Remember when a British Library patron was barred from reading Hamlet because an “overly sensitive” Wi-Fi filter decided the play was too violent?
The press reported the story incredulously, focusing more on the folly of using faulty software than on any actual effort to block people from seeing content that somebody deemed inappropriate.
Even when I wrote about the episode — citing our ethical obligation, as journalists and technical writers, to serve our readers with content that’s truthful and complete — I regarded true censorship as something far away and remote. It happened in places like China, where authorities tried to silence the late dissident Liu Xiaobo. But not here in the democratic West.
That was four years ago. Since then, the faraway threat of censorship has come to our doorsteps.
Last week the New York Times reported that India — the world’s largest democracy — threatened to take away accreditation from any journalist found to have broadcast or printed “fake news.” While accreditation isn’t required to practice journalism in India, losing it — from a practical standpoint — makes the reporter’s job a lot harder. According to the Times, “accredited journalists in India face fewer security clearances when visiting government offices and are eligible for subsidized train travel, among other benefits.”
Ironically, the penalties wouldn’t apply to writers at partisan websites and other non-mainstream outlets. That’s because those writers aren’t covered by India’s major regulatory bodies. The threat was aimed directly at India’s traditional news media — an institution the Times characterized as “freewheeling.”
When the members of that freewheeling media raised a ruckus, the government quickly backed down.
Yet I’m willing to bet this isn’t the last we’ll hear of India’s government attempting to suppress news reporting it doesn’t like. The fact that it even tried was enough to set off alarm bells throughout India’s journalistic community. The Times reports that some view the original announcement as a trial balloon, designed to see how the community would react to having restrictions placed on it.
Meanwhile, in Malaysia, another of the world’s large democracies, a bill is moving through Parliament that simply outlaws “fake news” — defined as “any news, information, data and reports which are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.” (The source for this story, again, is the New York Times.)
Notice that the Malaysian bill uses the same phrase — fake news — and that its definition gives the government sole power to determine what’s “wholly or partly false” when deciding who it wants to prosecute.
Parenthetically, I’m astounded by the speed at which the phrase fake news has entered the public consciousness and spread around the world.
Closer to home
There’s one other large democracy where the phrase fake news has gained a lot of currency. In the United States, as in India and Malaysia, fake news is probably best defined as news the government doesn’t like.
There hasn’t been an effort by the U.S. government to ban “fake news” or prosecute people who promulgate it. Yet.
With the president and other officials sniping at mainstream news outlets practically every day, would anyone be surprised by an executive order or a bill in Congress that mirrors the ones in India and Malaysia?
When censorship arrives
In that four-year old article I posed a question: What happens when we’re personally affected by censorship? What happens “when the organizations we work for — governments or private companies — require us to distort or even conceal the truth?”
Then I proposed a couple of ideas. Today, it’s worth revisiting those ideas and adding some more.
First, let’s be clear-eyed about the threat. If you’re tempted to think of censorship as a faraway thing, open your eyes. Don’t fall into the “it could never happen here” trap.
Next, let’s recognize our ethical obligation to serve our audiences and tell the truth. It’s an obligation we can’t compromise or dismiss lightly, because it forms the foundation of the work we do.
Let’s consider what we might have to do to fulfill those obligations. They say the pen is mightier than the sword. Yet we might have to take up both pens and (figurative) swords to defend against lies and deceit.
Finally, let’s stick together. How can we, as professionals who serve our audiences and who stand for the truth, find common cause and offer support when a fellow professional needs help?
Have you experienced censorship in your work? What do you think of my ideas for handling the threat?
Update – 13 April 2018: I’ve just become aware that Poynter maintains an online catalog of governmental attempts to restrict “online misinformation” in India, Malaysia, the U.S., and 11 other countries. They’ve promised to keep the list updated as developments unfold.