Cherian George

24Journalism, Censorship, and Press Freedom

Abstract: Press freedom and censorship demands new empirical as well as conceptual research that responds to the diversity of media systems that cannot be captured within binary free/unfree categories. This article surveys threats to press freedom emanating from the state, the market, and the people. Direct state censorship still exists, but most states rely increasingly on more subtle and indirect means of media control. Market forces, including media owners, are another source of restriction. The problem of self-censorship, usually operating through economic pressure, is widespread and pernicious, but inadequately theorized. Tensions between journalism and the public surface in populist opposition to the media’s attempts to defend minority rights. In such cases, the press can find itself needing to resist the very people in whose name it exercises its democratic role. These complications require journalism scholars to rethink the normative frameworks and assumptions underlying studies of press freedom. This article argues for a rights-based approach that treats public discourse – and not media organizations or media workers – as the prime object of press freedom.

Keywords: freedom of expression, media control, populism, self-censorship

Journalism’s role in providing people with the information and ideas they need for collective self-government could be said to have reached the status of a universally definitive norm. This is not to claim that everyone agrees that journalism should dedicate itself to empowering citizens. The official ideology of the People’s Republic of China, to cite just one gargantuan exception, continues to hold that media should serve as the mouthpiece of the Communist Party. Nor is it the case that actually-existing journalism everywhere lives up to the standards that democratic norms prescribe. In all societies, it falls short, due to a mix of external and internal constraints. According to Freedom House (2016: 1), only 13 percent of the world’s population live in societies where “coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures”. And even in supposedly free societies, it is hardly the case that journalism serves every class, colour, or creed with equal fidelity.

Nevertheless, in the same sense that Amartya Sen (1999) has described democracy as having arrived as a universal value – everyone everywhere has good reason to accept it – it would not be farfetched to claim that it can now be taken for granted that the democratic mission is a core, even definitive, value of journalism. We can think of journalism as an activity that generates information and ideas about current events; produced through observation, investigation, and analysis; in order to serve people’s need to cope with change and engage in collective self-government. The normative tail end of this definition, addressing the “why” of journalism, is rooted in the democratic assumption that broad participation in public life and open discussion of matters of public interest is superior to autocratic forms of social organization.

This article considers the issue of press freedom from that democratic perspective. Journalism needs autonomy from government if it is to fulfil its duty to help citizens hold the government to account and to inform them about their political choices. Therefore, the human right to freedom of expression has special significance for journalism. That right – as enshrined in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as in regional human rights conventions and democracies’ national constitutions – is not unlimited or absolute. But neither is its application left to the whims of those in power. Human rights norms require, first, that any restriction on free speech follows written laws that are clear to all and overseen by independent courts. Second, restrictions are only permissible on a narrow set of grounds. Article 19 specifies a closed-ended list of legitimate reasons: for “respect of the rights or reputations of others”; and for “the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals”. Third, state actions must avoid overkill – the chosen restrictions must be necessary for achieving the stated goal, and proportionate to the task. Based on this three-part test, arbitrary arrests of journalists, forced closures of newspapers, and blocking of news sites would amount to violations of freedom of expression. Restrictions aimed at shielding government from insult or maintaining subjectively defined social harmony are almost always unwarranted as well. Defamation can be legitimately restricted, but the principle of necessity demands that it be treated as a civil matter and not subject to criminal prosecution (La Rue 2010; UN Human Rights Committee 2011).

There are other aspects of press freedom and censorship that are less obvious. A broad spectrum of media systems has been entering our consciousness since the post-1990s disintegration of the Cold War binary categorization of free and unfree systems (which was a caricature even at the time). Most countries are now democratic in the minimalist sense of conducting regular elections; but most of them cannot be described as liberal (Schedler 2006; Diamond 2015). Similarly, while the proportion of countries whose press systems were rated “not free” by Freedom House has fallen from more than half in the mid-1980s to around one-third since the 1990s, the rest of the countries do not all have “free” media environments (Dunham, Nelson & Aghekyan 2015). Instead, the largest single category since 2011 has been “partly free” (around 36 percent). The simultaneous proliferation of partly free media systems and semi-democratic (or electoral authoritarian) political regimes is more than coincidental. Both are the result of the same contradictory pulls: the growing domestic and international demands for democratic concessions, and the perpetual desire of ruling elites to maintain their grip on power. On the one hand, states cannot deny the powerful legitimacy that public accountability provides; on the other, they are keen to reduce the uncertainty that follows freedom of choice (Schedler 2002).

