In the age of the internet, censorship has acquired a new face
Abandon the naive thought that, with the internet and free flow of information, governments are retreating from repression of the media. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) new report shows that governments, including “democratic” ones, have found other ways to try to control information.
The CPJ’s World Press Freedom Report 2017, released ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3 and titled The New Face of Censorship, also shows that violence against journalists has spiked.
Censorship is now complex and no longer the crude practices of the past when newspapers were banned and editors thrown in jail in the manner of October 19 1977, South Africa’s Black Wednesday.
The latest CPJ report spells out how “new information technologies, for example, the global, interconnected internet; social media platforms; and smartphones with cameras were supposed to make censorship obsolete”. Instead, they have made it more complicated. Everyone is grappling with the same problems albeit in different contexts.
The report breaks the myth that the internet is free and can’t be controlled. Governments are using suppressing “hate speech” to suppress other information that shows them up.
The new technologies that also allow criminal and militant groups to bypass the media and speak directly to the public have made the world exceptionally dangerous for journalists reporting from conflict zones, according to the editor of the report, Joel Simon, who is the executive director of the CPJ.
In Simon’s book, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, the strategies to control and manage information fall into three broad categories: repression 2.0, masked political control and technology capture.
In South Africa we are seeing technology capture at the SABC, with the battle for control over broadcasting. This is not a new story — the National Party controlled it prior to democracy. But now we are seeing ownership being used to do this, with TV channel ANN7 dedicated to promoting President Jacob Zuma and his political faction.
We are also experiencing increased electronic surveillance of cellphones and emails by the state security agency, journalists report.
Beyond the new, old ways of censorship still persist. For example, The New Face of Censorship report says:
• Violence against journalists has increased, with 48 journalists killed in 2016 and eight killed so far this year. The worst country listed is Mexico, followed by Syria and Iraq. The deadliest countries for journalists in 2016 were Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The most dangerous beats were war, politics and crime.
• In Turkey, 19 journalists were jailed in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown.
• In Thailand, a TV channel was suspended.
• In Venezuela, the government recently suspended the broadcasting of CNN.
• In Brazil, the judiciary appears to be in cahoots with government: a judge ordered the removal from websites of a story about the Brazilian president’s wife.
• In China, journalists can and have been charged with, and jailed for, “inciting separatism” if they are caught talking to foreign media. All journalists’ work goes through the government ministry in charge of media. So censorship is part of life in China.
• And in the United States, nine media outlets were denied access to an informal White House press secretary briefing. Reporters in the US are harassed by online trolls, set by the precedent of the president, who regularly vilifies journalists.
• In South Africa, the high court in Pretoria ruled in December that criminal defamation is constitutional, which is a problem for freedom of expression. It was also noted that journalists are regularly attacked while covering protests.
This is the depressing scenario in which journalists operate around the world, minus one or two northern European countries such as Finland, which topped the World Press Freedom Index in 2016 for the seventh year in a row.
What is the best way to fight this, with a decreasing pool of professional journalists who are faced with fake news?
Stick with fact-based journalism. Leave opinion to the opinionistas, and mark it clearly on the comment and analysis pages. Check facts, check contributors and have tight systems in place to avoid damage to brands by hackery and fakery. When in doubt, refer to the Press Code on conflict of interest, right to reply and hate speech — although what the latter is appears to be up for grabs.
Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand