Censorship of the Press

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Date: 2018
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,381 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1310L

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Censorship of the press refers to attempts by governments, individuals, or corporations to suppress or eliminate information from media outlets. "The press" traditionally refers to printed media, that is, newspapers and magazines, but more commonly in the twenty-first century includes radio, television, and online news outlets, including blogs. Most governments recognize freedom of the press in accordance with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1948. This declaration grants individuals the right to freedom of opinion and expression. In practice, however, there are many degrees of press freedom, and censorship takes many different forms, depending on the country in question.

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Key Figures

  • George W. Bush (1946–), President of the United States (2001–2009)
  • Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (1954–), President of Egypt (2014–)
  • Mohamed Fahmy (1974–), Egyptian-Canadian journalist
  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (1954–), President of Turkey (2014–), Prime Minister of Turkey (2003–2014)
  • Rodrigo Duterte (1945–), President of the Philippines (2016–)
  • Vladimir Putin (1952–), President of Russia (2000–2008, 2012–), Prime Minister of Russia (2008–2012)
  • Donald Trump (1946–), President of the United States (2017–)
  • Najib Razak (1953–), Prime Minister of Malaysia (2009–)
  • Narendra Modi (1950–), Prime Minister of India (2014–)


There are at least two different forms of censorship. One is explicit or "hard censorship," the other implicit or "soft censorship." Authoritarian regimes employ hard censorship—for example, those of Nazi Germany (1933–1945) and the Soviet Union (1922–1991), where the governments exerted tight control over media outlets and determined what could and could not be discussed in the press. According to the latest list (2015) from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the five most censored countries are Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Azerbaijan. The CPJ, a non-profit journalism watchdog group, studies government "tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on Internet access."

According to the CPJ, "soft censorship" by governments has replaced outright government repression as the preferred means for controlling or limiting what is reported by the press. This form of censorship includes paying journalists to write favorable stories and withdrawing financial support or spreading lies about journalists who publish critical stories. In countries such as Russia and Mexico, soft censorship is well documented. For most of the world, however, the issue of press censorship is not clear-cut.

As television news reporting became a major source of information in the 1960s and 1970s, governments quickly learned how powerful the medium could be. During the Vietnam War (in which the United States backed South Vietnam in a civil war with communist North Vietnam), the U.S. government became very concerned that television media reports about the war were eroding public confidence in the government. When news anchorman Walter Cronkite (1916–2009) delivered a critical on-air editorial about the Vietnam War, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) was said to have declared, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

Because of the power of the media to change the public's perception of wars, this issue of press censorship has been especially controversial during the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the twenty-first century. Journalists charged that the U.S. government was practicing "soft censorship" in a number of new ways. During these wars, journalists on the front line were "embedded" with the troops, meaning that reporters were dependent on the military for protection and information. Such proximity to the military meant that journalists might lose their objectivity and see the war only from the point of view of the military. Until 2009, the media was prohibited from publishing images of caskets of slain U.S. soldiers. A photograph taken in August 2009, of a soldier killed in battle in Afghanistan, was held by the Associated Press for three weeks as the agency debated whether to publish it. When the AP did publish the photo in September 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates (1943–) condemned the agency, saying its dissemination around the world would hurt the morale of the troops and encourage the enemy. Military and government controls of the flow of information meant that the public could learn about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars only in ways approved by the government.

Many media outlets practice self-censorship out of fear for the lives of their journalists. In Mexico and Colombia, there are few official restrictions of press freedom, yet violence against journalists from drug lords makes publishing in these countries risky. According to Reporters Without Borders, in 2014 three journalists were killed for reasons directly linked to their work. By mid-2015, seven journalists had already been killed in Mexico. In Russia, journalists are similarly intimidated and sometimes killed for investigating the powerful. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, fifty-six journalists were killed in Russia between 1992 and 2015. Similar circumstances exist in many countries in the Middle East and Latin America with fragile democracies, where there are no strong institutions to protect journalists.

Self-censorship affects even the healthiest democracies. Even in the United States, where freedom of the press is guaranteed by the Constitution, mainstream media outlets were accused of self-censorship in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Critics claimed that the media uncritically repeated the George W. Bush administration's rationale for war without investigating it independently, out of fear of being labeled "unpatriotic" or being denied access to government officials. The issue of self-censorship dominated international news in 2005 and 2006, when a Danish newspaper published controversial cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims objected, saying that representations of Muhammad are blasphemous. As the issue picked up interest, many newspapers refused to reprint the cartoons, fearing reprisals from angry readers or claims of cultural insensitivity. The Danish newspaper, meanwhile, defended its decision to print the cartoons, claiming that satire was an important element of Danish journalism. Some newspapers followed the Danish paper's lead and reprinted the cartoons in support of the principle of freedom of speech.

Another form of press censorship that receives less attention than government repression is corporate censorship. In 1996, the United States government adopted the Telecommunications Act, a radical overhaul of the existing 1934 Communications Act, which regulated telecommunications and broadcasting, including rules governing the ownership of media outlets. The Telecommunications Act had a number of unanticipated effects, one of which was the emergence of business conglomerates that owned multiple media outlets and non-media businesses. Mainstream media outlets owned by large corporations often suppress negative stories about their products and activities, or even about new developments business executives might decide would reflect negatively on their companies. The result was, and is, suppression of content across all media.

Abuses Against Journalists

On 23 June 2014, an Egyptian court sentenced three al-Jazeera journalists to seven years in prison for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Three other foreign journalists were tried in absentia and sentenced to ten years in prison. The convictions drew immediate negative reactions from governments and press organizations around the world. However, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated that he would not interfere in the court's decision.

