By: Jacqui Higgins-Dailey
Wrapping caution tape around shelves and creating clever book displays adds levity to ALA’s Banned Books Week. It’s a celebration of literature and a reminder of librarians’ important commitment to provide people with books – all books.
But there is also a darker lens through which to view Banned Books Week. Darker than a local school district banning books from a curriculum or a public library censoring titles through selective acquisitions. A lens that focuses on the people who create the works. One that illuminates the risks many individuals take when expressing ideas freely across the globe.
ALA focuses on the books of Banned Books Week. Amnesty International focuses on people.
ALA recognized Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) in 2013 with an award for its unique approach highlighting individuals at risk of censorship. AIUSA advocates for individuals whose rights are suppressed and those who are imprisoned for their expression. It is our role as librarians to widen our scope to understand the overarching effect of silencing in the face of fascist regimes and overreaching government control.
Living in the United States we often forget to look through this different lens, although the current political climate offers regular reminders to participate in our rights to freedom of press, speech and assembly.
This year, AIUSA is focusing on ten people and seven cases of censorship. After a several-years hiatus celebrating Banned Books Week due to the passing of the campaign’s head volunteer, AIUSA returned in 2018 and is committed to making it a signature event.
Amnesty International traditionally features journalists as the center of their Banned Books Week campaign. And while four of the 2020 cases are journalists, the ever increasing use of platforms like Facebook and Twitter to share news and information has made social media users a new target of oppressors. Three AIUSA cases are specifically related to posts or blogs.
Masrat Zahra, a photojournalist from Srinagar, India was recently accused of “ ‘…uploading anti‐national posts [on Facebook] with criminal intentions to induce the youth’ and booked under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA for short) and Indian Penal Code,” according to Amnesty International. A freelance photojournalist who has been published by major news organizations, Zahra reposted her own works and was charged with a crime. AIUSA is among other activist organizations calling for the Indian government to drop all charges.
Zahara has won several awards for her work in photojournalism this year, including the Peter Mackler Award and the International Women in Media’s Courage in Journalism Award. However, according to Huffington Post India, the police are not referring to her as a journalist but rather a “Facebook user.”
Zahra tells the Huffington Post, “I have given four years to this profession and now they are telling me that I am an outsider.”
Right here in the U.S., journalist Andrea Sahouri from Des Moines, IA, is one of six journalists still facing charges after being arrested while covering a Black Lives Matter protest. According to Amnesty International “police in Iowa pepper sprayed, arrested, and detained Andrea Sahouri, a journalist with the Des Moines Register… despite repeatedly identifying herself as a journalist.”
These are just two cases Amnesty International is highlighting as part of its campaign to take action by both raising awareness and online actions to request the dismissal of charges, death and prison sentences. According to AIUSA, there are hundreds of cases and authors whose lives and professions are at risk.
Banned Books Week is about more than books missing from shelves. AIUSA is shining a light on the individuals missing from their communities, professions and stripped of their livelihoods – an empty space left in society.
Covid-19 closures prohibit most librarians across the country from creating book displays or holding events for Banned Books Week this year, but maybe they consider widening their lens to examine current-day examples of censorship. We know about the books – now let’s learn more about the people.
Widen Your Lens
For more information, events and other great ideas for widening your lens, see Amnesty International’s Banned Books Week page.
Amnesty International’s Banned Books Week material, events & activities:
Amnesty International kickoff event, Silenced Voices, is on September, 24 at 8pm ET.
- Highlighted cases & people
- Toolkit for individuals & groups
- Toolkit for libraries and bookstores
- Information for Little Free Libraries
- Kids’ activities
- Free bookmarks (!)
- Print resources & more
Jacqui Higgins-Dailey has been a public librarian for 10 years. After three years as adjunct faculty, she is currently a full-time residential faculty librarian at Glendale Community College in Arizona. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Chico and a masters in library science from the University of North Texas. She is passionate about information literacy instruction and loves to read, write, hike and travel.