By Dom Serafini
The late U.S. president Ronald Reagan used to tell and retell a joke about an American bragging to a Russian about the fact that he could pay a visit to him at the White House, and banging his fists on his table, tell him, “Mr. President I don’t like the way you’re running our country.” The Russian answered that he too can go to the Kremlin and tell Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mr. President, I don’t like the way Reagan is running his country.”
The point of the joke is that in Russia — then and now — there is no liberty, no democracy, and no freedom of speech.
Indeed, Americans and Europeans alike like to think that they live in states where freedom of the press and freedom of expression are observed. On the other hand, Russians, Chinese people, and Iranians, just to name a few, live under dictatorships, otherwise called authoritarian states, with no freedom of the press, of liberty, or of expression.
While people in democratic states think they enjoy free press, those in authoritarian states know that their media is controlled, and thus, those who can, tend to follow the media imported (mostly illegally) from democratic states, believing that it is fair and balanced. At least this is what happened years ago. Today, however, people in authoritarian states are starting to believe that even the so-called free press is biased, full of fake news, and most importantly, censored and full of propaganda (read advertising) that determines elections and public policies.
Trying to look impartially at various forms of censorship we can identify five forms of widely used censorship: State Censorship, Corporate Censorship, Social Censorship, Privacy Laws, and Libel Laws.
State Censorship is what is practiced in countries like Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and the like. In these states, censorship takes different forms, like direct and indirect media ownership, and various strategies such as restricting news and conditioning news. It even extends to film, theater, and text messaging. In China, for example, a department of the Chinese Communist Party (one of the country’s multiple censorship organs) employs two million people to monitor and censor content.
In democracies, censorship takes different forms, but at all levels it begins with self-censorship and denying access, keeping in mind that, by definition, an editor cannot be impartial.
Then there is the so-called “Corporate Censorship,” where corporate owners of media control the news by selecting those who report it, by establishing an editorial line (e.g., progressive or conservative), and by limiting access to only those who reflect their “values.” Corporate Censorship tends to take “guidance” from governments, especially with regard to foreign policies. The most recent examples come from the Iraqi War, the Syrian War, and the bias towards authoritarian states. Corporate Censorship is a topic widely discussed in academia and explained in books such as Puerto Rican scholar Giannina Brasch’s United States of Banana. In addition, in the U.S., the First Amendment protects against censorship from the government, but does not protect against Corporate Censorship or from non-public outrages, like hate speech.
Social Censorship is now emerging in established democracies, which is enforced by the sarcastically called “Political Correct Police Force,” and complemented by advocates of “Cancel Culture.” Left-leaning influential groups have the power to fire people, embarrass noncompliant individuals, and discredit those who deviate from the sanctioned school of thought.
Additionally, in countries like Italy, for example, censorship is widely applied by threating libel suits, which could threaten the survival of small publications. Italy is also unique because most professional journalists are licensed by the state. Plus, like in authoritarian states, defamation is a criminal offense in Italy. (In the U.S., it’s a civil issue.)
In China, defamation is used to prosecute people for having “slandered the people of China,” by expressing views not in accordance with the government mandates.
Finally, democracies — especially those in Western Europe — have strict privacy laws, which tend to protect the rich and powerful, who have lots to hide from the public.
Illustration by Bill Kerr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.