In the field of comparative politics, there has been growing interest in the notion of authoritarian resilience, which treats as a serious analytical challenge the reality that many non-liberal regimes have been able to resist democratization or at least dampen its effects (Nathan 2003; Heydemann & Leenders 2011; Gallagher & Hanson 2013). The focus of such work is not on extreme cases such as North Korea, but on the much larger set of regimes that seem to be able to sustain their political systems without descending to pariah status. Such states have been able to draw on a wide “menu of manipulation” to reduce of the risk of losing power through the ballot box (Schedler 2002). Interfering with media freedom – without necessarily crushing it entirely – is part of that menu, as a way of suppressing both the demand and supply sides of democratic choice.

Scholars and media freedom defenders are still catching up with the task of documenting and analysing the many non-obvious ways in which powerful interests attempt to thwart journalism’s democratic mission. On top of this empirical challenge is a conceptual complication. There are different theories of democracy; each of these makes different demands of journalism. These, in turn, require different enabling environments and are sensitive to different threats. For example, in elite-pluralist views of democracy, the concentration of media power in large, establishment news corporations could be welcomed as a useful counterbalance to state power. In contrast, more deliberative and radical theories of democracy emphasize the need to widen and deepen citizen participation in public affairs, for which small, alternative media play a vital role. These divergent perspectives generate different ideas about what press freedom is for and what the main threats to it are.

This article tries to address such conceptual complexities. The first section looks at the state. It highlights how government restrictions on media have become subtler and less direct, posing a challenge for press freedom monitors. In the second section, I examine the threat posed by market forces, including media owners. I reflect on the problem of “self-censorship”, which many regard as widespread and pernicious, but which has been insufficiently theorized. The third section considers tensions between journalism and the public. In many contexts, populist pressures exert an anti-democratic force on the media, either in concert with or independent of states and markets. Ironically, the press can find itself needing to resist the very people in whose name it exercises its democratic role. I conclude by arguing that each of these complications and contradictions requires journalism scholars to be more explicit about the normative frameworks and assumptions underlying studies of press freedom.

1Government: calibrated censorship and coercion

For centuries, press freedom has been defined in relation to the interventions by church and state against which the Enlightenment revolted in Europe and America. Among them were prior restraints on publishing, through the licensing of newspapers and the vetting of articles before printing. Other harsh measures included the use of sedition and blasphemy laws to jail, torture, or execute critics of the powerful, aided by courts that were strangers to the notion of individual human rights. Attuned to such threats, the classic liberal – and lay – perspective continues to view censorship as “external, coercive, and repressive”, notes Bunn (2015: 29). In this view, “Censors are authoritative social actors, extrinsic to the communicative process, who deploy coercive force to intervene in the free exchange of ideas to repressive effect.”

These types of state restriction are now virtually unheard of in liberal democracies. As a result, critical scholarship in the West since Marx has focused on more structural, internalized systems of ideological control (Foucault 1990; Bourdieu 1993). I’ll touch on these insights in later sections. But it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the state remains a major obstacle to press freedom for most of the world’s citizens. Arbitrary newspaper licensing systems remain in place in the electoral authoritarian regimes of Malaysia and Singapore, for example. Only in 2012 did Myanmar end its vetting system, under which newspapers had to fax its typeset pages to government censors before running their presses. The imprisonment of journalists is a regular occurrence in Egypt and Turkey.

Methods of censorship have evolved. The best publicized are those that are the most coercive and repressive. However, brutal and bloody censorship is not what most repressive governments do, most of the time. Spectacular repression may appeal to regimes that only know how rule through fear and have zero tolerance for dissenting views. But most states, even more autocratic ones, exercise some discretion in their use of force, relying on a mix of methods to sustain their grip on power. This may be partly because they understand the practical futility of trying to engage in total information control. Besides, astute repressive governments recognize that indiscriminately stifling news media can hurt themselves, not least by denying their own officials valuable intelligence about prevailing public opinion and the state of affairs in the country. Furthermore, domination is more likely to endure when it is more hegemonic – such that violence, while underwriting power, is not routinely dispensed (Arendt 1970). Flagrant censorship can backfire by generating public outrage around which opponents can mobilize (Jansen & Martin 2003). Especially since the ascendance of democracy and press freedom as global norms in the late 20th century, engaging in obvious suppression of speech also incurs reputational costs for states.

Hegemonic repressive regimes therefore find it in their interest to engage in “calibrated coercion”, exercising just enough pressure to get the job done (George 2007). Just as they pick from a wide menu of manipulation to take the sting out of democratic choice, states are able to select various methods to limit the impact of the press. “Instead of relying on brute force and direct control, they use stealth, manipulations, and subterfuge,” notes Simon (2015: 32). These methods include:

Denial of public funds and facilities. Critical media in Argentina, Romania, and South Africa have been punished by being denied government advertising. Subsidies and access to state printers are other resources than can be withheld (Open Society Justice Initiative 2005; Podesta 2009).

