The threat of soft censorship

In many countries around the world, what is known as “soft-censorship” has replaced outright repression as the favored means of controlling the media. Governments in these countries use state advertising to reward favorable coverage and punish dissenters. Sometimes they simply pay journalists to tell the story they want told.

This insidious threat to press freedom is effective precisely because it is often invisible. A new report written by former Washington Post reporter Don Podesta and published by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) goes a long way in pulling back the curtain on these hidden practices and laying out the global threat. I participated in a lively discussion about the findings on Tuesday at the offices of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Washington. NED is a U.S. government-funded nonprofit agency and CIMA is its media support arm.

If you follow CPJ’s work then you know we take no government money of any kind (I paid my own way to D.C.) but we certainly support efforts by governments around the world to promote press freedom. The CIMA report makes a valuable contribution, and provides some guidance of what governments–including the U.S. government–can do to fight back against soft censorship.

As I mentioned at the meeting, my impression is that much government advertising placed in newspapers and magazines around the world is not legitimate at all. Some advertising is warranted–legal notices and information about public tenders. But the government ads I have seen are often for tourism in places where there are no tourists or hype about the completion of water projects or other public works. Some have suggested that governments should redistribute these fake ads more equitably in order to spread the money around. But since their sole purpose is to control and manipulate the media, this strikes me as a nonstarter.

I believe that the best way to counter the abuses is through public exposure. This can be achieved through litigation, public hearings, or media coverage. The irony is that the hands of some media outlets are tied because of the very effectiveness of the soft-censorship approach. Breaking this vicious circle is the challenge.

One issue that came up during the discussion is whether the whole strategy of using government advertising to manipulate the media will survive as media moves increasingly online. As the advertising base collapses, print media is fading. My colleague Persephone Miel of the media development organization Internews has just written a fascinating paper on future of the topic which I recommend. We need to be forward-looking to combat soft censorship in the Internet age.