Press Freedom And The Scourge Of Censorship

Press freedom and the scourge of censorship

By Levi Obijiofor

Friday, 17 December 2010

It was 5am on Saturday, 11 December 2010. I was at the Nausori Airport in Suva, the administrative capital of the Pacific Island nation of Fiji. I was on my way back to Australia. As soon as I handed in my electronic ticket and international travel passport to the man at the check-in desk of Pacific Sun airline (the domestic arm of Fiji's national carrier – Air Pacific), the man looked at me as if he was trying to recall a previous encounter. He asked: "Aren't you the guy who was speaking on television last night?" I told him he was right although I was surprised he recognised me so quickly.

I had arrived in Fiji two days earlier, on the invitation of the University of the South Pacific (USP) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to present a paper at a special symposium on the "role of the media and civil society in strengthening democracy and social cohesion through peace-building". The symposium took place last Friday (10 December 2010) at the Laucala campus of the USP in Suva.

During lunch break on the symposium day, I was interviewed by a delectable female reporter from Fiji TV. She asked me a series of questions relating to the issues that emerged at the morning session of the symposium, as well as my personal views about her country. It was my first trip to Fiji. There was one question that caught me off guard.

The reporter had asked for my views on how journalists should operate in Fiji in light of the existing media laws that have constrained the freedom of journalists to report without restraints about events in their country. A television interview, like a radio interview, abhors delays, pauses and circumlocution. The interviewee is consistently in focus and under public scrutiny. Every movement of your hands, every blink of your eyes, and every movement of your lips could be misconstrued as signs of nervousness or uncertainty or discomfort. My mind raced for quick but appropriate answers. As the reporter positioned the microphone closer to my mouth, I responded.

Reporting news in an atmosphere of official censorship should not be regarded as the end of journalism as we know it, I told the TV reporter. My standard advice has always been that whenever journalists are confronted with strict laws that threaten or limit their basic freedoms, they should fall back on the canons of their profession which enjoin journalists to be truthful, accurate, fair, and balanced in their reporting. When journalists report fairly and accurately and reflect the truth, official censors are likely to accept the fairness of news reports, I reasoned. I also clarified that while a reflection of these general principles of journalism practice might help to ease the tension or mend the adversarial relationship that exists between journalists and the government, the canons of journalism should not be regarded as a guarantee that the censor will cease interfering in editorial decisions.

I had to dwell on this issue in order to outline the drawbacks of editorial interference, particularly interference by official censors. Across the world, there are various forms of media censorship but the overriding purpose seems to be the same – that is, to prevent the publication or broadcast of material which people in authority deem unsuitable for public consumption. Consider the current official outcry in Western countries over the leaking of sensitive diplomatic cables by the Internet-based whistle-blower WikiLeaks.

In undemocratic countries, there are diverse methods adopted by national leaders to censor the media in their countries. Consider, for example, the Nigerian experience during the heydays of military dictatorship. During military despotism in Nigeria, all manner of tactics were used to suppress press freedom. There were military decrees such as Decree 4 of 1984 which was rolled out to protect the ruling regime and public officers from embarrassments caused by speculative reports in the media. Essentially, Decree 4 was designed to silence journalists and their media organisations from carrying out essential duties of informing, educating and entertaining the citizens.

Another common strategy adopted by military leaders to silence the Nigerian media was regular closure of media organisations that published or broadcast news and information considered to be unpalatable to the authoritarians.

However, in some countries, journalists face a different kind of restraint on press freedom. Official censors could be appointed by the government and planted in newsrooms. The role of the censors will be to vet and approve news stories before they are published in newspapers or broadcast on radio and television. I would argue that there are many reasons why it is inappropriate to allocate editorial tasks to censors who may have no basic training in journalism or have little or no understanding of the conventions of news reporting and production. In any case, it is hard to justify censorship.

All over the world, journalists work under strict deadlines. Censors tend to be more concerned about the "appropriateness" of news stories rather than by the need to meet news production deadlines. Additionally, the competitive ethos of journalism practice compels editors to make professional decisions about when to publish or broadcast exclusive news reports in order to beat their rivals. However, the censor might pay little regard to the logic that underpins how editors should handle exclusive news reports.

In our society, conceptualisations of truth or fairness or balance in news reports are always open to interpretations, especially definitions provided by people who have limited or no knowledge of the standards of practice in journalism. In an environment in which media laws restrict independent journalism practice, what gets published or rejected is always at the mercy of the censor. That does not mean that the censor is always right or that his/her worldviews are a reflection of universal standards.

It is standard practice in developing countries under military dictatorship for government agents to advance the view that the government has the divine right to map out appropriate pathways to socioeconomic development of their countries. That is simply shorthand for endorsement of editorial interference. However, the philosophy that underpins this argument is based on spurious notions about political leaders being endowed with uncommon wisdom.

Following observations made during the symposium by some journalists about how the atmosphere of censorship and constant spiking of news copy by official censors have made journalism practice to become boring, participants made valuable suggestions about how journalists can beat the censors. Rather than perceive the current media laws that are intended to discourage all forms of political and critical reporting as the death of journalism, those restrictive media laws should be seen as an opportunity for journalists to explore other important subjects that had been neglected in the past.

If government censors are uncomfortable with political reports, journalists could shift attention to other important topics such as the environment, economy, agriculture, science and technology, tourism, the manufacturing sector, and ongoing research in the tertiary education sector. These are topics that have received relatively little coverage in media reports.

To draw on a popular phrase, when one door closes, journalists should construct new doors that serve the interests of the public. There is no reason why journalism practice should be sustained on one leg just because of the ban on political coverage and critical comments directed at national leaders. While censorship undermines serious journalism practice, the challenge for journalists in undemocratic countries is to carve out other pipelines of credible news and current affairs that will satisfy the news needs of their audiences.

The media is an important institution in every society. Journalists have an obligation to provide members of their society with important news and information that will enable them to make informed decisions about their welfare and their lives. Such news and information should facilitate popular participation in civic deliberations that will deepen the culture of democracy in their society.

In democratic and undemocratic countries, journalists should be in the forefront of social and political transformations. A docile audience imperils democracy. The press must empower the citizens. An uncritical press contributes to the political, economic and social underdevelopment of the society. It is the responsibility of journalists to scrutinise national leaders, including those who are aspiring to lead. The press after all is an important institution in society.