Pressure on advertisers. Government can dissuade businesses from advertising in certain media outlets, choking their main source of revenue. Outspoken newspapers in Hong Kong’s otherwise free media system have suffered this fate (Ma 2007).

Harassment through regulation. The selective enforcement of tax rules, labour regulations and other laws is used to bully non-cooperative media outlets. Such abuses have been observed in Ukraine, for instance (Ryabinska 2011).

Silencing through surveillance. Wiretapping and other surveillance activities, ostensibly for anti-terrorism operations, can have a chilling effect on the press. This has discouraged independent reporting in Turkey, for example (Yesil 2014).

Governments’ censorship policies and practices in the 21st century can be understood as attempts to have their cake and eat it too, so to speak. They apply censorship as “a means that authorities use to authorize normative systems” (Jansen 2015: 57); at the same time, they want a reasonably free flow of information and ideas, to maintain their legitimacy and capacity to govern. The vast majority of today’s regimes cannot be described as totalitarian, either in intent or in effect. They do not aim to control the citizen’s every thought, word, and action. Instead, their calibrated coercion of media is targeted and selective, seemingly tolerant of some expression while controlling others. The pattern may seem internally contradictory, but it is precisely the freedoms conceded to media and society in general that allow the state to get away with the particular restrictions it places on expression that pose a political threat.

One of the analytical challenges facing scholars of censorship is to locate the logic that may lie behind governments’ seemingly arbitrary decisions. State censorship of journalism may discriminate by genre, audience, and geography, as well as the scope and potential impact of the journalists’ critiques.

Genre differentiation is fairly common. Tight control of news often coexists with liberalization of entertainment media. The neoliberal wave of the 1990s saw many states give up their monopolies over broadcasting and encourage a proliferation of commercial free-to-air and cable and satellite channels. In many cases, including China and Malaysia, the resulting pluralization was largely limited to entertainment programming. While this in itself certainly addressed a real market demand, it may have contributed to authoritarian resilience by distracting and depoliticizing the public.

An example of audience differentiation in censorship is when states grant significant autonomy to elite, urban newspapers and political websites, while tightly controlling the radio and television outlets from which the majority of citizens get their information. The elite/mass distinction in media controls has been observed in Russia, for example (Simon 2015). Such segmentation is easier when it is reinforced by linguistic divides, like when English is used only by highly educated city-dwellers. In such situations, elite English-language newspapers may contain enough critical news coverage to satisfy cosmopolitan urbanites, the expatriate business community, and foreign journalists and diplomats. But these media operate in a bubble, with little influence on the regime’s mass base in the heartlands, where tightly regulated media in local languages hold sway.

Similarly, many repressive governments allow more latitude to business news outlets than to general news media. The former have a smaller, more elite audience and are perceived not to have a major impact on broader public opinion. Such subject-matter differentiation helps to explain how regimes are able to sustain a vibrant business sector within a politically closed environment. Conventional wisdom suggests that businesses require a certain level of transparency, without which investments would go elsewhere. However, the kinds of transparency that commercial enterprises need are not the same as the openness required for political accountability (Kaufmann & Bellver 2005; Williams 2015). It is therefore possible for states to parse transparency, providing sufficient economic information to satisfy the corporate sector even as they continue to restrict the political transparency that would empower opposition to the regime (Rodan 2004).

Geographic differentiation in censorship policies is a feature of large countries with localized areas of conflict and political instability. The media may enjoy free rein in the capital and main population centres but be saddled with severe restrictions when trying to report on the troublespots that are most desperately in need of the independent scrutiny of journalists and human rights monitors. Journalists’ routine newsgathering activities may be punished under anti-terrorism laws, or they may be denied access to these areas altogether (Simon 2015; Joshi 2004). At the time of writing, examples of these no-go areas included Kashmir in India, Rakhine state in Myanmar, Balochistan in Pakistan, and Russian-occupied Crimea.

Similarly, repressive regimes do not need to extinguish all watchdog journalism – the hallmark of a free press – if they can instead contain the media’s exposés within politically safe bounds. Governments therefore engage in hierarchically differentiated censorship. For example, journalists in China are allowed to engage in episodic reportage of lower-level misdeeds while systemic critiques that implicate top leaders remain forbidden, especially during times of rising social tension (Lorentzen 2014). Indeed, investigative journalism that highlights corruption and other failures at lower levels of government can help the regime sustain itself (Egorov, Guriev & Sonin 2009), including by neutralizing opponents within the establishment.

