PROBLEM STATEMENT — Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. However, such rights have been denied to many due to many reasons. Censorship, one of the major reasons, has received tremendous global attention; self-censorship less so. Yet like censorship, self-censorship denies citizens their right to be informed; self-censorship denies journalists their right to press freedom.
Self-censorship has different forms in different societies. This case study considers self-censorship in five regions of the world: Lebanon, Mexico, China, Hong Kong and Slovakia.
It is journalists’ duty to report the truth to people. Yet some journalists, even those working for media that claim to uphold press freedom, self-censor what they write and report.
There are two forms of censorship in the media: censorship and self-censorship. Censorship occurs when a state, political, religious or private party prohibits information from reaching citizens. Self-censorship occurs when journalists themselves prevent the publication of information. (See definitions of self-censorship in Exercise 1 below.) Journalists practice self-censorship because they are fearful of what could happen if they publish certain information — they are fearful of injury to themselves or their families, fearful of a lawsuit or other economic consequence.
Discussing self-censorship in different regions, we will point out how self-censorship tends to occur in different forms and addresses different topics.
Self-censorship in Lebanon
Article 13 of the Lebanese Constitution “provides for freedom of expression and freedom of press.” As a consequence of these Constitutional rights, Lebanese social media has claimed these rights too. However, due to the lack of updated laws specifically protecting social media, together with several arrests of activists using social media, self-censorship is relatively common in Lebanon.
On November 5, 2012, for example, the NOW Lebanon website published a political opinion piece titled “New Opinion: The Baby and the Bathwater.” Despite the fact that NOW’s online newspaper is funded by March 14 (the political party of previous prime minister, Saad Hariri), NOW’s article criticized Saad Hariri, and commended Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s leadership. Yet on the same day the story was published, NOW Lebanon’s editors took the story down. Blogger Mustapha Hamoui pointed out that this was “an act of bumbling self-censorship by higher-ups in NOW Lebanon who wanted to score brownie points with Mr. Hariri,” because the newspaper is “at least partly owned by Hariri.”
Before the story came down, blogger Hamoui took a snapshot of the article that he called a “reasonable opinion piece” and posted it on his blog, “Beirut Spring.” The act of removing the article caused a stir in the media — online media covered the case through blogs, Facebook and digital news.
That media pressure prompted NOW Lebanon to repost the article along with the following face-saving disclaimer — even though the re-posted article was identical to the previous version:
“NOW Lebanon has intentionally removed this article from the site. It was not removed because of censorship, but rather because of the lack of proper arguments. We would like to repeat, again, that NOW is not owned, in whole or in part, by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, nor any other political party or figure.”
Following the posting and re-posting, Hamoui alleged that several journalists working for the online newspaper stated that they were ashamed of what had occurred: “it made them [NOW Lebanon] look very bad given how often they argue in support of freedom of speech.”
NOW Lebanon’s case is an example of a media platform that yielded to self-censorship due to political affiliations and financial reasons, even as it advocates for freedom of expression and is not legally obliged to censor itself.
Self-censorship in Mexico
Traditional media in Mexico have avoided covering organized crime and violence, because of fears over the security of their reporters. As a consequence of this self-censorship, blogs have launched to help journalists be aware of and avoid dangerous situations. For instance, “Nuevo Laredo en vivo” (Nuevo Laredo live), is a blog administered by online journalists that posts anonymous information about possible attacks on the city. Yet those online journalists have themselves been attacked. In 2012, La Nena de Laredo, one of the administrators of the blog, was found decapitated by the drug mafia with a message that purported to come from the decapitated administrator:
“Ok Nuevo Laredo live on the social networks, I am La Nena de Laredo and I am here because of my reports and yours ... For those who don't want to believe it, this [murder] has happened to me because of my actions, because I trusted SEDENA (the army) and MARINA (the navy) [to protect me]... Thank you for your attention. Att: La Nena de Laredo... zzz" (CNN Wire Staff, 2011)
The murder of the Nuevo Laredo live blogger further terrified the journalism community, leading to a state of fear that only escalated when later that year the other administrator of the blog was found dead.
