For the word and freedom, one industry stands for free discourse
Represents interests and is central service provider of the German book industry
For the word and freedom, one industry stands for free discourse
This text is a joint contribution of several colleagues at the Börsenvereinsgruppe.
„A conversation presupposes that the other person might be right.“ With this statement, the philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer formulated the basis for respectful interaction. It is a basic prerequisite for a lively culture of debate and indispensable for a democratic opinion-forming process. The book industry has set itself the task of promoting this process and making younger generations aware of its importance. Recently, the discussion about the stand of a right-wing publisher at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2021 showed that a constructive exchange of opinions cannot be taken for granted and that the current climate of debate in our society is highly heated.
This debate was triggered by the call for a boycott by the black German author Jasmina Kuhnke, who stated that she did not feel safe due to previous racist threats caused by the presence of a publisher from the right-wing end of the spectrum at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
She cancelled her participation in an event at the book fair and called on other participants to do the same. Some authors followed her example; others demanded to participate in the Frankfurt Book Fair for this very reason: in order to show their face there and stand up for diversity and against racism. While the traditional media such as print, TV and radio took a differentiated view of the issue, a wave of indignation broke out on social media. On the one hand, this helped that right-wing publishing house to receive a great deal of attention, whose content would otherwise hardly have been disseminated at the book fair. On the other hand, it overlapped the reporting and discussion of other topics at the book fair, leaving little room for a diverse range of topics.
It also became clear during those days in October 2021 that the limits of freedom of expression that apply to our society must be constantly re-discussed.
The Corona crisis also reinforced existing divisive tendencies in our society. During the pandemic, society’s ability to discourse was under particularly high pressure. Expressions of opinion that, under certain circumstances, deviated from the unanimous majority view or ran counter to a vocal minority provoked an aggressive backlash. Riots at demonstrations and physical attacks on reporters in public spaces were just as alarming as the hate and incitement to violence on social media. Germany moved down two places in the 2021 press freedom ranking.
TOGETHER FOR FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION WORLDWIDE
The Börsenverein Group, which consists of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels and its subsidiaries Frankfurter Buchmesse GmbH, MVB and Mediacampus, sees as one of its core tasks to defend the freedom of the word as an elementary human right and to guarantee freedom of expression as a prerequisite for freedom of publication and literary diversity. To allow different opinions and currents as long as they remain within the bounds of the law, and to argue one’s own values, is, in the view of the Börsenverein, the right way forward in a pluralistic and democratic society.
At the same time, freedom of expression is under threat from the state in many countries. In an increasing number of countries around the world—be it Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China, Russia, Belarus, Egypt or Vietnam—people are persecuted, imprisoned or murdered simply because they criticise the actions of the government. But in Poland and Hungary, countries in the European Union, free reporting is also restricted.
Publishers and bookstores in Germany stand up for persecuted authors, publishers and booksellers worldwide. The Börsenverein sees it as its task to draw attention to the fate of persecuted cultural workers and to call on the political leaders in Berlin and Brussels to consistently stand up for freedom of expression.
In May 2021, „Freedom of Expression Week“ was held for the first time. Especially in times of pandemic, the Börsenverein felt the time was ripe for a deeper examination of freedom of speech. Together with partners, the association organised a major celebration from May 3 to 10 for the freedom of the word, the value on which everything the book industry stands for is based. Under the motto „More than my opinion,“ around 40 partner organisations took part, including Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders, the Goethe Institute and Eintracht Frankfurt, along with many prominent supporters such as Wolfgang Niedecken, Susanne Fröhlich, Jagoda Marinic and Michel Friedman. The media response from radio to television to print was great. There were also many reactions on social media, most of them very positive.
Central to this week—which will now take place annually and be expanded internationally—was a dialog about the prerequisites and limits of a free and diverse society. The content of the Freedom of Expression Week was based on the Charter of Freedom of Expression. Signing the Charter is a commitment to recognise the eleven principles set out in it, to act in accordance with them and to carry them into one’s own environment and network.