Another common strategy is to discriminate between individual and organized communication, a distinction that the Internet has made especially germane. The rollout of the Internet has required states to make significant concessions to free speech. States can no longer expect to suppress information and ideas as effectively as they did in the pre-digital age. But those that have no desire to transform themselves into liberal democracies have tried to mount a tactical retreat instead of declaring total surrender to the liberating force of the Internet. Since individual self-expression does not necessarily pose a threat until it is organized and mobilized, states can allow most critical comments on social media to go unpunished. They focus instead on the suppression of collective action, as scholars of China’s censorship have found (King, Pan & Roberts 2013). A similar logic may apply to the regulation of critical journalism. Most individually-run blogs and other forms of citizen reporting, while certainly adding to media diversity, are not as impactful as more organized journalistic endeavours that are able to track issues over time, engage in in-depth investigations, and thus challenge the influence of establishment media. Singapore has opted for this two-tier approach (George 2012). It may be impractical for the state to monitor and discipline thousands of individual citizen reporters, but it is much less difficult to control the small number of potentially high-impact, professionally-run sites.

Attempting a total blackout of negative news about major local events is likely to create a vacuum that will be filled with rumour and gossip, undermining the government’s credibility. Partly for this reason, Chinese propaganda authorities have reduced their use of outright bans on reporting. Instead, their directives focus increasingly on guiding public opinion, by instructing media outlets to soften certain details or emphasize desired talking points (Tai 2014). Such surgical and calibrated interventions reduce the risk of backfire. When the majority of people are able to enjoy freedom of expression in most aspects of their lives, they are less likely to oppose those instances when censorship does strike. And if that censorship is applied without excessive force, there is a lower probability of generating sufficient moral outrage to get the wider public to rise up in protest. To that end, probably the most effective strategy is to keep censorship at an arm’s length by outsourcing the work to third-party, non-state actors. This is the main theme of the following section.

2Self-censorship and journalistic independence

In 2015, the American branch of PEN, the free expression organization, released a report on the state of press freedom in Hong Kong, recognizing the city’s unique status as a bastion of liberty within the People’s Republic of China. The 44-page report documented physical attacks on journalists and other symptoms of China’s pollutive impact on one of Asia’s freest media environments. The PEN American Center’s fourteen-point list of recommendations was, however, curiously silent about a problem that other monitors have called the biggest threat to media freedom in Hong Kong – self-censorship by news outlets whose owners are reluctant to jeopardize their business interests on the Mainland. The Hong Kong Journalists Association (2015: 2) describes the press as “caught between two fires” – not just external threats but also “internal pressure in the form of escalating self-censorship to comply with establishment viewpoints”. Explaining this lacuna in the American PEN report, a representative said at the launch event that they were reluctant to be seen as interfering with media owners’ rights.

To not address such trends, though, would generate a jarringly incomplete picture of press freedom and censorship. For reasons cited in the previous section, governments have a strong incentive to outsource their speech-suppressing interventions to private actors. This results in both surrogate censorship and self-censorship. Surrogate or proxy censorship is a term that was first associated with book publishing (Kuper 1975). Authors may find their work blocked by publishers who are under political pressure. Newspaper publishing is less exposed to proxy censorship because it tends to be vertically integrated, with all aspects of the business – editorial, printing, distribution, and marketing – being run in-house. However, as news publishers migrate to the Internet, they have found themselves much more dependent on intermediaries such as internet access providers, search engines, and social networking services. This has greatly expanded the opportunity for states to exercise proxy censorship (Kreimer 2006; MacKinnon et al. 2014). Laws that hold internet intermediaries liable for the content that they host put pressure on these companies to act as censors. When the laws are vague, private-sector intermediaries may exercise even stricter censorship than a government agency would. The problem is compounded by the fact that most intermediaries have little to lose by removing politically problematic content, since such material usually accounts for a negligible proportion of their business. The popularity and profitability of a video-sharing platform, for example, is unlikely to be hurt if it sieves out a handful of political videos from its ocean of music, celebrity stunts, and cute pet tricks.

Self-censorship can be said to occur when a decision to suppress information is made within the media organization, but as a result of pressure from the outside. Lee (1998: 57) has defined it more formally as “a set of editorial actions ranging from omission, dilution, distortion, and change of emphasis to choice of rhetorical devices by journalists, their organizations, and even the entire media community in anticipation of currying reward and avoiding punishments from the power structure”.

The concept has great utility but needs to be applied judiciously. Thanks to Foucault (1990) and Bourdieu (1993), one might be inclined to see self-censorship as all-pervasive, embedded in the norms and structures that constrict all communication. However, the concept of self-censorship should probably be distinguished from independent editorial judgment, whereby editors decide not to publish a reporter’s story because they believe it fails to meet the best professional standards of verifiability and fairness, or because the social costs of publication outweigh the benefits of satisfying the audience’s curiosity. In such cases, editors may err on the side of caution because they fear the harm that publication could cause to the publication’s credibility or to members of the public affected by the story. But such voluntary, socially responsible self-restraint is what distinguishes journalism at its best from other forms of expression (White 2013), and would not deserve the pejorative label of “self-censorship”. The term should be reserved for situations where independent professional judgment recommends publication, and what tips the balance in favour of restraint is the threat of punishment or the withholding of rewards.

