Censorship and the media. Who is to blame?

By Lucia Dore

Nowadays, viewers and readers of the media are subject to sanitised programming. Programmes are censored, especially the news. And although censorship is annoying, it is not new.

However, not all censorship is endorsed or carried out by governments. Self-censorship is common, especially in societies that believe they allow "freedom of speech". Journalists, whether from a news outlet or citizen journalists, are encouraged to write what they feel is the "truth". But this only goes so far. Usually, they do not write all that they want to, for fear of the consequences.

Journalists must be aware of what is acceptable in the society they are reporting in, and what is not. For example, in many countries, there is the need to be aware of "woke" culture, transgender and environmental issues. And there is always the fear of committing libel. The likelihood of being sued is greater in some countries than others.

News outlets not only consider the views of certain readers, but they often also consider the views of those with whom they do business, such as advertisers or sponsors.This can lead to a bias in news coverage, making it hard for readers to know what is true and what is not.

Limiting the freedom to speak up is not just a problem for journalists, however. It's a problem for everyone that says something against the government. We have witnessed this recently with some 4,000 or so protesters in Russia arrested by the government. In Hong Kong where the national security law passed in June 2020 now not only impacts journalists but everyone who speaks out against the government. In the last week of March, the head judge in Hong Kong, who is British, stepped down because of strong outside influence.

Also, too, the on-going war in Ukraine and the Covid pandemic have highlighted the issues around censorship. Although much of the news is government-censored, to varying degrees, whether it is by Russia, Ukraine, or other Western news outlets, self-censorship also comes into play. This is true with the COVID- pandemic, and the many "conspiracy" theories it has spawned. In these cases, governments are controlling the narrative.

What is self-censorship?

When we talk about self-censorship, what do we mean? Put simply, it's when the controllers of news outlets, or sometimes individual journalists, decide what can, and should, be said or written. Decisions are often based on fear – the fear of writing something that is unacceptable to some parts of society. The consequences of writing something, or making certain statements, could be dire. Journalists must decide whether to write the truth and suffer the consequences, no matter how bad they are - which may include losing their job or any promotion prospects - or to say nothing.

The fear of speaking out

Unfortunately, it is not only journalists that are suffering from a fear of saying the wrong things, but also the public, who are becoming increasingly cautious. People fear expressing their views on many subjects, because they are frightened of the backlash, often on social media.

In some countries the fear of expressing opinions can have severe consequences. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Vietnam people are imprisoned and often killed for not towing the government line.

As an example of what can happen if you don't say what the government wants you to is Saudi Arabia. In early March, it executed 81 men, including seven Yemenis and one Syrian national. This was the largest known mass execution carried out in the country in its modern history, surpassing the 67 executions reported in 2021 and the 27 in 2020.

According to Al Jazeera, quoting the state news agency Saudi Press Agency, the charges included "allegiance to foreign terrorist organisations" and holding "deviant beliefs".

I was a journalist based in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates for 8.5 years, and there is certainly censorship in that country and across the region. We were not only told what to write but a photo of the Ruler had to be placed in the correct place on the front page. However, the rules of what could be said or written were not set down so self-censorship came into play.

When I lived in Vietnam, the BBC, among other news outlets, were banned and it paid not to engage with social media. There were also political rallies on a Saturday outside my house. However, I did not understand what was said, because my knowledge of the Vietnamese language was too poor.

According to a survey carried out by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which counts the number of journalists in jail, 2021 was "especially bleak for defenders of press freedom". Some 293 journalists, most of whom were men, were put in jail, up from 280 in 2020. Another 24 were killed because of their coverage and another 18 died, but whether they were direct targets is unclear.

The survey also shows that China remains the world's worst jailer of journalists –for the third year in a row- with 50 people behind bars, which includes some from Hong Kong. Myanmar rose to second place, after incarcerating no journalists in the previous year. This is after the media crackdown that followed its military coup in February last year. Egypt, Vietnam, and Belarus, respectively, were in the top five.

Turkey once jailed more journalists than any other country in the world, but CPJ now ranks it as number six, "after releasing 20 prisoners in the last year".

But prisoner numbers are not always a good measure of press freedom. Governments in all countries are showing a "growing intolerance of independent reporting," the CPJ says.

Turkey's crackdown after a failed coup attempt in 2016 effectively eradicated the country's mainstream media and prompted many journalists to leave the profession. Turkey's prison count is also declining as the government allows more journalists out on parole to await trial or appeal outcomes.

It also notes that Saudi Arabia is no longer ranked in the top five countries for harassing journalists, after releasing 10 prisoners in 2021. But it adds that many have probably chosen to be silent following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi's in 2018, along with several new detentions in 2019. And there is of course the recent spate of killings cited above.

Iran too does not have a good track record when it comes to jailing journalists or dissidents. Reporters without borders (RSF) says that Iran is one of the most repressive countries for journalists. Since 1979, at least 860 journalists and citizen-journalists have been prosecuted, arrested, imprisoned and in some cases executed. So far in 2022, one journalist has been killed, according to RSF. And in January this year three Iranian journalists were transferred to a prison known for mistreating inmates.

RSF also says: "The harassment and persecution of prisoners of consciences, including journalists, in Iran's jails has intensified since an increase in protests in 2019."

Iran is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index. The UK is ranked at 33rd, and the US at 44th.

Other issues

However, although there were no journalists in jail in North America at the time of the census deadline, the CPJ notes, there 56 arrests and detentions of journalists across the US during 2021, with 86 per cent occurring during protests. "In Canada, two journalists arrested while covering land rights protest in northern British Columbia spent three nights in custody before a court ordered their conditional release," the CPJ says.

Authoritarian leaders are also cracking down on social media often shutting down the internet and using high-tech spyware to track what people are doing and saying. Artificial intelligence (AI) is coming into play here.

Recently, I took part in a panel discussion in Dubai, in the UAE. I was asked to discuss AI and the media. I said that although, the use of AI tools is becoming increasingly common in a newsroom, primarily for collating the news, and doing mundane tasks, thereby freeing up journalists to do more interesting things, generally journalists are reluctant to embrace new technologies. I said the biggest issue was not one of using AI but of solving the problem of self-censorship.

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Sunday, 25 September 2022