Iraqi publisher Mazin Lateef Ali, abducted in January 2020, has been awarded the 2023 International Publishers Association’s Prix Voltaire laureate while murdered Ukrainian children’s book author and poet, Volodymyr Vakulenko received the Prix Voltaire Special Award at an award ceremony at the World Expression Forum in Lillehammer, Norway.
The emotion-laden ceremony, which was also attended by 2021 Prix Voltaire recipient, Rasha Al Ameer (Lebanon), put the spotlight on two devastating examples of how culture and free expression are targeted by repressive regimes. 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire laureate, Mazin Lateef Ali (Iraq), chosen from a shortlist of five nominees, has been missing since being abducted in 2020. As a student in Baghdad, Iraq, Mazen Lateef started buying and selling books on Al-Mutanabi Street. He went on to establish Dar Mesopotamia for Printing, Publishing, and Distribution in 2007, earning a reputation as a distinguished and highly regarded member of Iraq’s cultural community.
Lateef published a variety of books, including several centered around the Jewish communities and individuals of Iraq. Unfortunately, on January 31st, 2020, he was abducted at gunpoint and has not been heard from since.
2023 IPA Prix Voltaire Special Award laureate, Volodymyr Vakulenko, authored 13 books, including books about his region’s heritage, poetry, as well as children’s books. He was a winner of several Ukrainian and international literary prizes and was well-known for his strong patriotic stance, his active support to the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and his help to the Ukrainian military in the Kharkiv region since the beginning of the Russian invasion. He was arrested twice following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The second time he was not released. His body was found in one of the mass graves in Izium.
Kristenn Einarsson, Chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee said: “Mazin Lateef’s commitment to the literary community and freedom of expression in Iraq should be an inspiration to us all. We call on those who have taken him to return him safely. Volodymyr Vakulenko is a symbol of the horrific cultural destruction perpetrated by the Russian army in Ukraine. May we hold him in our memory and celebrate the stories and poems he left us before being taken too soon.”
Gvantsa Jobava, Vice President of the International Publishers Association said:
“Silencing cultural expression is one of the tools of repressive regimes. We must resist their intimidation and celebrate our brave authors and publishers who help us experience and understand the diversity of our cultures. Mazin Lateef Ali and Volodymr Vakulenko are heroes.
Accepting the 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire on behalf of his father Abdulmoahimen Mazin Lateef delivered a video address. He said: “Never before did I imagine that someday I would stand in such a distinguished place to speak about my father, who always used to fill the atmosphere with his conversations about culture and thought. Unfortunately, his voice was silenced, and his sin was that he had a passion for freedom of thought, and sought – through his publishing house – to present readers with everything related to the cultural foundations of Iraq.
“Sincere thanks to all of you, for recognizing Mazin Lateef. His spirit is present with us right now, urging to find peace by knowing his fate for sure. It is not humanity to deprive a family from visiting the tomb of their father.” Accepting the 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire Special Award on behalf of Volodymyr Vakulenko, Ukrainian writer and war crimes researcher Victoria Amelina said:
“I am a Ukrainian writer speaking on behalf of my colleague Volodymyr Vakulenko who, unlike me, didn’t survive another attempt of the Russian Empire to erase Ukrainian identity. The Ukrainian literary community is grateful for the award.
“This award is unique, meaningful, and moving to us, partly because no one out of hundreds of other Ukrainian writers who, like Vakulenko, were murdered throughout Ukrainian history ever received such an international award posthumously. I am sure that Volodymyr Vakulenko would like to dedicate this award to them too.
About the 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire
Prix Voltaire nominees are publishers – individuals, groups or organizations – who have typically published controversial works amid pressure, threats, intimidation or harassment, be it from governments, other authorities or private interests. Alternatively, they may be publishers with a distinguished record of upholding the values of freedom to publish and freedom of expression. For the purposes of the IPA Prix Voltaire, the definition of ‘publisher’ is an individual, collective or organization that provides others with the means to share their ideas in written form, including via digital platforms.
The IPA Prix Voltaire, which comes with a CHF 10,000 prize, is made possible by generous contributions from sponsors, all of which are publishing houses and organizations that share the values that the IPA Prix Voltaire recognizes.
The 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire shortlist was announced at London Book Fair on 20 April 2023. They are:
Mazen Lateef Ali, Iraq
Günışığı Kitaplığı Publishing House, Turkey
Mehr Husain, Pakistan
Ahmed Mahmoud Ibrahim Ahmed, Egypt
Mercier Press, Ireland
About the Prix Voltaire Special Award. Periodically, the IPA Freedom to Publish Committee may confer the Prix Voltaire Special Award, a posthumous honour for individuals who have died recently for exercising their freedom of expression. The aim of the award is to give visibility to the laureate’s exceptional engagement for freedom of expression and expose how he or she was silenced. The award should promote the laureate’s legacy and support their family, friends, and supporters, if necessary, by helping to ensure that the laureate and their case are not forgotten.
Recipients have typically demonstrated a courageous commitment to freedom of speech through lives spent writing, publishing, or in activism, and have been murdered, put to death, or lost their life in prison.