NB Publishers has been awarded the prestigious AAP International Freedom to Publish Award for Jacques Pauw’s book The President’s Keepers.
The annual prize, awarded by The Association of American Publishers, recognises ‘a book publisher outside the United States who has demonstrated courage and fortitude in defending freedom of expression’, guided by the principle that ‘if one of us is denied the right to publish, that threat affects us all’.
AAP President and CEO Maria A Pallante says: ‘The perseverance that NB Publishers has demonstrated in seeing through the publication of Jacques Pauw’s important book despite the relentless threats that they expected and continue to experience from various state apparatus is globally inspiring.
‘As NB has shown the world, books empower people and promote progress.’
Pauw’s explosive political exposé was released in October 2017, and was immediately at the centre of a controversy.
In his review of The President’s Keepers, Anton Harber called the book ‘the most comprehensive picture of the rot at the heart of the Zuma presidency’. In a piece for The JRB, Imraan Coovadia wrote of how the book showed that: ‘In the relentless construction of a gangster state Zuma has intervened consistently to promote people responsible for serious crimes and to remove any person who tried to enforce the law.’ Max du Preez called the book ‘dynamite. Dynamite that will shake the foundations of the halls of power.’
The State Security Agency attempted to ban the book as soon as it was published, sending NB a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the book be withdrawn from retailers. NB and Pauw refused. The book’s launch in Hyde Park, Johannesburg was disrupted under suspicious circumstances. In February 2018, The Hawks raided Pauw’s home in Riebeek Kasteel, looking for ‘secret state security files’. They left, according to Pauw, with ‘a few papers. Nothing significant.’ Following the raid, NB Publishers released a statement saying:
We condemn this jackboot move in the strongest of terms and stand by our author and the right of the South African public to know how our law enforcement agencies go about their business. The President’s Keepers brought to light abuse of and corruption at these agencies, and this raid is evidence of how the priorities are perverted. They are choosing to shoot the messenger rather than investigating what Jacques Pauw has revealed in his book.
Ironically, the attempts to ban the book boosted its sales enormously, and it became a global bestseller—this despite the fact that almost every South African received a pirated PDF of the book on Whatsapp. In August 2018, in his acceptance speech for the Nielsen Booksellers Choice Award, Pauw said:
They never learnt from apartheid, did they? As soon as you tell people not to do something or not to look at something, or not to read something, that’s exactly what they want to do.
So when Mr Fraser and Mr Moyane [former State Security Agency director general Arthur Fraser and SARS commissioner Tom Moyane] instituted criminal charges against me—and there’s still criminal charges against me, and they tried to ban the book—this book exploded.
The International Freedom to Publish Award was presented to NB Publishers at AAP’s annual meeting on 3 June.
Terry Adams, Chair of the AAP Freedom to Publish Committee and Vice President, Digital and Paperback Publisher, Little, Brown and Company, said: ‘As publishers, we encourage the writers we work with to speak truth to power. This is not without risk. When we face the kind of ferocious cease-and-desist campaign waged against NB Publishers, our scant resources are taxed, our resolve is challenged. All the more remarkable, then, that NB Publishers not only persisted but prevailed. Their efforts to support a brave work of investigative journalism and to bring the truth about government corruption to light are totally deserving of this award.’
Eloise Wessels, Publisher of NB Publishers, accepted the award via video message from South Africa and thanked AAP for giving credence ‘not only to our efforts, but to those of the South African publishing industry as a whole, in helping to shape the political landscape by publishing books challenging the status quo’.
Wessels spoke of the obstacles NB encountered throughout the publishing process: ‘We knew, when we decided to publish The President’s Keepers, that we were taking an enormous risk. The main subject of our book held the highest power in the country. We had to edit, typeset, print, and distribute the book in the utmost secrecy to ensure that we would not be prevented from doing so before the stock was in the shops.
‘The public reaction and demand for the book exceeded all our expectations—our full first print run was sold out in a day. All the while we received summons from various state agencies threatening legal action, our first book launch was disrupted with what was evidently a planned power outage, our author’s telephone was being tapped, he received death threats and was threatened with arrest.
‘It was when our parliamentarians and vice president at the time (now our newly elected president) walked into parliament holding copies of the book in their hands that we realised that this book had a chance of making a real difference. While, even now, we continue to face legal action, it has all been worth it.’
In her remarks, Wessels also spoke about the new Copyright Amendment Bill, which many have warned will permit international tech companies and other copyright users to access, republish, and monetise the creative and research works of others by licensing them or selling advertising without any compensation to the original owners.
‘The Copyright Amendment Bill that is currently on the President’s desk is a bill that has been hijacked for populist expediency,’ Wessels said, ‘and is so destructive as to threaten the survival of our local book publishing industry, the livelihood of our authors, and ultimately also our freedom of speech.’
Watch Wessels’s acceptance speech here:
The AAP International Freedom to Publish Award is named in honour of Jeri Laber, a co-founder of Human Rights Watch and founding member of AAP’s Freedom to Publish Committee. To decide the prize winner, members of the committee consult with colleagues from around the world to review the actions of publishers who have faced censorship, political persecution, or personal peril in their work, or have otherwise taken a stand to defend the cause of freedom of expression and the written word.
Earlier this NB Publishers was also shortlisted for the 2019 International Publishers’ Association Prix Voltaire, which acknowledges ‘exemplary courage’ in upholding the freedom to publish. Imprisoned Egyptian publisher Khaled Lutfi was announced as the winner of the prize in early May.