Exhibiting principles at Göteborg Book Fair
For everyone who has read about the threat to boycott Göteborg Book Fair, which has been written about in the media, and would like answers.
During the past winter and spring there has been an intense, and at times lively, debate in the media about this year’s Book Fair and the question of who should be allowed, or not allowed, to hire a stand (exhibit) at the Book Fair. This has included calls to action, calls for a boycott, opinion pieces, open letters to the editor and news articles, all regarding the same question: Does an organization such as Nya Tider have the right to exhibit at the Book Fair?
The demands that Nya Tider should be excluded from the Book Fair have been and still are intense from several directions. In this article, shaped as a Questions/Statements and Answers forum, Göteborg Book Fair presents its position, and gives its view of this question, and others which have emerged in the debate. To begin with, there are some key questions and answers regarding who is allowed and not allowed to exhibit at the Book Fair.
- Who is allowed to exhibit at Göteborg Book Fair?
The short answer is that everyone who exhibits or hires a stand signs a contract where it is specifically stipulated that Göteborg Book Fair requires that the exhibitor follows Swedish law. The contract emphasizes particularly the law against “incitement against a national or ethnic group, illegal threats or similar crimes” (§28 General Conditions).
The complete section reads as follows: “The Supplier has the right to terminate the Agreement with immediate effect if a representative of the Exhibitor or someone invited by the Exhibitor who is present at the Exhibitor’s Stand Location during the Trade Fair is found guilty of incitementto racial hatred, illegal threats or other similar crimes.“
This means that an exibitor who violates the contract can be excluded at any time before the actual Book Fair, and can also be excluded at any time during the Book Fair.
There are several aspects which Göteborg Book Fair takes into consideration when deciding who will be allowed to exhibit at the fair. These aspects are presented in the two question/answer points which follow.
- What, apart from Swedish law, affects Göteborg Book Fair’s decision on who may exhibit?
There are two particular aspects to take into consideration. Both of these are based on Göteborg Book Fair’s own identity, freedom of expression, and the fair as a platform for a conversation about literature, democracy and current topics.
For everyone who works with books and literature, freedom of expression is a basic condition. This is true of journalists, authors, publishers and other organisations.
Our position is that a book fair is a unique phenomenon in society, an open public space – where opinions meet and agree and disagree. The opportunity offered by the open arena for people to build their own opinions and express themselves freely is the core of Göteborg Book Fair. This means that even repugnant views can be found at a book fair – as long as they do not break the common rules of democracy, meaning the law. This is the price that a book fair must pay in order to be a democratic forum, with freedom of expression as a nonnegotiable foundation.
We are not alone in holding this position. All book fairs who are members of the international organisation Ferieros agree to the same platform and the same principles.
- Is there not a risk that Göteborg Book Fair will become a training ground for extreme views?
The Book Fair is at its heart a forum for conversations about democracy, current events and literature.
We cannot, and may not, risk losing that identity. The book fair which develops into a public space for xenophobia risks losing its democratic mooring and compass – but the same risk is run by the book fair which categorically refuses to hear views which are offensive but do not break the law. Allowing an exhibitor to attend does not, on the other hand, mean that everyone is automatically welcome. We make the decisions for Göteborg Book Fair, including which exhibitors we will accept and what the final spectrum of exhibitors on offer will be.
On this point, we also have a united strategy with other international book fairs.
- Why does Göteborg Book Fair set its limits according to Swedish law?
In the current social climate there are many distasteful and threatening attacks on democracy, and private individuals, from the far-right. Attacks and threats which, in spite of their content, do not break Swedish laws. Attacks and threats which we at Göteborg Book Fair condemn and against which we want to act as a counterforce.
We have chosen to set the limit according to Swedish law, because we believe it to provide a well-defined defense of the view of mankind and the type of community and society which we actively support. It may be slow and blunt in individual cases, but the alternatives are worse.
If we were to choose a different line of demarcation where we could limit freedom of speech – meaning that we could deny a group the right to participate in BM simply because we do not like their views – then we would be setting a standard which could always be questioned, and which would vary according to the current political climate.
Today, public opinion is generally negative to undemocratic views from the far-right. Another day it may be left-wing groups, religious groups or different professional groups who face negative public opinion. This may change constantly according to how society develops and change. In order to safeguard our platform and the ideals we fight for, it is crucial that we create a clear boundary that lasts over time, regardless of the level of conflict in society.
- In the debate, several critics have pointed out that the freedom of expression of these groups (this year Nya Tider) would not be restricted simply because they were not allowed to participate at Göteborg Book Fair.
We share that view. The Book Fair has never claimed that Nya Tider’s freedom of expression is at stake here. Freedom of expression for individuals and groups / organizations is guaranteed by the Swedish state. But in this context, our own platform depends on not shutting out voices simply because we dislike them. (Once again, as long as they comply with Swedish law and our regulations.)
There are, and have often been, other organizations participating in the Book Fair with whom we do not agree, but whose presence has generally not attracted as much attention or anger from other exhibitors or visitors, because the level of conflict in society has not been as tense as it is today. This applies to both religious and political groups.
- How does Göteborg Book Fair regard Nya Tider?
We regard them as part of a far-right undemocratic movement, but they remain within the parameters of the law. We have consulted external experts and our lawyers who have reviewed Nya Tider ’s business and have confirmed that, with our current knowledge of them, they have not violated the law. Therefore, violation of the law cannot be a reason to refuse to allow them to participate or to hire out a stand to them.
