The New Censorship review: journalists on the chopping block
In today’s web-encircled world, the media increasingly gets the message: publish and you will be damned
Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is seen in this picture sent to news media by his kidnappers, before they murdered him. Photograph: CNN/Getty Images
The New Censorship: Inside The Global Battle For Media Freedom
Columbia Journalism Review Books
In January 2014 I found myself in the back of a London taxi with David Satter, the veteran American journalist. We had just learned that Satter, an old Russia hand who had been appointed an adviser to Radio Free Europe the previous May, had been expelled from the Russian Federation and wouldn’t be allowed back to Moscow, not even to clear out his apartment.
The Kremlin had not explicitly said it was expelling Satter for his journalism or his frequent criticism of the Putin regime. Of course not. There were visa irregularities, they said. The American did not have the correct papers. Hence he was now banned from Russia for five years.
Satter didn’t believe a word of this. On Christmas Day in Kiev a Russian official had told him that his presence was not desired in Russia, a phrase he said was “normally reserved for spies”.
“The point is,” Satter told me, “I urge you not to get caught up in their bureaucratic intrigues . . . The real reason was given to me in Kiev.”
The episode felt old fashioned. Apart from the fact that I was recording our conversation on a tablet rather than a reel-to-reel tape recorder it could have happened 40 years ago. True cold-war stuff, from when movements for free speech and the free press were very much part of the broader anti-Soviet struggle. We had thought those days were over.
Nineteen eighty-nine brought two simultaneous developments that could have led reasonable people to believe the fight for free expression was nearly at an end: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the proposal of the Cern scientist Tim Berners Lee for the world wide web. It was also the year that Ayatollah Khomeini took out a contract on the novelist Salman Rushdie.
There was, it appeared through the 1990s, no longer a superpower founded on the strict control of information. Even if there were, how could it possibly control the global force of the web, which would speed up and spread beyond the control of the commissars? The heat even seemed to have gone out of the Rushdie situation. There were wars and atrocities, but they were localised and not especially ideological. The great battles over information seemed to have ceased, and the free-speech side had won. Censorship was moribund.
In January 2002 the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl travelled to Pakistan, where he hoped to interview an influential cleric, Sheikh Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, who he believed was linked to the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. Pearl was kidnapped, apparently opportunistically. When Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qaeda operations chief, learned of his whereabouts he took custody of the US reporter, then beheaded him.
The video of the gruesome event quickly spread online. Osama bin Laden was reportedly furious. Bin Laden was in some ways a traditionalist who believed one should use the media to get one’s message across.
Simon covered Central and South America as a correspondent for US publications and as such is well placed to survey the threats to free speech that have emerged in the past decades.
Simon examines how the new realities have created new battlegrounds for free speech. The beheading of Pearl, Simon suggests, was an indication of a new hostility towards the press. In the past, biased though they may be, reporters were at least regarded as civilians. At best they were useful conduits in a propaganda war. Now they are part of the fight.
Simon describes how, after the invasion of Iraq, Baathists and Islamist militants regularly targeted journalists, making Iraq the deadliest place in the world for media workers. The effect was disastrous. International reporters could no longer stray from safe zones, and as such the picture emerging from the country was disjointed.
Local workers increasingly put themselves in danger: working for a foreign news outlet marked you as a traitor to the insurgents. Simultaneously, attempts to establish a functioning domestic press were persistently attacked.
The targeting of media workers has been replicated across the world, particularly in Mexico, where, in an echo of the actions of al-Qaeda, reporters have been beheaded. These actions are not carried out clandestinely: they are publicised online, with warnings, pour encourager les autres.
Gangsters use the web to spread fear; extremists such as Islamic State now use the web to spread their message, bypassing journalists entirely; and, increasingly, states use the web to censor us and to watch us.
Web censorship is an endless cat- and-mouse game. Some extreme authoritarian states simply restrict access. Some states, such as China, which has accepted the economic value of the internet, spend a fortune on real-time censorship of the web; all states maintain the right to monitor our online activity.
The United States’ enthusiasm for this last activity, as revealed by Edward Snowden, may have seriously undermined the status quo of the internet on which we all connect, which, until now, has largely operated under US norms.
Although the US record on free speech is far from perfect, we can at least attempt to hold it to first-amendment standards. An internet under greater domestic control, as advocated by many nations, would be less free. But ultimately it is up to citizens, not states, to fight for free speech.
Censorship, at its heart, remains the same: an authoritarian impulse to control what people think and say, and ultimately infantilise them. But the world wide web demonstrates that it is not just a matter for the novelists and the poets, the journalists and the dissidents. In the communication age, no one can stay out of this fight forever.
Padraig Reidy is the editor of the website Littleatoms.com