Censorship has been around for centuries. Even before the internet was created, it was already a common system implemented by governments and various organizations in newspapers and books. For example, in the 17th century, Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Catholic church and his works were banned after he presented proof of the Earth revolving around the sun (Schechter). He was censored because he presented beliefs that contradicted the teachings of the church and could potentially have influenced much of his audience, which is a very similar reason to why censorship continues to remain relevant to this day. Another more recent example of censorship is the censorship of Jewish works during the Holocaust through book burning. On May 10, 1933, people gathered to burn 25,000 “non-German” works in a massive act of censorship, limiting the power of Jewish authors and muffling many opinions that deserved to be heard. This was all due to hatred towards a certain ethnic group and a desire to limit their power, which continues to motivate government censorship today.
A global phenomenon but a regional issue
Censorship exists everywhere. On the Press Freedom Index which ranks each country based on a score from 0-100 (0 being no censorship and 100 being everything censored), the lowest ranking country, Finland, achieved a score of around 8.59 (Misachi). This means that even in the countries with the most freedom of the press, censorship still is an issue and often a necessary tool that governments need to use. So why aren’t there large-scale protests in places like Finland? Are the people there having their rights infringed on in such areas if the rating is not a solid 0 on the Press Freedom Index? Well, not exactly. For someone living in Finland, the USA, New Zealand, or really any other successful democratic nation, they have many freedoms and many ways to express their opinions without facing consequences. However, obviously, if there were a black-market website operating within a place like the United States giving people access to illegal substances, that website would be taken down if it were found. This is due to certain limitations within the right of free speech in order to protect civilians from being exposed to criminal material, such as the Clear and Present Danger Test established by the nation in 1919 (Parker). Essentially, what this does is while still allowing most of the public to express themselves without harm, those who clearly have ill intent and are attempting to spread misinformation or engage in criminal activity would be censored and innocent members of society would be protected. For most people living within the nation, this creates a healthy balance between what is censored and what is not. While censorship to some degree exists in every decently sized nation, for the vast majority of countries, it is to a healthy or at least tolerable extent.
Meanwhile, a couple nations around the world do face large amounts of censorship to the point where it greatly affects the daily lives of civilians. A few examples of these include China, North Korea, Russia, and Eritrea, among many others. In Eritrea on September 18, 2001, seven news outlets were shut down for supposedly “violating regulations” set by the government, but in reality, the nation was attempting to take down all news sources that were not controlled by the government (Monze). As a result of this act, the only sources that citizens could go to for news were limited to government channels, allowing them to fully control what citizens saw and how it would affect their opinions. Similarly, in China, there is the famous Great Firewall that blocks 311,000 domains from functioning within the nation as of July 2021 (Cimpanu). Any articles published that oppose the government are banned, and the nation is effectively sealed off from foreign social media platforms where they would find anti-Chinese information. Unlike censorship in nations like Finland that only serve to protect its people, the limitation of free speech in China is a huge issue that takes away citizens’ ability to form informed opinions about politics or various other topics. Therefore, censorship in a few countries has become an important problem, although this issue exists everywhere. To tackle the issue of censorship, we should divert our attention and resources to these select regions of the world.
Government Accountability and Responsibility
According to John Locke’s theory of social contracts, citizens agree to give up a few of their individual rights in exchange for the benefits of a government, including safety and a stable society. Locke also believed that there should never be an imbalance of power between these two parties, and that neither party should grow to have too much power over the other. With this in mind, it could be argued that acts that limit free speech like censorship contribute to a stable society, and are therefore rights that people agree to give up. At times, this can be true, as obvious hate speech or misinformation should be censored to ensure the safety of the people, as identified previously in this article. However, government censorship creates an imbalance of power and forces civilians to only consume content that echoes the beliefs of a government. This is not how societies should function. Instead, the government is supposed to serve the people, and the laws and programs that are put into place by the government should reflect the desires of the people they represent. This is the primary reason why in democratic nations, elections allow citizens to determine their own leader. In such nations where governments barely ever restrict the press, we can see a variety of opinions represented through the media, which is essential in order to stimulate political discussion and allow each individual to make informed decisions regarding politics. However, in an environment like China, really the only political material citizens have are patriotic songs praising our motherland, theatrical displays of Chinese military power, and articles that spread support for Communist ideals. This issue is also manifested in places like Russia today, where news channels are monopolized by the government and only spread information supporting the war. In this environment, no one is given the choice of what to believe in or which party to identify with. We are forced to unite behind a single government and that entity’s decisions without any train of thought. This consequence stems entirely from government decisions. When it comes to politics, there is no objective correct solution to anything, and governments should recognize that.