To make matters more complicated, gatekeepers usually deny that they have self-censored, citing other reasons for non-publication. And such denials may not always be insincere. Habitual self-censorship can slip into “conformism”, a mix of “opportunism and routinized willingness to accept unquestioningly the usual practices or standards, which were originally imposed through coercion”, as observed in Russian broadcasting by Schimpfossl and Yablokov (2014: 297).

The boundary between direct censorship and self-censorship is fuzzy. If, for instance, exposure of high-level criminality and corruption would guarantee the banning of a news outlet and the arrest and exile – or worse – of the journalists, it is arguable whether the resulting suppression of such stories should be called self-censorship or just plain censorship. The label of self-censorship conveys the suggestion of a lack of moral courage on the part of those who succumb to it. That seems a harsh accusation to level at the victims of situations where the costs of non-compliance are definite and extreme. The term is better suited to contexts where the risks are not overwhelming – career-limiting or profit-diminishing more than life-threatening.

In media systems where self-censorship dominates, what can and cannot be said is never made totally clear, even to the media that are supposed to abide by the rules. Indeed, such uncertainty may be deliberately cultivated to keep journalists on their toes and to give the authorities maximum latitude to intervene whenever they want (Hassid 2008). Even after the fact, surrogate/self-censorship is difficult to pinpoint, because its handmaiden is meta-censorship – the wrapping in secrecy of the very practice of information suppression. Since the state opts for third-party censorship over more direct intervention mainly to keep its hand invisible, or at least to give it plausible deniability, it cannot permit its agents to reveal that they were responding to official pressures. Journalists who turn whistleblower are invariably punished, and may resign soon after rather than wait to be disciplined for their indiscretion.

Despite the fuzziness at its edges, self-censorship is a fertile concept for study. Bunn suggests that we should regard it as repressive states’ preferred mode of control, while direct censorship is their back-up contingency plan. If government censors have to intervene directly to obstruct the flow of information and idea, that reflects a “failure to induce the kind of self-censorship that constitutes a more effective system” (2015: 38).

The self-censorship archetype uses mainly economic carrots and sticks. The market has undoubtedly facilitated the emergence of a free press, in line with liberal theory; but that support, as critical scholars have observed since Marx, is hardly complete or unconditional. Commercial forces themselves constitute a locus of power that constantly threatens to undermine the democratic purpose of the press. Thus, pro-market reforms in China and the emergence of large commercially-oriented news organizations have transformed but not erased censorship (Lee, He & Huang 2006). In Ukraine under Leonid Kuchma (1994–2005), private media were no more likely than state-owned media to protect free speech (Dyczok 2006). Hopes for independent journalism in Central Asia were similarly dashed by the propensity of private media to self-censor (Kenny & Gross 2008).

At the level of editors and journalists, self-censorship leverages on access to newsmakers, career advancement, and job security. In many countries, reporters are underpaid and susceptible to outright bribery, accepting cash in return for dropping a story or filing a puff piece (Arsan 2013; Elahi 2013). At the other extreme, a press corps whose bank accounts are more robust than its professional norms may come to identify with governing elites more than with the marginalized in their community (George 2012). As for media owners, they are exposed to the risk of losing advertising revenue from the government itself, from cronies, and from other corporations that are beholden to officials. Media owners with diversified holdings are especially vulnerable, since each of these business interests constitutes a potential pressure point. It does not help that in many of today’s diversified conglomerates, the news units contribute only a small fraction to the group’s bottom line. In such circumstances, it takes owners of firm principle to side with editorial integrity of barely quantifiable monetary value, when much larger entities in their portfolios are materially threatened. As with journalists, it is unclear whether deep pockets on their own make media owners more or less supportive of editorial integrity. In India, for instance, the scandalous practice of “private treaties” – providing preferential coverage for companies that have business links with the publisher – is associated with the highly profitable Times of India, which is hardly a newspaper on the brink of collapse (Saeed 2015).

The Times of India’s treaties are a form of internal pressure on editorial decision-making that is entirely voluntary on the part of the media owner. There are many other cases of owners who are intent on using their media power to further their own economic or political interests; this may be the main reason why they got into the media business in the first place. In Indonesia, this is now the main form of media control. Since the democratic reforms of the early 1990s, journalists have had little reason to fear traditional government censorship, but most newsrooms are constrained by owners with private agendas (Tapsell 2012).

