In 1787, the new U. S. Constitution was immediately amended, thanks to anti-federalist opposition to the creation of a too-powerful national state. The very first of these amendments guaranteed — along with freedom of speech, assembly, and religion — freedom of the press.
Press freedom was central to the informed oligarchy that the racially and economically privileged framers were actually trying to institute. And it’s even more important to the creation and maintenance of a true democracy. As Jefferson observed, only a well-informed citizenry can be trusted with its own government.
(I struggled to resist the temptation to make reference at this point to the results of the U.S. midterm elections, which can be understood by the rational mind only as a failure to heed Jefferson’s prescription. As you can see, I couldn’t resist.)
The New Censorship: Inside the Battle for Media Freedom centres its richly-detailed depiction of the state of world journalism on a belief in the need for a free press, and the report card it presents on the vitality, and the viability, of press freedom is not encouraging.
Simon gives this early summary:
Despite the communication revolution spawned by technology, collective access to the essential information we need in a globalized world to make informed decisions about our lives and our future is by no means assured. State repression of the media is on the rise, though often hidden behind a democratic façade. The Internet, which has obviously become the key piece of infrastructure in the global news system, is threatened by increasingly effective national censorship regimes in places like China and Iran and undermined by revelations of the unprecedented global surveillance effort carried by the U.S. National Security Agency.
Simon first analyzes a new kind of autocrat, what he calls the “democratator,” who “embraces democracy while working surreptitiously to subvert it.”
Dictators rule by force. Democratators rule by manipulation. Dictators impose their will. Democratators govern with the support of the majority. Dictators do not claim to be democrats, at least credibly. Democratators always do. Dictators control information. Democratators manage it.
Democratators “tolerate, even encourage, private media but manage critical expression through diverse measures such as national security prosecutions, punitive tax audits, manipulation of government advertising, and seemingly reasonable content restrictions, like prohibitions on graphic violence or hate speech.”
Simon concentrates on three ideologically-diverse democratators: Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. These regimes “do not see independent media as a bulwark against government abuse; rather, they perceive it as a competing political interest like so many others that must be managed and controlled.”
More direct methods must be used by terrorists and rebels outside government. Violent attacks against the international media mean that “journalists, wary of kidnappings and bombings, sometimes had to report from fortified bunkers and were more reluctant to meet with sensitive sources for fear they might be set up for abduction.”
It’s even worse for those local journalists who do much of the in-theatre work for foreign media, and for those journalist/activists who report the corruption and violence of their own governments. These reporters are frequently murdered, and these killings are seldom punished. In a chapter examining the murder of journalists in The Philippines and in Russia, Simon writes:
… many killings are tied to criminal organizations, military forces, and political factions that operate with government support or protection. Journalists targeted are primarily local reporters covering crime, corruption, and human rights. Government officials are directly implicated in nearly a quarter of all journalists killed worldwide since 1992. In around 90 percent of all cases, the murders are carried out with impunity, meaning no one is ever convicted of a crime.
As the author notes, “Killing journalists not only suppresses coverage; it produces fear and self-censorship, which ripple through the press corps.”
One of the most interesting chapters of The New Censorship looks at the many ways that China seeks to control online media, from surprisingly-restrained direct censorship to the creation of alternative, made-in-China-for-China web portals and government-monitored social media alternatives to Facebook and Twitter, resulting in what Simon calls “networked authoritarianism.”
The country’s leaders embrace the Internet but argue that it is one of many tools that must be managed by the state to ensure economic development and social harmony. They directly challenge the notion that it cannot be controlled.
Best known in the West is “the Great Firewall of China, a complex and evolving system of Internet filtering that allows the government to block hundreds of thousands of undesirable websites.”
The last global threat to press freedom that Simon examines is government surveillance, particularly the direct surveillance of journalists and the media organizations for whom they work.
Journalists are ideal targets for state surveillance. Their job is to communicate with politicians, critics, dissidents and even terrorists. They rely heavily on their mobile devices, which are extremely easy to monitor and intercept, and in general they are not particularly tech savvy or security conscious.
The book ends with Simon’s answers to the question, “What specific steps can be taken to ensure that information continues to circulate freely in the decades ahead?” The author identifies a number of measures, but I find his solutions unsatisfying, primarily because most of them are of the “just stop doing what you’re doing” variety. Simon doesn’t make a clear case for how these changes can be achieved. For example, “Keep the Internet Open and Free,” “Limit Government Surveillance,” and “End Censorship” are all laudable goals, but just how are we going to realize them?
Nonetheless, despite its weak finish, I found The New Censorship to be an engaging and very readable book, one that takes the reader more deeply into the threats to press freedom and freedom of information than is possible simply by reading the popular press itself.
And, even if Simon can’t provide easy solutions to the conditions he identifies, highlighting the problems accomplishes much in itself.