Sunday, December 12, 2004

Why Would the Enemies of Freedom Ban a Book Unless It Deserved To Be Banned? 

Our esteemed colleagues at Pesky Apostrophe picked up on a story we had missed from earlier in the week, about a new, indefensible, and staggeringly absurd policy recently instituted by our would-be Ministers of Culture:
In an apparent reversal of decades of U.S. practice, recent federal Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations bar American companies from publishing works by dissident writers in countries under sanction unless they first obtain U.S. government approval.

The restriction, condemned by critics as a violation of the First Amendment, means that books and other works banned by some totalitarian regimes cannot be published freely in the United States . . . .

Several groups, led by the PEN American Center and including Arcade Publishing, have filed suit in U.S. District Court in New York seeking to overturn the regulations, which cover writers in Iran, Sudan, Cuba, North Korea and, until recently, Iraq.

Violations carry severe reprisals — publishing houses can be fined $1 million and individual violators face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

"Historically, the United States has served as a megaphone for dissidents from other countries," said Ed Davis of New York, a lawyer leading the PEN legal challenge. "Now we're not able to hear from dissidents" . . . .

Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has joined the lawsuit, arguing that the rules preclude American publishers from helping craft her memoirs of surviving Iran's Islamic revolution and her efforts to defend human rights in Iranian courts.

In a further wrinkle, even if publishers obtain a license for a book — something they are loathe to do — they believe the regulations bar them from advertising it, forcing readers to find the dissident works on their own.

"It's absolutely against the First Amendment," fumed Arcade editor Richard Seaver, who hopes to publish an anthology of Iranian short stories. "We're not going to ask permission (to publish). That reeks of censorship."

Officials from the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees OFAC, declined comment on the lawsuit, but spokeswoman Molly Millerwise described the sanctions as "a very important part of our overall national security."

"These are countries that pose serious threats to the United States, to our economy and security and our well-being around the globe," Millerwise said, adding that publishers can still bring dissident writers to American readers as long as they first apply for a license . . . .

The dispute centers on a Treasury Department interpretation this year of regulations rooted in the 1917 "Trading With the Enemy Act," which allows the president to bar transactions with people or businesses in nations during times of war or national emergency. A 1988 amendment by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., relaxed the act to effectively give publishers an exemption while maintaining restrictions on general trade.

The regulations seem shaded by Joseph Heller's classic novel Catch-22.

U.S. publishers are allowed to reissue, for example, Cuban communist propaganda or officially approved books but not original works by writers whom the Cuban government has stifled.
Books that might not have found their way to American publishers had the rules been in effect earlier include Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran and Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels Persepolis and Persepolis 2. And of course we needn't mention Doctor Zhivago or The Gulag Archipelago.

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