CRF Blog

21st-century censorship

by Bill Hayes

In 21st-century censorship for the Columbia Journalism Review, Philip Bennett and Moises Naim report on how governments around the world are imposing new forms of censorship.

Traditional censorship was basically an exercise of cut and paste. Government agents inspected the content of newspapers, magazines, books, movies, or news broadcasts, often prior to release, and suppressed or altered them so that only information judged acceptable would reach the public. For dictatorships, censorship meant that an uncooperative media outlet could be shut down or that unruly editors and journalists exiled, jailed, or murdered.

Starting in the early 1990s, when journalism went online, censorship followed. Filtering, blocking and hacking replaced scissors and black ink. Some governments barred access to Web pages they didn’t like, redirected users to sites that looked independent but which in fact they controlled, and influenced the conversation in chat rooms and discussion groups via the participation of trained functionaries. They directed anonymous hackers to vandalize the sites and blogs, and disrupt the internet presence of critics, defacing, or freezing their Facebook pages or Twitter accounts.

Tech-savvy activists quickly found ways to protect themselves and evade digital censorship. For a while it looked like agile, hyperconnected, and decentralized networks of activists, journalists, and critics had the upper hand in a battle against centralized, hierarchal, and unwieldy government bureaucracies. But governments caught up. Many went from spectators in the digital revolution to sophisticated early adopters of advanced technologies that allowed them to monitor content, activists, and journalists, and direct the flow of information.

No place shows the contradictions of this contest on as grand a scale as China. The country with the most internet users and the fastest-growing connected population is also the world’s most ambitious censor. Of the three billion internet users in the world, 22 percent live in China (nearly 10 percent live in the US). The government maintains the “Great Firewall” to block unacceptable content, including foreign news sites. An estimated two million censors police the internet and the activities of users. Yet the BBC reports that a 2014 poll found that 76 percent of Chinese questioned said they felt free from government surveillance. This was the highest rate of the 17 countries polled.

The internet has allowed Chinese authorities to deploy censorship strategies that are subtle and harder for the public to see. In Hong Kong, where China is obligated by treaty to respect a free press, Beijing has used an array of measures to limit independent journalism, including selective violence against editors and the arrest of reporters. But it has also arranged the firing of critical reporters and columnists and the withdrawal of advertising by state and private sources, including multinationals, and launched cyberattacks on websites. The Hong Kong Journalists Association described 2014 as “the darkest for press freedom in several decades.” [more]