Censorship and governmental restrictions

All around the world, governmental restrictions impede journalists from accessing the truth and conducting their work successfully. Their ability to exercise their freedom of expression and their rights as journalists and citizens is considerably hampered. In conflicts and wars, the government is prone to be the central agent of media and development. Consequently, those obstacles and restrictions are usually further reinforced through various mechanisms. However, the use of censorship and propaganda in times of war is far from being something new. During the first world war, all involved protagonists promulgated laws prohibiting the publication of information revealing military operations or criticizing the government and the army in the press. The reasons were multiples: hiding the reality of the fighting, demonizing the enemy, forging the nation’s spirit, encouraging combatants to continue fighting, and so on(1).

More than 100 years later, those practices are still carried on for the reason.

Indeed, in times of conflict, a political authority appeals to censorship as a means for suppressing an impeding threat conducted against them (e.g. rebellion or revolts) by discrediting dissenting voices and political opponents. Hence, it serves first and foremost to curb the jeopardization of the state’s order while guaranteeing their stability in power. However, the prevention of the mediatization of alternative visions diminishes the perspective to head toward a peaceful resolution. Furthermore, the framing of information and events plays a vital role in shaping public opinion and influencing the national agenda. Therefore, by eradicating dissident speech, the government intends to indoctrinate people by retaining them in ignorance while favouring their ideology and politic. However, by keeping citizens in the dark, the vicious cycle of violence prevalent in conflict naturally perpetuate itself(2).

Different types of censorship

In conflict areas, censorship and governmental restrictions can take various forms. Firstly, governmental obstacles can manifest themselves through physical and violent acts targeted towards journalists or media organisations. Unfortunately, harassments, intimidations, pressure, arbitrary arrests, or closure of working spaces are part of the everyday life of thousands of journalists around the globe. By imposing a climate of fear, those acts of violence aim to deter media outlets from reporting on sensitive issues and enlightening the population on the reality of the armed conflict(3).

Case Study-Syria

Since the outbreak of the 2011 uprising, the regime of Bashar el Assad reinforced its control over media while systematically targeting independent journalists. Since, the beginning of the war, the “Syrian Network for Human rights” estimates approximately 700 journalists have been killed whereas 1,169 have been arrested and kidnapped.
Read more: The study on the new Syrian Press by Soazig Dollet for CFI

Secondly, censorship can translate itself through direct control of the information by governmental authorities for various manners.

  • In a conflict setting, the leaders might hold the monopoly of the information and possess the power of shaping the conflict’s narratives. For instance, they might deliberately conceal crucial information by refusing interviews and cooperation with media organizations.
  • State’s authorities can also strictly regulate the content to assure compliance with their guidelines. For instance, strict editorial policies are imposed on media organizations and restrictions on the content publicly disclosed.
  • Political elites can also refuse the establishment of new private media while rejecting accreditation to journalists willing to access the conflict zones.
  • Lastly, in times of conflict, the governmental organs can hold substantial control over the media. Strict regulating legislations are also applicable for online information, namely social media and blogs. In some countries, governments frequently shut down the internet and arrest bloggers while banning social media platforms. Unfortunately, the democratization of online platforms greatly facilitated the proliferation of disinformation discourses and propaganda discourses. The government can publish misinformation deliberately for their personal use and interests. Hence, those discourses intend at supporting their conflict’s strategy, military actions, and silence oppression.

Unfortunately, it makes it more arduous for international organizations to grasp the living conditions and the population’s true needs in times of conflict(4).

Case study-Ethiopia

Since 2018, Ethiopia has been subjected to numerous violent episodes, including a conflict in the Tigray region. The war coverage has been marked by widespread arrests, intimation and interference directed towards independent media. The primary cause of the repression lies in the will of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia to sanction the conflict’s critical coverage and the reports going against the authority’s narrative
Read more: As Ethiopia Fights in Tigray Region, a Crackdown on Journalists

Thirdly, journalists operating in conflict areas can appeal to self-censorship in order to avoid a dispute with official authorities. Bar-Tal defined self-censorship as an “act of intentionally and voluntarily withholding information from others in the absence of formal obstacles”(5). In other words, media outlets might own valuable and reliable information while intentionally deciding not to make it public to avoid potentially harmful situations for themselves and their loved ones. Generally speaking, the climate of fear prevalent in a conflict is the reason hiding behind this phenomenon. As explained above, by disguising the conflict’s reality and potentially the opponent’s views, this mechanism perpetuates the conflict and its supportive narrative. Consequently, it hampered the rise of a new perspective by society members on the conflict while indirectly obstructing political reform(6).

Case study-Hong Kong

China’s new national security law in Hong Kong induced an omnipresent self-censorship climate among the press. Indeed, in order to prevent coercive pressure from China, journalists came to avoid criticisms of the authorities and the mention of pro-democracy forces within their reports.
Read more: Editing history: Hong Kong publishers self-censor under new security law

Solutions

Solutions for bypassing media censorship are flourishing all around the globe thanks to engaged citizens concerned about the future of democracy and liberty. 

Internet

Internet is a precious and powerful tool for independent media outlets to bypass censorship. All around the world, Blogs, social media, websites, Youtube, and other platforms allow citizens to find and share information in no time. While, in numerous conflict regions, the internet is controlled by strict regulations, citizen journalisms are calling more than ever on their ingenuity and creativity to overcome internet censorship(7).

For instance, Reporters Without Borders created the “uncensored library” on the Minecraft game accessible around the globe. The library contains censored press articles and journals banned by several oppressive countries.

Exiled media

Faced with the frightful option of imprisonment or death, many independent journalists are forced to flee their country. However, once abroad, exiled media have the opportunity of articulating alternative discourses and filling the critical gap of knowledge regarding the situation of their respective country. Moreover, their expertise enables their fellow citizens, the diaspora and media organizations to access impartial and reliable information on the conflict.