Banned Books Week: Let's not forget the writers

Banned Books Week is often celebrated by making lists of banned volumes. But what is the fate of the writers behind those titles?

Sandhya Eknaligoda, wife of missing cartoonist and columnist Prageeth Eknaligoda, holds a placard during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

A recent Chapter & Verse post, “Banned Books Week: 5 books almost anyone might want to burn,” sparked a conflagration of sorts in the comment box.

“Wrong wrong wrong,” wrote one commenter. “I can't imagine banning a single one of these books, however distasteful the author might find them. They all might be the rantings of madmen, but when madmen are or have been influential, taking the time to understand them can be of great importance.”

From commenter Donna: “Banning any book is a slippery slope. Bin Laden, Hitler, the Marquis de Sade, Holocaust deniers, and pseudo scientists are part of history. Banning their writings won't make the horror they wrought go away.”

Well put, readers.

Those who attempt to ban books, especially on political grounds, are often trying to revise history or control the thoughts and collective psyche of society. No matter how repugnant the contents may be, the act of banning a book is dangerous indeed. The Russians, Nazis, and even the British, used propaganda and historical revision to great effect, in large part by banning and burning books deemed subversive by the regimes in power.

George Orwell’s “1984” wasn’t allowed in Russia until 1990, and even then it was heavily edited.

Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” a defense of the bloody French Revolution, inflamed governments across Europe. Paine asserted that revolutions should be permitted when a government doesn’t do its job, safeguarding people and their rights. The British courts convicted Paine of seditious libel against the Crown and sentenced him to be hanged. Czarist Russia banned his book after the Decembrist Revolt.

Message made, Paine escaped the Crown’s wrath by fleeing to France.

Not all writers have been so fortunate.

Banned Books Week tends to focus on books rather than their authors. And many of the spotlighted books were published decades and centuries ago, putting their authors out of harm’s way.

In commemoration of Banned Books Week, Amnesty International turns our focus to the plight of individuals who are persecuted because of what they write.

This year celebrate Banned Books Week by doing more than reading banned books from decades past. Instead, try learning about contemporary writers and journalists whose governments have banned their works – and often imprisoned or tortured them – in an attempt to control the thoughts of the citizens by controlling what they can read.

They may be the Orwells and Paines of tomorrow.

Azerbaijani journalist Eynulla Fatullayev wrote a series of articles critical of his government. One discussed consequences for Azerbaijan of a US-Iranian war, which Azerbaijani authorities perceived as a threat of terrorism, according to Amnesty. Mr. Fatullayev was sentenced to 8-1/2 years in prison. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that his conviction violated rights to free expression, that he had been unfairly tried, and that there was “no justification for the imposition of a prison sentence.”

Uighur poet Nurmuhemmet Yasin is serving a 10-year prison sentence for writing an allegorical short story that Chinese authorities consider a condemnation of their rule in the Xingiant Uighur Autonomous Region.

Like many before her, Iranian journalist Hengameh Shahidi is serving a six-year sentence in Evin prison, Tehran, for articles she has written deemed critical by the regime.

Journalist and human rights defender Chekib el-Khiari is serving a three-year sentence in Morocco’s Taza prison for his writings.

Sri Lankan journalist, cartoonist, and political analyst Prageeth Eknaligoda disappeared soon after he left work at the Lanka-e-News office Jan. 24, 2010. His family suspects he was abducted by the government for his criticism of President Rajapaksa.

To learn more about these writers and how you can support them, visit Amnesty’s page on Banned Books Week.

Husna Haq is a frequent Monitor contributor.

Join the Monitor's book discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.