From a critical political economy standpoint, the fact that media owners prioritize their private interests over journalism’s democratic mission is of course completely predictable. What is more contentious is whether a freely taken decision by a publisher to obstruct his employees’ journalistic work should be termed censorship. In a sense, we are dealing here with a unit-of-analysis problem: it depends on what we mean by the “press” in press freedom. If we apply the term to news organizations as corporate entities, we would have to regard any freely taken decision of a media owner as an exercise of his free speech rights, even if it results in silencing his employees. This is the dominant American perspective – as reflected in the PEN report on Hong Kong – which is influenced by a market doctrine that treats the property rights of media owners as sacrosanct. On the other hand, if by “press” we mean journalists directly engaged in newswork, we could deem their obstructionist employer to be a threat to press freedom.

One response to this definitional dispute is a terminological bypass. Rather than attempt the highly contentious step of broadening the concept of “press freedom” to include journalists’ freedom from their employers, UNESCO, for example, adopts the term “independence” to refer to the professional autonomy that journalists need within their organizations in order to exercise their professional roles (Radsch 2014).

Alternatively, we can refer back to democratic theory as a touchstone. This encourages us to view the press as an institution that is more than the sum of organizations that make it up. Defined in reference to a set of democracy-enhancing practices, press freedom can be said to belong more to the public than to the individuals and institutions that make up the press. It is more about people’s right to engage in public discourse that helps them in the process of collective self-determination, than about publishers’ and editors’ right to express themselves (Fiss 1996). The right of everyone to receive information and ideas is explicitly mentioned in Article 19 of the ICCPR. It is also seen by some jurists as being central to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. They argue that by inscribing “freedom of speech, or of the press” into the Bill of Rights, the Founding Fathers were recognizing press freedom as a social right, distinct from the protection of individual self-expression (Baker 2007). Building from a rights-based approach, Oster (2013: 58) recommends a “functional, content-based” test instead of an identity-based one. We pay special attention to press freedom not “because a person or institution is to be categorised as ‘journalist’ or ‘media’”; instead “if a person or institution contributes to matters of public interest in accordance with certain standards of conduct, then they are to be conceived of as media and should enjoy special privileges”.

3The people vs. press freedom

The trickiest aspect of press freedom and censorship is what to make of the role played by the public that Carey (1987: 5) calls “god term of journalism”, its “totem and talisman”. The naïve view of press freedom sees journalism lining up with the people, protecting democracy from state oppression. In reality, journalism’s democratic mission can be threatened by the dark side of people power. This threat could come in the form of deeply entrenched majority attitudes that resist alternative perspectives, or small but assertive groups that attempt to silence speech by mobilizing demonstrations and mob violence. Journalists may find their efforts to serve the public interest fiercely opposed by such forces.

Consider Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy. The political freedom that has opened up since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998 has been exploited by hard-line groups to push an exclusivist and absolutist brand of Islam. Their oppression of religious minorities – especially the Ahmadiyah sect and Shia Muslims – has benefited from indifference or tacit support among the majority of Indonesians, who are mostly Sunni Muslims. Religious intolerance is now one of the main challenges facing the republic’s emerging democracy (Hamayotsu 2013). Major news organizations such as Kompas, Tempo, and Jakarta Post share this concern. They track episodes of religious intolerance and editorialize in support of Indonesia’s multi-religious, democratic constitution. Journalists acknowledge, however, that their criticism of hard-line groups is more toned down than they would like or than the facts merit. Their restraint has nothing to do with fear of the state (successive Indonesian governments have been trying to resist radical Islam) or of powerful business interests (a disproportionate slice of which is the hands of Chinese and Christian hands). Instead, they fear reactions from the ground. Hardliners are adept at labelling opponents “anti-Islam” and thus exposing them to harassment. Kompas, the country’s largest newspaper, is particularly sensitive to such name-calling because of its own Catholic roots (George 2016).

Majoritarian religious threats to press freedom are hardly unique to Indonesia, or to the Muslim world. In democratizing Myanmar, widespread anti-Muslim prejudice within the Buddhist majority, whipped up by radical monks and encouraged by shadowy elements within the state, has made it difficult for local journalists to defend the rights of the Rohingya minority, who are victims of a campaign that verges on genocide. India is culturally more diverse and has one of the world’s deepest traditions of debate and dissent, but even there writers have had to exercise caution when dealing with subjects that could invite unwanted attention from militant Hindu nationalists. Meanwhile, xenophobia is a serious problem in societies as diverse as South Africa, Hungary, and Cambodia. Extreme nationalism afflicts China, creating the phenomenon of populist authoritarianism (Tang 2016). In such situations, journalists who speak up to urge empathy with oppressed groups or neighbouring countries can find themselves attacked by intolerant members of the public.

