When the censors come

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.

Cracking down

News dealer on the street in New Delhi

Selling newspapers in New Delhi (source: New York Times)

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.

5 thoughts on “When the censors come

  1. Ray

    Larry, I jumped on your post as soon as it arrived in my mailbox, because we are living this problem today in Spain, as you know. Before I get to that, though, a few notes.

    I’m surprised at your definition of fake news. For me, fake news is news that is fabricated – in short, it doesn’t matter if we like it or not, it matters that it is not true. That governments have appropriated this term to mean what you enunciate in your text is not surprising, but I would not take that as a definition.

    As for censorship in the modern world: Viktor Orban just won re-election in Hungary, and his party are saying that there are “still some free media” – and schools – that need to be closed. I remind everyone that Hungary is a member of the European Union.

    France is considering a law for election periods that would make the determination of whether news is fake or not the object of judicial scrutiny. During election periods, anyone could challenge news as fake, and it would be up to a judge to determine its veracity. This is an attempt to do right after allegations of Russian interference on social networks. But can a judge be sufficiently informed to make a quick decision during short (1-month) French political campaigns? Might this not have the opposite effect of its intention?

    Now, here’s an example of how things are going down in Spain, and how fake news can be quite subtle. One of Catalonia’s cultural leaders (not a politician) is currently in preventive detention without charge, supposedly for fomenting violence during a demonstration after the October 1 referendum attempt. As I understand it, among the charges he can face is one of supposedly attacking a Guardia Civil, damaging a squad car and attempting to steal a weapon from the car.

    First off, the Guardia was inside a building of the cultural organisation this man leads, searching for “seditious literature.” If the officer left a weapon in an unlocked car, I would consider that a dereliction of duty, wouldn’t you? Second, if you know anything at all about Spain’s Guardia Civil, you know that you’d have to be suicidal and totally insane to try and steal a weapon from them.

    This is my understanding of what actually happened, pretty much confirmed by a large multitude who was present. Once the police had entered the cultural association headquarters, the crowd of demonstrators pressed around it, making it impossible for the officers to to leave the building. The tension was mounting, and the association president wanted to prevent violence at all costs. In order to more effectively address the crowd with his megaphone, he asked permission of the Guardia if he could stand on the hood of the car. He was granted that permission, and under his urging, a corridor through the crowd was opened, to allow the Guardia to peacefully exit the building. The corridor was guarded by officers and employees of the association, not by police.

    Of course, by the time the investigation took place, instead of inciting peace, the man was said, by the same (humiliated) police he was attempting to help, to be inciting the crowd to violence, and deliberately damaging the police car.

    All the Spanish media have published only the “official” version of this story. The version that seems closest to the truth has never gotten beyond the borders of Catalonia.

    This is only one story among hundreds.

    In a “great European democracy.”

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Ray, thanks for that powerful — and chilling — story about what happened in Spain.

      Thanks, too, for calling me out on my definition of fake news. As recently as a year ago, I would’ve agreed with your definition. But the term has evolved quickly — at least, here in the U.S., and apparently in India and Malaysia too. Today, if I labeled a story as fake news, I think that most Americans would assume (a) that I’m aligning myself with our current president and his sympathizers and (b) that the story’s truth or falsity is beside the point.

      I’d like to see fake news return to its original meaning. But maybe it’s a blessing in disguise if it doesn’t. For now we’re forced to use other, more direct, labels like falsehoods and lies.

    2. Mark Baker

      I don’t think it is adequate to define fake news simply in terms of truth. If a city of a million people had two muggings last year and three muggings this year, a perfectly factual news story could claim that muggings are up 50% year over year. Of course, this is just a statistical anomaly in an incredibly safe city. The fakery consists in making it news, not in misstating the facts.

      This is misdirection by selection and you would be hard put to it to find any news organization in the world, however reputable, that does not practice it. The fact is, “the news” is about stories and stories are about drama. The journalist can look at a set of mundane and unexceptional facts and find a seed of drama in them, even if the drama is only created by complete omission of context.

      The reason so many people complain that the news media has quoted them out of context is that that is what the media does habitually: turn mundane facts into drama by the manipulation of context, all of which can be done without every fudging a single fact.

      And in many ways, the current hue and cry about fake news is exactly this: creating a drama through the manipulation of context.

      This is not to say that there is not outright lying going on as well. There clearly is. But let’s not ball it up into one emotional term “fake news”. Let’s call lies, exaggerations, manipulation of context, misleading selection, and the artificial creation of drama each by their own names.

  2. Pingback: Putting out a paper, goddamn it | Leading Technical Communication

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