Censorship and self-censorship in the 21st century

By Flemming Rose | 9 March 2017
Index on Censorship

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

Danish journalist Flemming Rose delivered a lecture on 9 March 2017 as part of Censorship Awareness Week at Wellesley College.

I want to begin with a story that took place not long before the fall of the Soviet Union. It illustrates what happens when an oppressive regime, and its institutions, loses its monopoly and control of information.

A deputy chairman and general of the KGB had invited a private citizen and acquaintance to his office on Lubyanka Square in central Moscow. The private citizen was working in the newly created private sector as an communications officer.

In the totalitarian state of the Soviet Union a deputy chairman of KGB, the secret police, was one of the best informed people in the country.

The KGB controlled what information should be made available to the public, they were in charge of surveillance of the population and reported back to the party leadership about conversations in lines for vodka, about dissidents, about foreigners, about anything. The KGB had special access to information that no one else was allowed to read, listen to or watch.

The KGB controlled the so called special archives, Spetskhrany, where forbidden books were hidden out of the public’s sight and Soviet citizens needed special permission to access them.

KGB-generals and high ranking party officials read The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and other banned works of literature. They studied Russian emigre writers and the emigrant press that ordinary citizens were not allowed to read or put on their book shelves. If they did, they risked ending up in a labor camp in Siberia.

All that started to change with Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy during the second half of the 1980s. The regime’s loosening grip on society, the opening up of the country to alternative ideas and people from other parts of the world, the challenging of Soviet taboos and official ideology played a crucial role in the demise of the USSR.

In this process the KGB and other repressive institutions lost their status as the ultimate gatekeepers of information and in the end they, therefore, lost power.

As I mentioned, the conversation between the KGB general and a private citizen who was an outsider to the regime but no dissident took place at the time of the unravelling of Soviet power. The private citizen, let’s call him Yura, was of course curious to find out why the KGB general wanted to talk to him. It turned out that the KGB general had just one question to this guest: “Yura, he said, could you please tell me what is going on in the country? I just don’t have a clue.”

For anyone with experience of the Soviet Union that was an astonishing question. A KGB general asking a private citizen about what was going on in the country was highly unusual. It revealed the changed relationship between power and information. It indicated that Soviet censorship had come to an end.

This is being said as a preface to a few observations about dictatorships, power and censorship.

Every dictatorship is based on the control and manipulation of information. That’s why censorship is crucial to any oppressive regime. It cannot survive without it. Censorship is by definition closely connected with power and the exercising of it.

To be more specific: Censorship is an instrument to assist in the attainment, preservation or continuance of somebody’s power, whether exercised by an individual, an institution or a state. It is – as Michael Scammell, one of the founders of Index on Censorship has put it – “the extension of physical power into the realm of the mind and the spirit”. (1)

With the redistribution of power from state to non-state actors – from Google and Facebook to ISIS and thousands of NGOs and social movements around the world and with new ways and discourses to silence unwelcome expression not always associated with state power it makes sense to introduce a broader definition of censorship – a definition that doesn’t focus exclusively on the state and the use of hard power to silence speech.

I think this is of importance in the context of Censorship Awareness Week and our attempt to understand and deconstruct the more subtle mechanisms of what Tom Cushman called “prevention of the mind”. This goes for states, institutions and individuals.

We live in a world of cognitive biases that from time to time operates as censors. They close our mind and prevent us from seeing complexities and different sides of a problem. Be it confirmation bias, blind spot bias, courtesy bias, hindsight bias, outcome bias, social biases, ingroup bias, stereotyping and so on and so forth or the bias of a public opinion – remember John Stuart Mill’s warning against the Tyranny of public opinion?

A definition of censorship may go like this:

Censorship describes a variety of processes… formal and informal, overt and covert, conscious and unconscious, by which restrictions are imposed on the collection, display, dissemination, and exchange of information, opinions, ideas and imaginative expression. (2)

In the following I will focus on the history of censorship in Europe in order to understand one of its fundamental premises. Then I’ll take a look at the internet and the way governments try to control it with increasing success. I will pay special attention to China, because it is the most powerful country trying to undermine the internet’s libertarian and transnational core. Finally, I will return to Europe and the US and ask what can be done to counter censorship and self-censorship in our part of the world.