On 1 January 2015, an Egyptian court ordered retrials for the three al-Jazeera journalists convicted in June 2014 of spreading false news and collaborating with terrorists. Though the Court of Cassation had not allowed reporters access to the hearing, international rights groups condemned the original conviction; the judge in the case later stated his belief that the convicted journalists were instruments of the devil. The journalists, who had been in prison for more than a year, were not granted bail in advance of the new trial. One week before the retrial was announced, al-Jazeera suspended the operation of its Egyptian news channel. One of the journalists, Australian Peter Greste, was released and deported on 31 January 2015. His colleagues—an Egyptian-born Canadian named Mohamed Fahmy and an Egyptian named Baher Mohamed—remained in custody, but on 12 February the court ordered them to be released on bail pending a new trial. On 29 August 2015, Fahmy and Mohamed were sentenced to three years in prison for broadcasting information harmful to Egypt and for failing to obtain proper licensing as journalists. Greste was convicted and sentenced in absentia. Fahmy and Mohamed were taken back into custody. On 23 September 2015, President Sisi pardoned Fahmy and Mohamed, along with dozens of political activists, to mark the beginning of the Muslim religious festival Eid al-Adha. Both Fahmy and Mohamed were released from prison.

On 7 January 2015, two gunmen attacked the Paris offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people, including the editor and four cartoonists. The newspaper had drawn controversy and threats over its depiction of Muhammad in various cartoons; as with the Danish newspaper case, according to Islamic tradition, images of Muhammad should not be put on public display. The gunmen claimed that they were avenging the honor of Muhammad during their attack; they were later killed by police in a hideout north of Paris. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, two incidents related to censorship drew global attention. On 9 January, a blogger jailed in Saudi Arabia for insulting Islam was publicly flogged outside a mosque as part of his sentence. The blogger, Raif Badawi, had been sentenced in May 2014 to ten years in prison and one thousand lashes, but the lashing portion of the sentence did not begin until January 2015. The first flogging consisted of fifty lashes; subsequent floggings were scheduled to be carried out weekly until the full number of lashes had been administered. In Israel, an ultra-orthodox newspaper ran a photograph on its front page showing world leaders at a Paris unity rally to support freedom of speech—but censored the picture to remove all women, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel (1954–), from view. The newspaper has a policy of not displaying images of women, in deference to the religious traditions of its orthodox readers.

Mexican photojournalist Rubén Espinosa and four women, including outspoken human rights activist Nadia Vera, were shot and killed execution-style in a Mexico City apartment on 31 July 2015. Espinosa had fled the state Veracruz because of threats against his life. Veracruz is Mexico's most dangerous state for journalists; fourteen were killed between 2010—when Javier Duarte (1973–) became governor—and 2015. Espinosa had published unflattering photographs of Duarte that accompanied news stories critical of his administration. Vera was a critic of Duarte's policies. The killings caused international outrage. On 10 August, journalists and activists marched in Mexico City to demand justice for Espinosa, Vera, and their fellow victims. Details of the murders suggested they were committed by professionals. In October 2016, after a series of corruption scandals, Duarte resigned as governor and fled before authorities could arrest him on organized crime charges.

Important Developments

In March 2016, Turkey drew international condemnation after it seized control of the country's largest newspaper, Zaman. The newspaper, which had a circulation as high as one million, was considered conservative in its positions. It had grown increasingly critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused it of being a mouthpiece for those supporting his overthrow. A court ordered that Zaman be placed under state control, in the hands of appointed administrators, but did not provide a reason for the decision.

The Philippines has one of the worst records in the world when it comes to the safety of journalists. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported in 2015 that the Philippines ranked just behind two war-torn Middle Eastern nations, Iraq and Syria, for being the most dangerous place in the world to report from. Addressing the issue of murdered journalists, the president-elect of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, drew outrage in June 2016 when he stated that some of the journalists deserved to be killed because they were disrespectful.

The definition of censorship became the subject of debate in April 2017 when the government of Ecuador fined seven media outlets for failing to cover a news story about an opposition politician. The story came to light during the second round of the presidential election, when Guillermo Lasso (1955–) participated in a run-off against Lenin Moreno (1953–). A newspaper in Argentina reported that Lasso was involved in a large number of offshore companies that may have been used to evade taxes, but many of the major media outlets in Ecuador failed to broadcast the story, even though Ecuadoran officials considered the story to be of public interest. The government characterized this as censorship in support of the opposition candidate. The media outlets criticized the fine as a form of censorship, through which the government could force broadcasters to cover certain stories of their choosing.

Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia has become especially hostile toward foreign journalists. After U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the U.S. government required that state-run Russian media arm RT—widely criticized as a pro-Putin propaganda tool—register as a "foreign agent" operating in the United States. A foreign agent acts on behalf of a foreign country while in another country. Russia responded in November 2017 by hastily passing a law allowing it to designate any foreign media outlet, regardless of whether or not it was affiliated with a foreign government, as a foreign agent. Critics viewed the law as yet another attempt to stifle freedom of the press in Russia.

Beginning in 2017, the term "fake news" became popularized by U.S. President Donald Trump. Although Trump used the term to discredit legitimate news outlets posting independently verified stories, the rise of pseudo-journalistic media outlets reporting unverified—or, in some cases, purely fictional—stories presented an alarming trend that tainted the entire industry. The term "fake news" was also adopted by authoritarian leaders around the world in an attempt to dismiss reports of their corruption or wrongdoing. In April 2018, the government of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak passed a law that would allow citizens to be imprisoned for spreading fake news. Critics and international observers expressed concerns that the law could be used to silence free speech, especially opposition voices. India's Information Ministry also issued an order that would punish accredited journalists who were found to have spread fake news, resulting in a surge of condemnation and criticism; many noted that most purveyors of false news stories were not journalists, and would therefore go unpunished. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi withdrew the order after the backlash.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CP3208520286