The Never-ending Threat of Repression  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   October 2000

The Never-ending Threat of Repression   

New Code Words for Censorship: Modern Labels for Curbs on the Press

Edited by Marilyn J. Greene
World Press Freedom Committee
138 pages; free
(in reasonable quantities)

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Free speech is an elemental human need, and people are amazingly resourceful at finding ways to be heard. Sadly, though, the underside is also true. Would-be censors never give up either.

The fall of communism and the swirl of democratic activity over the past decade have reignited free expression and press around the world. As totalitarian regimes crumbled, so have many heavy-handed press restrictions. It may be accurate to say that around the globe the press has never been freer.

But threats remain. This new book, compiled by the World Press Freedom Committee, offers a wise and timely warning against complacency and compliance.

Brute censorship may be waning, but control-minded bureaucrats and governments fight on in ever more sophisticated ways.

Many of today's favored methods come in insidious camouflage. They are euphemistically presented not as restrictions but as "protections" cloaked in virtuous-sounding slogans of safeguard rather than the raw fetters of repression.

In this collection, 18 international journalists and activists isolate "some of the linguistic disguises being employed to hide efforts at control of information."

Generally, these devices fall into three categories:

* first, putative efforts to protect individuals from press excess, for example, through privacy and right-of-reply laws

* second, actions that are supposedly grounded in concern for the overall good of society, such as expanded government-controlled media or use of the press to promote economic stability

* finally, high-sounding concern for the protection of journalists themselves, for instance by restricting their access to war zones and other dangerous sites.

"There is, of course, nothing wrong with those goals in themselves," writes Mia Doornaert of Belgium, a former president of the International Federation of Journalists. "The problem is that, in reality, they are almost always coded expressions of political positions."

"Modern authoritarians are getting smarter. They know that overt censorship can stir up popular opposition," the Thai editor Kavi Chongkittavorn adds. "So they get journalists to censor themselves, by reminding them of their 'responsibilities.' "

Over and over, these essayists show that the ultimate result of even high-minded directions to the press is an increase in government dominance of information, followed by slant and suppression.

Take the example of codes of ethics. In the name of press responsibility, a regime imposes a code of ethics enforced by a national press council. In theory, the codes promote responsibility and accountability for the emerging free press. But in truth, writes French journalist Claude Moisy, the codes tend to offer only "vague platitudes" and turn over enforcement powers to government-funded bureaucrats. "Whether it is self-regulation or imposed regulation, it is still regulation, and therefore restriction," Moisy concludes.

Likewise privacy codes, which seem on their face to respect the needs of individuals, generally transfer to powerful individuals and the government the power to control the content of reporting.

Even the most well-meaning curbs can be abused. A mandated right-of-reply, for example, "seems only fair," agrees Oliver Clarke, former president of the Inter-American Press Association. But, he soon shows, these laws quickly bring the forced publication of information in ways that frustrate free press. Who has a right to reply? How quickly? Can replies be edited? Must they be displayed in certain places? Are there length limits? "It is difficult to believe," Clarke writes succinctly, that government and courts should be deciding such matters.

Indian editor Cushrow Irani cites the case of a Singapore official who would, given "any comment that displeased him in the smallest way," invoke his right of reply by insisting that the press carry his several-thousand-word statement in full.

New media, of course, provide a new frontier for the struggles between expression and repression. According to Gordon Crovitz of Dow Jones, China has banned discussion of "state secret information" on the Internet; numerous countries block Web sites based on political content; and many governments claim the right to "monitor or eavesdrop on Internet usage." A data protection act promulgated by the European Union even could be read as requiring reporters to obtain the consent of subjects before collecting online information about them.

The list goes on, but the point proves persuasive. Speech suppression can be both direct and roundabout, and the effort never ends. The press and public can never take liberty for granted.

Even in the United States (although this book deals very little with press curbs here), it is easy to see the foothold these methods have established, in speech codes and privacy concerns, controls of new media and calls for responsibility.

How do we best promote free speech given the enormous cultural variables? As these authors make clear, it is a complicated matter.

While free expression is a universal goal, no one model necessarily works everywhere. "The attempts to apply North American and West European models to the newly born democracies in Russia and in many other ex-communist states have failed," writes UNESCO official Henrikas Yushkiavitshus. "Life is much more complex than theory."

Still, books such as this one, by calling attention to the never-ending ingenuity of the repressive mentality, offer at least a shared understanding of the problem and the need for constant high alert. The contest between openness and oppression seems universal and cross-cultural, and it is never over, anywhere.

###