As governments caused this issue and abused their power in the first place, they also have the power to reverse this. Since governments have control over what is blocked, the best solution to censorship comes from governments taking actions themselves and dissolving those laws or systems that force censorship to occur in the first place. Essentially, this solution would focus on attacking the root cause of censorship, being political systems and in some cases, tension between nations. For example, one way to tackle the issue of censorship would be to increase government transparency and reduce corruption within governmental systems so there would be less of a requirement for censorship to occur. Additionally, the current political systems in nations with heavy censorship are unfair to the people. Often, leaders will abuse their power to establish their own laws, and will often utilize censorship to ensure that their policies are kept and that they remain in power. A very good example of this is Vladimir Putin. He was chosen as a successor by Boris Yeltsin because Yeltsin believed that he would preserve the nation’s democratic ideals, but now, he abuses his power to censor the press, news channels, and even force his advisors to endorse any plan he puts forward (Rosenberg). In this case, the root cause of censorship is the one man, Putin, who is abusing is power, and the best possible solution to this issue would be to just remove him from the equation and restore democracy to Russia. Putin has been able to stay in power by rigging elections as he has imprisoned many of his potential competitors and forced many citizens to vote for him using threats (Rosenberg). The best possible solution in this case would be to remove Putin’s political party from office and make the voting system fair again, which would restore democracy and likely result in lifted press restrictions. However, seeing how Putin is ruling over his nation with an iron fist, this situation would probably never happen at all. There are more methods to somewhat limit, if not remove censorship completely that would not result in such drastic changes in governing systems.
The Power Lies in the Hands of the People (Sometimes)
Protesting is a common way that civilians fight back against governmental flaws, be it censorship or any other laws that they wish to change. Sometimes, in some places, this can be a very effective method of getting governments to make changes as it allows their voices to be heard. However, this solution is limited to certain regions of the world and likely would not end well for people living in places where there is extremely heavy censorship.
In many cases, forms of protesting have resulted in laws being changed. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement sparked several protests within the United States of America and eventually resulted in certain law reforms. In many cities around the US, funding to police departments has been cut and laws have been passed that limit the use of chokeholds (Menjivar). There have also been protests on the topic of censorship as well, some of which have been effective. For example, on a local TV news channel in Russia, Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor, held up a sign denouncing the actions of the Russian government for thousands of people to see (Goldman). Although she has since been imprisoned and now faces up to fifteen years in jail, this act went viral on social media and inspired millions of people, including several world leaders. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, has even offered protection to this brave protester and has raised the issue in his private meetings with Putin (Goldman). In this case, although the individual member of society, Ovsyannikova, faced negative consequences, her simple act of defiance against the government inspired many others and reached world leaders, meaning there was real change that arose as a result of this. However, not everyone would be able to get on live television like Ovsyannikova did, so for the vast majority of the public, one individual would not be able to make such a profound impact on society like she did. In contrast, in order for protests to result in any real change in policies, huge groups of people must be willing to band together and fight for their voices at a high risk.
Peaceful protesting is a human right guaranteed by the United Nations that all members of society can partake in. In a utopia where society genuinely had the capacity to organize orderly, civilized protests and governments would be recipient to desires of citizens in any scenario, this would be an incredibly effective solution to government censorship. However, as our species has seen time and time again, this is nowhere near the case. Going back to the example of Black Lives Matter Protests, yes, they did result in some real changes. But at what cost? Take a look at these photos taken during the period of mass protests.
(I literally cannot import them, the file sizes are too big but here are a few descriptions: The first image depicts a group of people standing around a restaurant and a liquor store at night, with both of those buildings in flames. The second image depicts a group of people blocking the way on a highway and several cars parked in front of these people that are unable to cross)
Obviously, these protestors are not doing it peacefully. In order to push their views on society, rioters burned private property to the ground and destroyed buildings belonging to innocent members of society. This is clearly an unacceptable way of protesting that has resulted in more harm than good. Additionally, even if humans were somehow able to organize structured events to express their beliefs, there is a second actor that is also preventing this from occurring: governments. Several examples can be cited. Just a few days ago on June 3rd, a protestor in Sudan was shot dead by government forces, making this the 99th death in Sudan involving the fight for human rights. The government has refused to use more peaceful tactics to disperse protests or give in to the desires of its citizens as well, despite constant urging by United Nations officials (Sudan Tribune). There have almost never been any fully peaceful protests that have resulted in political changes, and with these examples, humans are clearly not well equipped to handle these situations. Protesting can be a necessary way to raise awareness amongst the public, but as a full solution to this issue, it is completely unviable.