Mexico is a case where journalists publish stories on the drug mafia and organized crime at their and their families’ peril. As a result, few local media covered the deaths of these two bloggers — only three trustworthy newspapers discussed the cases thoroughly.
Self-censorship in China
In China, freedom of speech and press is guaranteed by the State Constitution (Article 35). The exercise of such rights, however, is limited by government regulations, often in the name of protecting state secrets and national security. The Central Propaganda Department gives media outlets directives restricting coverage of politically sensitive topics, such as protests, Tibet and Taiwan. Nonetheless, a culture of self-censorship has proven more effective than direct orders from the authorities. The thin line between permitted news and taboo information is unclear and constantly shifting, forcing journalists to practice self-censorship to avoid crossing the line and attracting unwanted attention.
In the online world, discussions are monitored by the authorities so that the public opinion is in accordance with the Communist Party. Foreign social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are blocked by the “great firewall.” The legislation “Decision on Strengthening the Protection of Online Information” demands Internet users provide their real names to service providers, including the Chinese Twitter-like microblog Weibo (WSWS). All telecommunications companies must obtain users’ true identity information so that activity from the account can be directly traced to the account holder. These sites are required to delete “rumor” information published on them. Weibo has a “Weibo Administrator” page which shows the suspended accounts from time to time. In 2012, for example, the online public security enforcement system investigated more than 3,961 criminal offenses, removed 366,000 bits of online information and punished 7549 internet companies. To avoid account suspension, journalists, netizens and internet companies widely practice self-censorship.
Self-censorship in Hong Kong
Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region in China, enjoys an independent legal and political system free from mainland China’s censorship. The Basic Law states that all Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication (Article 27). Some Hong Kong media, however, have been accused of practicing self-censorship. One in three journalists in Hong Kong admitted exercising self-censorship, according to a survey done by the city’s Journalists' Association.
For example, the South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper owned by Robert Kuok, a pro-Beijing businessman, has been criticized for self-censoring its China coverage and there have been concerns over the rapid succession of forced departures of staff and contributors who are considered critical of China (Global Voice) . In June 2012, editor-in-Chief Wang Xiangwei, mainland-born and a committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, reportedly reversed the decision to run in-depth coverage of the death of Li Wangyang, a Chinese dissident suspected of being murdered by the mainland authority. Instead the paper published a two-paragraph news brief on the back page. A senior sub-editor sent Wang an email asking for an explanation of that editorial decision and received a stern rebuke from Wang: “I don’t have to explain to you anything. I made the decision and I stand by it. If you don’t like it, you know what to do.” (Asia Sentinel)
Self-censorship in Slovakia
In Slovakia freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution as a right to access information and express opinions freely in words, writing, print, images or otherwise; thus, censorship is prohibited. Freedom of expression and the right to seek and disseminate information may be restricted by law, however, in in order to protect the rights and freedoms of others, or in cases where national security, public order, public health and morals are at issue.
Yet as in other countries, censorship and self-censorship can occur in Slovakia — or can at least be an issue. The cartoon above is a case in point. “You became a law doctor. There’s no better qualification for looting this country,” says the pig in the robes, while handing a diploma to the young man who is already starting to transform into a pig, too.
The cartoon, drawn in 2013 for the online portal SME by Martin “Shooty” Šútovec outraged the Slovak Bar Association. The chief of the Bar Association advised Shooty to self-censor himself, accusing him of being too vehemently “against” lawyers.. “Public dishonesty on the basis of collective guilt is a denial of the fundamental principles of a democratic society, especially civil liberties," said the statement of Bar Association.
The Association also asked for an apology on the basis that the cartoon was a “tactless generalization” of a group. The managing editor of SME refused to apologize, and instead released a statement that there was no reason for an apology: "The caricature cannot disparage lawyers, they do it themselves more intensively.”