- This spring, it was revealed that a leading member of the Nya Tider editorial board participated in an attack on freedom of expression, a campaign to frighten Swedish journalists. They released their campaign, including films of journalists’ homes, online. Is that not enough to deny access to the Book Fair for Nya Tider? And: some critics believe that by accepting an organization that threatens journalists, the Book Fair exhibits a ”blindness as to what these groups are actually doing”.
We have investigated this campaign / movie and asked lawyers to judge it. Their actions do not violate the law. That does not mean that we do not have any opinions regarding this. We condemn what the film expresses and see it as an attack against free and independent journalism.
We intend to continue to work to highlight our own and others’ views on these and similar issues throughout the Book Fair. That is where we want to reply to this kind of statements, and where we want to show what it means to fight for the democratic values we believe in. At this year’s book fair, we have already planned nearly fifty seminars on how democracy can be protected during this time of challenges.
- The Book Fair is criticized for ”normalizing” movements / organizations such as Nya Tider, by allowing them to exhibit.
The increasing level of conflict in society and the relative success that this type of group has had, not least internationally, in recent years, has given them greater attention and stimulus. It is evident that their platforms have gained more support.
A normalization of these groups occurs when we do not actively question their ideas and stand up for what we believe in ourselves.
In our work between and during the fairs, in our collaborations, in our statements of solidarity, in the program choices we make, we stand up for and act in direct opposition to what organizations such as Nya Tider stand for. In this year’s seminar program, we highlight and discuss issues about intolerance, racism, online hate speech, freedom of expression, etc.
- Some critics wonder why Nya Tider was allowed into the Book Fair this year, but not other, like-minded groups.
Part of the answer to the question is outlined in the answer to a previous question, where we explained, among other things, that ”the book fair which develops into a public space for xenophobia risks losing its democratic mooring and compass.”
We would like to emphasize that there will always be a limitation on the participation of these groups at the Book Fair.
Previously, these types of groups have not shown any interest in participating in BM, so the need for a restriction has rarely or never been an issue. But in line with the public debate and the threat of a boycott against the Book Fair, more far-right groups have wanted to participate. We have turned them all down.
- Göteborg Book Fair has been and still is criticized for the handling of Nya Tider’s participation last year. How does the Book Fair view that criticism?
The critic who says that we vacillated or dithered, and added to the anxiety around the issue, thereby heightening the conflict through our actions, is correct.
When, before the Book Fair last year, we were criticized for allowing Nya Tider to exhibit, at first we defended our decision. When the criticism grew among delegates and in the media, we changed our minds and agreed to exclude them. Then, when we met with them to explain their exclusion, it became clear that we could not, for legal reasons, implement that decision. They had to be allowed to attend. Our management of the situation was, quite rightly, strongly criticized.
- How did it happen like this?
Throughout the years, working practices regarding how Göteborg Book Fair handles issues such as who may exhibit and who may not exhibit, and why not, grew organically into a policy which worked for a long time. This was true for years, when the conflicts in society were not as acute and aggressive as they are today. For years, our policy worked well. Until, suddenly, it did not.
- What has the Book Fair done in order to rectify what happened regarding Nya Tider last year?
As soon as we could, during the actual Book Fair last year, we decided to get to the bottom of these issues. We wanted to identify our shortcomings and, in collaboration with our working partners, find solutions.
We chose to do this completely openly. We began by adding an extra debate at the 2016 Book Fair, where we primarily wanted to explain what the conflict with these groups looks like. How should we handle the issue of freedom of expression, and to what price?
Then we began discussions with our exhibitors and working partners, and with both Swedish and international experts. And we discussed the issue within Ferieros (the international organization for book fairs).
We gradually arrived at a common platform for handling these issues. Finally, we presented the outcome at a seminar in Stockholm in the middle of December 2016. The most important points are presented briefly below.
– We made our operating procedures stricter. We realized that we, at an earlier stage, needed a clearer and fundamental method of analysis in order to identify problematic exhibitors.
– We rewrote and clarified the standard regulations in our contracts. Nobody need now be uncertain of our regulations, and of where the boundaries lie. We emphasized, as well, that exhibitors who break our rules can be evicted from the Book Fair, during the fair if necessary.
– We have increased security even further at the actual book fair. We will be able to react more quickly and decisively to any provocations and conflicts if they should arise during the fair.
– We have created a document called ”Göteborg Book Fair’s Values and Principles”:
- How does Göteborg Book Fair regard the boycott which has been agreed to by a number of authors, debators, publishers and organisations due to Nya Tider being allowed to exhibit at the 2017 fair?
We respect the fact that people choose different strategies to fight intolerance. But let us not allow one far-right organization split those of us who believe in democracy and equal rights for all, into different groups. Raise your voices together with us, at our arena. Let us unite together against intolerance!
- In many news reports and opinion pieces, journalists and opinion makers have assumed that Göteborg Book Fair has invited Nya Tider to the fair, and that we welcome them. And that the Book Fair has actively worked to ensure that Nya Tider would exhibit at the Book Fair.
The fact is that the Book Fair does not invite any exhibitors. Those who want to exhibit at the Book Fair apply to hire a stand. The same rules apply generally for all fairs at The Swedish Exhibition & Congress Centre, who own Göteborg Book Fair. In a few limited cases, such as for specific theme initiatives, exhibitors may be invited.