Sometimes, reactionary popular movements are merely a smokescreen for state power. South Asia provides examples. In 2012, Pakistan was one of more than a dozen countries that protested against the anti-Muslim YouTube video, Innocence of Muslims. YouTube’s parent, Google, complied with government orders to block the video from view in several countries where it had a legal presence. Pakistan, however, decided to block the entire YouTube platform. Its move was framed by media reports as another case of “Muslim Rage” (as a Newsweek cover put it). This was a pat explanation that seemed to satisfy most observers, since it conformed with prevailing stereotypes about Islamic radicalism. Human rights defenders on the ground in Pakistan, however, tell a very different story. Pakistan authorities had been itching to shut down YouTube much earlier, because citizen reporters were using it to expose human rights abuses in Balochistan as well as corruption in the ruling elite. The international protests against the American-made Innocence of Muslims was simply a convenient excuse to silence critics within Pakistan (George 2016).

It is not the case, though, that every instance of popular intolerance conceals the government’s hand behind it. The people are frequently an independent source of censorship pressures, targeting material that they claim has offended them. The motivations and objectives of such campaigns are not always what they seem to be. They are usually framed as spontaneous and natural reactions to provocative expression; and it is assumed that the sole aim of the protests is to remove that expression from view, and perhaps to punish those responsible. Often, though, the protests are more strategic and symbolic. The offending expression creates an opening for righteous indignation, which a community can use as a vehicle to assert its values. Leaders may employ this strategy to ensure that governing elites take the community more seriously, or to raise their personal visibility and status within the group. Such demands for censorship may make the state a target of claims that it would have preferred not to deal with.

Such “symbolic crusades” were observed in the United States in anti-pornography campaigns of the early 20th century (Zurcher et al. 1971). They were also a feature of the agitation in Denmark against the publication of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons by Jyllands Posten in 2005. The escalation of those protests is best explained by the competition for influence among community leaders who sought to use the cartoons as an “injustice symbol” (Olesen 2014). Campaigns of righteous indignation against perceived offence are a relatively easy way for political actors to win support – much easier than, say, proposing workable programmes that address economic problems. Once this expressive goal is achieved, community leaders may be relatively unconcerned about the actual enforcement of the ban they have strenuously – even violently – fought for. The strategic and symbolic character of many of these protests explains the jarring inconsistency in the protesters’ indignation. It is not unusual to find that material deemed an absolutely unconscionable outrage at the peak of a protest quietly resurfaces a year later without any opposition. In some countries that virulently condemned the Jyllands Posten cartoons as blasphemous, for example, the full page of cartoons is downloadable as a high-resolution image from the Wikipedia entry about the controversy.

Censorship pressures and other repressive tendencies that arise from the “people sector” – as opposed to the state or private sectors – can put media in a bind. Since journalists owe their primary allegiance to the public, they may feel that is not just expedient but also democratic to reflect the popular will when the people express intolerance toward minorities such as migrants. This, however, would be a misreading of what democracy requires of a free press. It erroneously reduces democracy to majority rule. Furthermore, it wrongly elevates the popular will to the public interest. Democratic theory has long been familiar with the dangers of the tyranny of the majority; protection of minorities’ equal rights through the rule of law is therefore an integral component of democracy, alongside the preferences of the greatest number. The fact that the people may not use their democratic freedoms in ways that preserve or enhance democratic life is also why social theorists have long distinguished the “public” from the mere “crowd” (Muhlmann 2010). The public is more than the sum of its parts. That “more” is the result of deliberation; a dialogue in which all can participate as equals.

The deliberative standard, then, would treat the silencing of minority voices as problematic for freedom of expression, even if at the behest of the majority. Media that advocate or facilitate that silencing cannot hide behind a democratic fig leaf. While there is no denying the practical difficulty of standing up to one’s own society’s prejudices, the normative position should be clear: a democratic media system must protect spaces for minority voices against majority-sponsored censorship. Achieving this may require a redefinition of what many journalists consider their professional duty to be disinterested and objective.

4Rights-based analysis

Dramatic changes in media and politics since the 1990s challenge classic paradigms for understanding press freedom and censorship. The Four Theories of the Press framework (Siebert, Peterson & Schramm 1956) – which despite being reduced to a “museum piece” in journalism studies (Nordenstreng 1997: 97) still resides on countless university reading lists – considers the authoritarian and communist systems of media control to be the antitheses of press freedom. These systems rely on state ownership of media, licensing of private media, and post-publication punishment of sedition and other offences. None of these instruments have disappeared. However, any audit of press freedom today must also include qualitatively distinct censorship threats. The proliferation of semi-democracies – as well as non-democracies’ search for more sophisticated means of control – has resulted in more calibrated coercion. A global wave of neoliberal media privatization, especially in broadcasting, has made crony capitalism one of the main methods of media supervision around the world. As for the digital revolution, the Internet has been genuinely liberating, but its effects are more complex than simply pushing societies from the authoritarian to the liberal category.

