death of Thesil Morlan, AIUSA volunteer and Banned Books Week coordinator, AIUSA Banned Book Week efforts diminished but the tradition was carried on by several local and college groups across the United States. 2020 marks a structured return to a national commemoration led by AIUSA staff and volunteers.

 

Ed McKennon

Library Faculty, Glendale Community College

Amnesty International USA Working Group for Banned Books

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