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Banned Books Week: Recognizing it is far worse elsewhere

bbwposter2006thumbnailAs much as I agitate about book banning in the U.S., it would be utterly foolish not to recognize how fortunate we Americans are. It generally isn’t the government censoring books so that they never see the light of day. As we’ve seen, when efforts are made to ban or remove books, procedures are usually in place to help ensure the freedom to read is protected. Finally, the government doesn’t throw authors in jail just because of what they’ve written or said.

That isn’t the case everywhere. That’s why Amnesty International also takes note of Banned Books Week. It focuses, though, on individuals “who are persecuted because of the writings that they produce, circulate or read.” This year the organization is highlighting seven cases. And as Banned Books Week comes to a close, what is important to remember as that these problems “are not confined to a week.” In fact, many stretch out over months and years.

The cases:

  • Liu Xiaobo, China — The 54-year-old scholar and activist was formally arrested on June 23 for “inciting subversion of state power.” He had been held under “residential surveillance” since Dec. 8, 2008, without due process or access to a lawyer. He is accused of such things as “spreading of rumors and defaming of the government, aimed at subversion of the state and overthrowing the socialism system [sic] in recent years.”
  • Musaad Abu Fagr, Egypt — Fagr, a novelist, blogger and human rights activist is detained without charge or trial despite repeated court orders for his release.
  • Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand, Iran — A journalist, Kabudvand is also founder and chair of the Human Rights Organization of Kurdistan. He has been detained since his on July 1, 2007, accused of “acting against state security,” “propaganda against the system,” and “cooperating with groups opposed to the system.”
  • Lydia Cacho Ribeiro, Mexico — The goal here is greater protection for this journalist, whose home and offices in CancĂșn have been photographed and watched by armed men frequently, while her life has been threatened in online messages. She has been harassed, threatened and detained by police over the years for her work exposing child pornography and prostitution.
  • Vettivel Jasikaran, Sri Lanka — Jasikaran, writer, publisher, and manager of the news website OutreachSL, and Valarmathi Jasikaran, his wife, have been detained by Sri Lankan police since March 2008, allegedly for “terrorist related activities.”
  • Hussein al-‘Agil and Salah Ahmed Yahya al-Shagladi, Yemen — al-Shagladi, chief editor of Aden Gulf Network news, and al-‘Agil, a lecturer at Aden University, are being held incommunicado. It is not clear exactly why the men were arrested in June, but they are said to have been targeted for their writing in support of a coalition of political groups, the Southern Movement, which the government sees as calling for the independence of the southern part of the country.

Amnesty International isn’t the only organization working on behalf of writers. For example, PEN American Center is one of 144 PEN centers in 101 countries that together compose International PEN. PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Program works to defend writers and journalists both here and abroad who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted, or attacked in the course of carrying out their professional work and has several ongoing campaigns.

So be thankful for our freedom to read and the ability to use civil means to maintain that right. Sadly, there are too many elsewhere who are deprived this fundamental right.


…every human being has … a right to hear what other wise human beings have spoken to him. It is one of the Rights of Men; a very cruel injustice if you deny it to a man!

Thomas Carlyle, New Letters of Thomas Carlyle, Vol. 1

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