Censorship is a loaded word. It triggers negative associations in most people in spite of the fact that everybody, people and governments, support it and practise from time to time and in one form or another.

It’s a bit like the debate about freedom of speech and its limits. People say I am in favor of free speech, but… until nothing is left of free speech.

When it comes to censorship they say: I am against censorship, but… –  and then it goes: We need to shut down offensive speech, we need to protect the country, we need to fight terrorism, we need to protect the truth or the public order or religious and national symbols or certain feelings or public morals and social cohesion.

The list goes on and on depending on time and place.

Censorship in Europe was first and foremost connected to the church. The church exercised strict control over the dissemination and interpretation of the holy scriptures. The church and the state were for centuries so close that what was seen as injurious to the church was automatically regarded as injurious to the state.

The church’s authority to act as censor started to erode as a result of the Reformation when the heresy of choice was introduced. It became impossible to maintain that there were no possible alternatives to the Roman way.

The impact of the Reformation in the aftermath of the invention of the printing press proved to be decisive in determining a changing attitude to censorship. It lead to a conceptual separation of words and deeds, of expression and action as Michael Scammell says in his seminal essay on censorship and its history. I quote:

Up to the 17th century, action and expression, had been held to be virtually one where religious heresy and political crimes were concerned. To advocate on orthodox or dissenting religious views was tantamount to a physical attack on church members or property, while to advocate political change or express hostility to the prevailing order was ‘sedition’ and equivalent to treason.

The consequence of this breakthrough was that a ruling power or government might be expected to take measures against actions hostile to its existence, but it should tolerate the expression of hostile opinions. (3)

In other words the distinction between words and deeds is fundamental to upholding freedom of speech. It paved the way for a doctrine of religious tolerance and religious freedom and later for freedom of expression. The distinction serves as a line separating democracy from dictatorship, a free society from an unfree society.  The former does not treat words as if they were actions, the latter does. That’s why dissidents end up in jail for word crimes in a dictatorship while they sit in parliament or become presidents in democracies. Think of Vaclav Havel or Andrei Sakharov.

I believe that it is of the utmost importance to keep this fundamental distinction in mind in today’s world, where so many people are eager to equalise words with deeds insisting that words can be as harmful as actual physical violence and therefore we have to criminalise them. We don’t want to return to the Middle Ages.

Today censorship is regarded as abnormal and as an emergency measure and therefore it tends to hide when it becomes the norm and institutionalised. If censorship is being exercised openly governments may give it another name in order to provide it with a cover of decency or to present it as a necessary measure to counter a domestic or foreign threat.

The dream of any free speech activist would be to see the end of censorship. With the introduction of the internet it was a widespread assumption that it would be impossible to exercise censorship as before. US President Bill Clinton in 2000 laughed at the possibility that the internet could be controlled.

In 1996, internet pioneer John Parry Barlow, wrote a Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. It said:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. (4)

Governments, Barlow claimed, did not “possess any methods of enforcement that people living in cyberspace had to have to fear.”

As late as 2011 one of the leaders of the uprising against the Mubarak government in Egypt said: “It you want to liberate a people, give it the internet.”

Today things look different and you may as well say: “If you want to empower the government and provide it with tools to put you under surveillance and limit your freedom, give it the internet and digital technology.”

The internet is seen by governments as both a threat and a means of control.

Today John Parry Barlow’s declaration from 20 years ago sounds utopian. Back then a lot of people hoped that the internet once and for all would do away with censorship.

It didn’t happen. Around the world new systems of control are taking hold. They are stifling the global conversation and repression and violence against journalists are at record levels. Today governments are increasingly exercising their sovereignty on the internet, fencing it in through the establishment of national borders and enforcing their own laws and limitations.

Just to give you one example showing how the internet and the digital technology has been transformed from a tool of liberation into to a tool of repression:

At the time of demonstrations in Iran in 2009 security agents tortured journalists and activists in order to get passwords to their social media and e-mail accounts, and then combed through their networks and arrested their sources and colleagues. (5)

In this way the internet is repeating developments that took place after the invention of other new technologies from the printing press in the 15th century to radio and television in the 20th century. Sooner or later governments find ways to control the new technology to their own advantage.

The Democrators (6)

We don’t have that many hard core dictatorship in the world today. The director of the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists Joel Simon labels the new autocrats “democrators”.

