Censorship is the suppression of free speech, public communication or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.
Today’s news from The Guardian caused me to start thinking, once again, about Freedom of Press, how important and fragile it is around the globe. The latest story is not about the repression of a journalist or group of journalists, but rather a respected, independent pollster in Russia.
“Levada Analytical Center (Levada Center) is a Russian non-governmental research organization. The Center regularly conducts sociological research. Levada-Center is one of the largest Russian centers in the field. Polling results and expertise of the Center’s staff appears is broadly covered by national and international media such as Kommersant, Vedomosti, Gazeta.ru, the Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Reuters, BBC Radio, Radio Liberty, and others.” – Levada-Center
On 5 September the Russian Justice Ministry named Levada-Center a “foreign agent” after accusing the NGO of being engaged in “political activity” and receiving funding from abroad. Why? Because just two weeks before Russia’s parliamentary elections, Levada published findings of an 8% drop in the approval ratings of the ruling party, United Russia. The repercussions for Levada-Center? In the short term, the Levada Centre will have to identify itself as a “foreign agent” when it carries out surveys. In the long term the fear is that government audits, an absence of funding and increased stigma will grind their work to a halt.
After Putin came into power in 2000, he established control over the three main television stations. In 2001 and 2002, he took control of the two biggest television channels. Since then, more and more media outlets have come under his control, as he appoints editors and directors, and meets with them weekly to tell them what events he wants them to cover.
In Turkey, news to the outside has trickled, in part due to the closure by the Turkish government of at least 131 media outlets and the arrests, at last count, of at least 40 journalists, though I believe that number is even higher now. Erdoğan has used the excuse of the failed coup in July to crack down on every aspect of freedoms of press and speech.
Why does this matter? Why should we here in the U.S. and other parts of the world care? We must care, friends, because despite all the safeguards built into our laws and Constitutions, it could still happen to us. A recent (April 2016) report by Freedom House says press freedom suffered throughout the world in 2015, declining to its weakest level in 12 years. “Media freedom declined not just in repressive societies, but also in Europe. Political leaders in Poland, Serbia and other countries sought greater control over national media,” according to Jennifer Dunham, the director of research for the group’s Freedom of the Press report.
I turn now to the current political climate here in the U.S., as it is what I am most familiar with, and to the one candidate who has consistently badgered the free press for the past fifteen months. Donald Trump has banned many of the mainstream media outlets from his campaign events, including highly reputable ones, such as The Washington Post, Politico, Univision, The Des Moines Register, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and others. He has threatened to ban the New York Times. He has attempted to dictate the camera angles TV reporters use, told his interviewers that basic information like his tax returns is none of their business, confined the press in a metal cage at public events, attacked individual reporters by name, and promised to make it easier to sue reporters.
“With me, they’re not protected, because I’m not like other people…We’re gonna…have people sue you like you never get sued before.” – Donald Trump, February 2016
“The press should be ashamed of themselves … get your head out of your butt.” – Donald Trump, May 2016
“If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%.” – Donald Trump, August 2016
“It is not ‘freedom of the press’ when newspapers and others are allowed to say and write whatever they want even if it is completely false!” – Donald Trump, August 2016
Today I sit down at my computer every morning and I am able to access news stories from around the world with a single mouse click. As soon as my computer is turned on, I get live feed from The Guardian, breaking news from the New York Times, der Spiegel, Al Monitor, FiveThirtyEight, and many more. I will, whether I want to or not, hear everything that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have said and done for the past 24 hours. And, when I sit down to write, whether it is a rant about Donald Trump, complete with funny cartoons mocking his hair, his small hands and his ugly facial expressions, or an analysis of Hillary Clinton’s campaign platform, I know that I can write it and publish it without fear of reprisals.
I wonder what it will be like next year if Trump manages to win his bid in November. Will I be begging my European friends to sneak me some real news in encrypted email messages? Will my internet searches be limited and controlled by the state? Will all the journalists who dared to try to do their jobs be in prison? You scoff. I hear it … you say, “Filosofa’s imagination has run amok again.” Perhaps so, but are you sure? Can you promise that what I fear is not but a taste of things to come? Did the people of Poland or Turkey think it couldn’t happen to them? Did the people of 1930s Germany think it wouldn’t happen to them? Think about it.