I have suggested in this article that, in addition to the important task of empirically documenting these trends, journalism studies needs to revisit conceptual definitions and the normative issues relating to press freedom and censorship. “Legally speaking, censorship involves the attempts of government agencies to restrict public forms of communication,” states one recent encyclopedia entry (Ahmed 2015: 55). This is too narrow a view. Insights from democratic theory, comparative political science, and human rights law recommend a much broader conception of the threats to press freedom. I am not in favour of stretching this to extremes. The problem with the power-is-everywhere perspective informed by Foucault is that it is sometimes guilty of flattening all distinctions, as if there is no qualitative moral difference between, say, the kind of power that tortures journalists in detention and that which drags them down with the weight of social conventions.

Traditional censorship exercised by those that monopolize the means of legitimate violence remains a valid obsession of media freedom monitors and scholars. However, to this traditional subject of inquiry we need to add market censorship and populist pressures. The primary social value of press freedom is the enrichment of the public discourse that is central to democratic life, and there are multiple ways in which that potential is undermined by power. Discussions about press freedom ring hollow when they are not centred on people’s right to receive the information and ideas they need for collective self-determination. Frank La Rue, the former United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, has noted:

The right to be informed and to receive information from various media is a key factor in the development of social groups. This right is a cornerstone of democracy and supports the construction of more democratic societies peopled by active citizens who hold informed opinions about the situation in their country and have the capacity and opportunity to propose and contribute to public policies and to demand transparency. (La Rue 2010: 16)

The 1947 Hutchins Commission put it elegantly: “Freedom of the press means freedom from and freedom for”. The press must be free “from the menace of external compulsions”, but not for its own sake, it said. Freedom is meant to allow the press to set its own course when contributing to the “maintenance and development of a free society”, and “maintaining the rights of citizens and the almost forgotten rights of speakers who have no press” (Commission on Freedom of the Press 1947: 18).

Seen in this light, the source of censorship is less important than its effects. Understandably, though, intra-organizational constraints are less talked about than traditional censorship. This is partly because the former’s victims are less visible. The most salient press freedom infringements – those that are publicized through alerts and petitions from organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists – invariably involve the violation of other rights in addition to freedom of expression. When a government throws bloggers into jail for criticizing officials, for example, this almost always entails transgressions against the integrity of the person, through arbitrary arrest and denial of a fair public trial. Raiding and closing a news organization usually involves the abuse of criminal justice procedures, the right to work, and property rights. These multiple violations may not be explicitly cited in the reports of media freedom monitors, but they provoke an instinctive sense of indignation and outrage. In comparison, self-censorship is not only harder to document, but also relatively deficient in obvious injustice. The individuals whose expression is muted usually do not complain, and may even try to explain away the situation. Self-censorship can thus appear to be a victimless crime.

It is by focusing on the right to receive – and not just on the sending of information – that we see who really loses in self-censorship: the public that is shortchanged of information and ideas. There may be a need for restrictions on public discourse, but these should be applied in ways that meet democratic standards that place the rights of the public at the centre. To satisfy this test, the system would have to be open and transparent about the existence of censorship, and what is being censored and why. It must also apply censorship narrowly to avoid collateral damage to legitimate communication. Finally, censors must be accountable to the public and citizens must be able to participate in making decisions about censorship. This is what Bambauer (2009: 386–387) calls a “process-based” perspective: “Legitimate censorship is open, transparent about banned content, effective yet narrowly targeted, and responsive to citizens’ preferences (but not overly so).” It is from this perspective that most surrogate censorship and self-censorship – as well as “prior restraints” on publication such as newspaper licensing systems – are especially pernicious, even if they are rarely brutal. They deny citizens the right to decide where the lines should be drawn in their society. As a result, they do not know what they do not know.

A rights-based approach also urges us to remember “the almost forgotten rights of speakers who have no press”, as the Hutchins Commission put it. Too often, the very communities that the media have pledged to serve are implicated in the silencing of unpopular minorities. Challenging dominant values and attitudes, overcoming the common sense of the times, and speaking truth to people power are tests of journalistic integrity that may be even more daunting than resisting the isolated dictator.

Further reading

Bunn’s 2015 article, “Reimagining Repression”, provides a concise review and synthesis of censorship theories, of which Jansen’s 1988 monograph is a classic. Of the many books dealing with press freedom, Oster’s Media Freedom as a Fundamental Right (2015) has the advantage of bringing together political theory with detailed and up-to-date legal analysis.

To keep track of current cases around the world, the best single source is the, the web site of IFEX, a global network of more than 100 organizations that champion freedom of expression. The head of one such group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, has written one of the best global surveys of modern press censorship (Simon 2015).


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