They prefer to rule by manipulation, not by force. Dictators impose their will. Democrators govern with the support of the majority. Dictators control information, democrators manage it. Democrators win elections, dictators denounce elections as a key to legitimate government.

Democrators span the globe and the ideological spectrum.

The two most successful democrators are Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

They tolerate 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 hate speech, extremism or support of terrorism – restrictions that liberal democracies also have though they apply them with more restraint and checks. When democrators like Erdogan and Putin do crackdown on media, they cast their efforts as consistent with international law.

China is a league of itself (7). It represents the most formidable attempt to show that a powerful determined state can still control the flow of information, ideas and images across and within its frontiers.

The Chinese Party-state claims the right to control all expression within its frontiers on three grounds.

First, it refers to the idea of information sovereignty, second, it insists that is has a civilisational difference that justifies control of the internet so that it doesn’t come under the influence of non-Chinese values and finally the communist party claims that it knows best what is good for the people.

China is the country with the most internet-users in the world, 642 million people or 22 percent of all users in the world and the fastest-growing connected population is also the world’s most ambitious censor. An estimated 2 million censors police the internet and the activities of users, among them 300,000 party members who are paid to push the party line online.

Nevertheless, 76 percent of Chinese questioned in a poll in 2014 said they felt free from government surveillance. Thanks to the internet the Chinese government has been able to deploy censorship strategies that are subtle and harder for the public to see. They have combined traditional oppression with more sophisticated way of exercising censorship. It’s been called “networked authoritarianism”.

The Great Firewall of China – a complex system of internet filtering and blocking and directing that allows the government to block hundreds of thousands of websites. The system works because all internet traffic in or out of China passes through only eight gateways. In cases of regional unrest the government can simply unplug the internet.

Censorship is being delegated to private companies.

China has created its own tech companies – Baidu instead of Google, RenRen instead of Facebook, Sina Weibo instead of Twitter – that makes it easier to control, filter and block the digital technology.

And China is building a global coalition to counter US dominance on the internet. This group of countries that involves Russia, Iran, Turkey and countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia are fighting on 2 fronts.

  •  They seek to internationalise internet governance by putting it under UN control.
  •  They seek to challenge international legal standards which define freedom of expression as a transnational right that is guaranteed regardless of frontiers as it says in the UN declaration of human rights.

To the Chinese leadership mass media is not a forum through which individuals can realise their right to freedom of expression; rather it is the means through which societies can advance their collective interest as defined by the country’s leadership. This is an understanding of the media that China shares with a lot of governments.

After having visited China I want to bring you back closer to our life and reality and say a few words about self-censorship.

Self-censorship is driven by fear. It is closely connected to censorship and intimidation of the public space. When people stop fearing for the consequences of what they say dictatorships fall. Fear is often a very legitimate feeling, but it comes at a price. A fear society doesn’t have to apply repressive laws because people themselves will internalise the limits of freedom that have been drawn by intimidators of one kind or another. Citizens will practice self-censorship so that there will no need to silence them. They will silence themselves.

Self-censorship is invisible. You will only learn about it if people are honest about their motivations for not saying one thing or the other out of fear. You cannot pass a law that protects people against fear. It’s extremely destructive for a society.

Writers and artists in repressive societies have to struggle with self-censorship but self-censorship is also a fact of life in democracies, though for other reasons. In the words of the Serbian writer Danilo Kis self-censorship is a process that involves an external pressure, political or social, that forces you to give up sovereignty over your work and let others decide what to say and not to say. This definition reveals the existential core of self-censorship.

Exercising self-censorship you abandon part of yourself to the censors. In an essay from 1986 on censorship and self-censorship Kis wrote:

The fight against self-censorship is anonymous, lonely and without witnesses. It makes its subject feel humiliated and shameful for cooperating. It means that you read your own text with another person’s eyes. It’s a situation where you become your own judge, more suspicious and tougher than anybody else. (…) The self-appointed censor is the author’s alter ego, an alter ego that leans over the author’s shoulder and sticks his nose in the text. (…) It’s impossible to defeat this censor because he is like God – he knows everything and sees everything. He is the product of one’s own mind, of one’s own nightmares. This alter ego succeeds in undermining and corrupting even the strongest individuals that the external censorship hasn’t been able to destroy. Self-censorship allies itself with lying and spiritual corruption when we deny that it exists. (8)

Censorship and self-censorship have become the preferred way to manage diversities of culture, religion and opinion in a world where more and more people are living in cities and having a life on line and therefore are becoming physical and virtual neighbors.