International Journalism Giving the Voiceless a Voice
As journalists generally have more rights than regular citizens and also have the ability to circulate information about a nation worldwide, journalism is a very effective method of bypassing censorship laws and exposing secretive information for the world to see. Of course, there are laws limiting journalists in many nations, but countries can never fully shut off their borders from these writers since they can simply blend in with the rest of society and work as they please. There are also several methods that journalists can use to avoid government detection, including encrypted messaging apps and incredibly secure work accounts (Chan). All of these options provides these people with incredibly safe work environments and allows them to publish information for the world to see without fearing getting into trouble with the government. Of course, there are many journalists who choose to take risks and enter war zones or unstable areas in the world, although if they happen to get abducted by native forces, the immense power that large governments of free nations have would ensure that they would be freed if the need ever arose (Alinsky). Therefore, working as a journalist is a lot safer than attending a protest and risking getting murdered or severely injured, meaning that these people would be able to make a larger impact with much lower risks.
The effects of journalism on information that we have access to is often underestimated. This field has been responsible for exposing many of the secrets of governments and organizations that they attempt to keep sealed within tight groups. This deters censorship by allowing the public to gain information that powerful entities attempt to censor and keep private. For example, the famous Watergate scandal where former president of the USA Richard Nixon recorded every single conversation in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room of the White House was investigated, exposed, and published by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Perlstein). At the hands of these two journalists, a long age of government corruption came to its end, and this proves how powerful journalists can be. Another more recent example would be the exposition of Cambridge Analytica, which was done by whistleblower Christopher Wylie and circulated by journalists on various new outlets like The Guardian, CNN, BBC, etc. It turns out that the platform was using illegally obtained data from Facebook to build voter profiles and use cutting-edge technology to manipulate voters into voting for a specific candidate (Cadwalladr). This company was hired, illegally of course, by none other than the Trump administration, representing the “peak of government corruption” in the words of Bob Woodward (who exposed the Watergate scandal). All of these exposed secrets that we would not know about today if it were not for journalism’s prevalence in modern society shows just how powerful it can truly be. This is an effective tool at combatting censorship as it can circulate government secrets that would otherwise be kept private and censored.
Yet no solution is perfect and journalism does have its flaws. For example, foreign news sources in highly censored nations are often blocked by firewalls, which limits its scope. Essentially, the reach of journalism is limited by the very issue it is supposed to solve, which makes it a less viable solution in a place like China or North Korea where most civilians would not have access to the foreign web. However, journalism is still an invaluable resource that can be effectively implemented to reduce censorship and increase government transparency in most areas of the world.
An Intellectual Issue
Although it is not possible to remove censorship altogether, it is possible to greatly reduce its effect or necessity in society. This can be done by improving educational systems. In the status quo, many people hold misguided beliefs or blindly believe in obvious misinformation like flat Earth theories. Although this seems harmless, when it gets to the point where millions of people act based on obvious lies, it can greatly damage society and result in unnecessary actions being made. For example, on social media, there were false claims about the use of bleach and horse medicine to cure COVID-19 (Meyers). Since these articles or posts pose real threats to civilians and have genuinely led to deaths (800, in fact), censorship of this information would be acceptable according to laws set by governments like the Present Danger Test (which has been mentioned above). However, if people were more educated regarding these fields or learned to fact check the claims they see online, this information would not need to be censored or it would not be published in the first place because no one would believe in it. Therefore, a very effective solution would be to improve education, make it more accessible to everyone, and focus more on educating students about the dangers of misinformation.
According to a study conducted by Anne Schlottmann and her colleagues, most of our fundamental beliefs of the world regarding topics like race or political systems were formed at the ages of seven to nine. Therefore, if someone lives in a family where everyone believes in a conspiracy theory like the flat Earth theory, they would probably adopt those beliefs as well. Therefore, it is essential to educate children with care and attention, if not at seven years old then at least an impressionable age, which would inform them more about the systems of the world and increase their resistance to false conspiracies. Essentially, this would mitigate the impact of misinformation as not many people would fall for it as easily as they do now, and instances of the act would probably be decreased. This provides a very good solution to the issue without the need to confront governments or risk getting kidnapped like journalists often do. Additionally, the importance of fact-checking information and identifying clear forms of censorship should be taught to students, which would make it much more difficult for families or social media users to enforce false beliefs upon them and thus decrease the need for censorship.
This does not necessarily solve the issue of censored political beliefs which would likely continue to occur no matter what. However, having strong educational systems in place would ensure that people do not so easily buy into the lies of governments. Educational institutions should focus more on presenting objective information without attempting to force viewpoints onto impressionable children. Instead of praising the government on a daily basis, education should focus on factual evidence, and there should be environments created where students are encouraged to form their own beliefs. If such a system were put into place, people would be able to recognize corrupt governments and take steps towards reform.
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