As special places of cultural encounter and social exchange, bookstores moved into the public eye. They positioned themselves as places of freedom of expression: „We booksellers can do a lot to improve the culture of debate in our stores: by making the spectrum of opinions on controversial topics visible in our product range or by organising events that explicitly invite controversial discussions. This is how bookstores can become places of freedom of opinion,“ says Michael Lemling, managing director of the Lehmkuhl bookstore in Munich and spokesman for the Börsenverein’s freedom of opinion interest group.
„We want to promote critical debate and differentiated opinion-forming that uses the power of arguments rather than polemics,“ says Alexander Skipis, Chief Executive Officer of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels. “This is the hour of civil society. Let’s work together to ensure that all people can express their opinions freely and without fear, and in such a way that a constructive exchange of ideas emerges from it that moves us forward as a society. Freedom of expression is the driving force of our democracy. Thanks to it, all citizens can have their say in addressing the problems of our time. But we don’t have freedom of expression per se; we have to make use of it every day.“
BOOKS THAT EXPLAIN THE WORLD
Another component of the Group-wide commitment to free discourse is the German Nonfiction Book Prize, which was also awarded for the first time in 2021. The Stiftung Buchkultur und Leseförderung (Book Culture and Reading Promotion Foundation) of the Börsenverein awards this prize to the nonfiction book of the year (Deutsche Sachbuchpreis). The prize is awarded for outstanding nonfiction books written in German that provide impetus for social debate.
The judging criteria are the relevance of the topic, the narrative power of the text, the way it is presented in generally understandable language, and the quality of the research. The nonfiction prize, worth a total of 42,500 Euros, will be awarded at a ceremony in Berlin. It is intended to raise awareness of nonfiction books as a basis for conveying knowledge, forming well-founded opinions and providing impetus for public discourse.
“I can’t imagine a world without books that explain the world. Nonfiction books do just that, and sometimes they even change the world, or at least make it a little better,“ says Margit Ketterle, publishing director of nonfiction at Droemer Knaur, a member of the German Nonfiction Book Award Academy.
Equally important in this context is the role of reading promotion. The group’s reading promotion activities, such as the German Book Trade’s reading competition, the Book Kindergarten Seal of Approval, and campaigns for World Book Day, focus on communicating the joy of reading and awakening reading motivation.
Reading is a basic prerequisite for education, personal development, professional success and creative participation in society. Nowadays, this social participation is more important than ever if we, as individual members of our society, are to actively combat social division and be involved in social debates throughout our lives. In 2021, Stiftung Lesen and the Börsenverein therefore initiated the National Reading Pact, which aims to improve reading promotion in Germany with more than 150 partners. The kick-off event was the National Reading Summit on March 3, 2021.
The Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels (German Publishers and Booksellers Association) and its business enterprises are united in their support for a culture of open debate and create offerings to strengthen the freedom of expression. In doing so, they make a significant contribution to social participation. After all, in order to emerge stronger from a crisis—in line with the Renaissance 4.0 and to enter a new era together with innovative ideas—the Börsenverein group believes that responsible citizens and readers are needed who identify reliable sources, recognise fake news as such, and want to live in an open culture of debate. Everyone should have the opportunity to play a part in tackling our collective challenges in a goal-oriented way. For the word and freedom.
The Börsenvereinsgruppe represents the interests and is the central service provider of the German book industry. From political work and cultural projects to trade fair organisation, training and continuing education, publishing and technology services, it bundles service and educational offerings for the book and media industry. The group consists of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels (German Publishers & Booksellers Association) and its three business subsidiaries:
The Frankfurt Book Fair annually organises the world’s largest book fair in Frankfurt am Main as well as international conferences and represents the German book industry around the globe with joint stands. MVB, a technology and information provider, enables publishers and bookstores in Germany and abroad to market their titles successfully and efficiently with its central platforms based on international metadata standards. mediacampus frankfurt is the central training and continuing education provider for specialists and managers in the book and media industry.
Picture: © Rainer Rüffer