A lot of it is being done out of the most noble and honorable intentions – to protect minorities, to avoid offending religious sensibilities, to keep the social peace and so on and so forth.

Nevertheless I believe this is the wrong way because it makes it more difficult to understand one another. Silence rarely promotes a deeper understanding between human beings.

It also undermines what Jonathan Rauch has called the Liberal Science model (9), that is, that in a knowledge producing society there can be no final say and no personal authority when it comes to determining who has a right to say what, ask questions and challenge what is being said. No matter, whether the insistence on a final say or personal authority comes from fundamentalists or humanitarians or egalitarians.

Fundamentalists want to protect what they see as the indisputable truth, political or religious, while the humanitarians want to stop what they see as verbal violence and the egalitarians insist that some perspectives should have preferable treatment.

There is no way to advance knowledge peacefully and productively by adhering to principles advocated by humanitarians or egalitarians. Their principles undermine liberal science and ultimately peace and freedom. Knowledge cannot be had except where criticism is unfettered and doubt is never rebuked. The only way to decide who is right is through open-ended public checking of each by each, through criticism and questioning. This is the epistemological constitution of a liberal society.

I want to end by quoting the British historian Timothy Garton Ash who last year published a fine book on the principles of free and better speech in a globalised world. Garton Ash explains why free speech is so important to understand others and ourselves.

Timothy Garton Ash writes:

Over the last half century, human enterprise and innovation, from the jet plane to the smartphone, have created a world in which we all are becoming neighbours, but nowhere is it written, that we will be good neighbours.

Central to this endeavour is free speech. Only with freedom of expression can I understand what it is to be you. Only with freedom of information can we control both public and private powers. Only by articulating our differences can we clearly see what they are, and why they are what they are.

Openness about all kinds of human difference is as vital as civility. I cannot fully express myself – that is, my self – unless I identify my differences with others. We all notice differences and respond to them both consciously and unconsciously. Unless we explore these responses and feelings, we have no chance of digging down to the hidden biases of which we are not aware.

If we ‘speak as we feel/not what we ought to say’, as Shakespeare puts it at the end of King Lear, we can learn from experience what is hurtful to others, and hence discover for ourselves what it takes to live together as neighbors.

Rather than brushing our perceptions of human difference under the carpet, where they fester like rotten banana skins, we speak about them openly but civilly – as well as in such registers as art and humor.

  1.  Michael Scammell, Censorship and its History: A Personal View; in Article 19’s Information, Freedom and Censorship – World Report 1988, edited by Kevin Boyle; London 1988.
  2.  Julian Petley, Censorship: A Beginner’s Guide, Oxford 2009.
  3.  Scammell.
  4.  Quoted in: Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World; London 2016.
  5.  Joel Simon, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom; New York 2015.
  6.  Simon.
  7.  On censorship in China see Garton Ash and Simon and Philip Bennett and Moises Naim, 21st-Century Censorship; in Columbia Review of Journalism; January/February 2015.
  8.  Danilo Kis, Censorship/Self-censorship; in Index on Censorship vol. 15/1, January 1986.
  9.  Jonathan Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (expanded edition); Chicago 2013 (First edition, 1993).
  10. Garton Ash.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Flemming Rose is a Danish journalist and author, and served as foreign affairs editor and culture editor at Jyllands-Posten. He is an international advocate for freedom of speech and regularly travels around the world to speak on the subject. In 2015 Rose was awarded the prestigious Publicist Prize from Denmark’s national press club and received the Honor Award for defending free speech from the Norwegian Fritt Ord Foundation. His website is www.tyrannyofsilence.net.

The Tyranny of Silence
By Flemming Rose
Cato Institute; 1 edition (May 7, 2016)
ISBN-10: 1939709997
ISBN-13: 978-1939709998

Flemming Rose: Censorship and Self-Censorship – Wellesley College

Flemming Rose and Dave Rubin: Muhammad Cartoons, Islamism in Europe, Charlie Hebdo

Flemming Rose Against the Worldwide Suppression of Speech

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here