When the government says shhh to the media

A free and robust media is deeply integrated into our everyday lives; something that is true in most, if not all, Western societies. However, when we travel across the globe to countries like China, that sentiment is suddenly a foreign one.

It’s difficult to nail down a single case study that illustrates exactly how the Chinese government censors its media. Instead, it’s better illustrated through a handful of examples. For starters, access to Western social media platforms are blocked. Yes, Google included. Of course there are alternatives that people use, one being Weibo — the equivalent to Twitter — but you can forget about posting what you had for lunch that day on Instagram or sharing the awesome concert you’re at on Snapchat. But even then, the government is closely monitoring the forums that are allowed.

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Broadcast journalism suffers a great deal of censorship as well. A common example is the blackouts of TV, something all networks like CNN suffer from. If a reporter on air is discussing something the government deems as “sensitive,” the screen will be blank and resume when it’s finished,  as BBC illustrates. (Apologies for not being able to find a video that can directly be available below.)

When the government plays a hand in deciding what its people can and can’t know, it poses the question “Does or should the government have a right to do so or should it be up the audience to decide for themselves?” The First Amendment would certainly argue that authorities do not have the permission to be limiting, but with that said, we have to remember that it’s not a universal right. But the fact is, China does control the flow of information on any and every level possible and that makes it harder for journalists to report the truth. As a result, the state-party is denying the public the right to know, to decide and choose.

It certainly paints an oppressive picture of the communist country but it may not feel that way to its citizens. As Cary Huang from the South China Morning Post writes,

Chinese people grow up learning the endure state-sponsored brainwashing.

This couldn’t be more true. Locals don’t know anything better because they haven’t been exposed to anything different. Even when I was living in Beijing, it felt more like an inconvenience as opposed to feeling controlled. To be honest, it was an accepted fact that wasn’t challenged by myself or anyone in my community because that’s just how it is. I’ll be even more frank and say even after studying and learning about the media and journalism as a profession, my thoughts haven’t changed. I can identify the moral issues with it but I still struggle in answering a question I’ve always had: Can a government, like the one in America, tell another nation like China that free speech should be granted? Is that crossing a line?

On the flip side, Chinese locals may be surprised, possibly horrified, by Western media operations. Think about it; the ability to say what you want, when you want, where you want and how you want, is an incredibly powerful right but also can be incredibly frightening. While you can’t go into a movie theatre and frantically yell “FIRE,”  that innate freedom the First Amendment guarantees not just journalists may be both a gift and a curse.

But does freedom of speech eradicate any censorship in America? What examples, if any, is U.S. media limited?

A lot of questions and issues are attached to this issue and is undoubtedly tricky waters to tread. It’s easy to criticize a government-controlled media but I’ll leave you all with one last question — Do you think there are benefits to censorship?

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9 thoughts on “When the government says shhh to the media

  1. This is incredible – I really had no idea as to the scope of China’s media censorship but it’s absolutely mind-boggling. Now granted, China is a communist republic and because of their government the flow of information is greatly limited. Most Americans (myself included) would say this is wrong and would advocate for freedom of information – what right does a government have to tell its people what it can and cannot see and know? But at the same time what right do we as ‘free’ citizens have to tell another country how they should govern their people? It’s also important to note that America is not immune 100 percent to censorship. Newspapers and media outlets have been asked by the government in the past not to print or run something if it poses a risk to for example military personnel (prior restraint) and they have also successfully been able to prosecute individuals for materials published (after the fact). At the end of the day I think this issue boils down to a culture clash more so than a journalism issue – we don’t really have a right to call their system wrong any more than we do to call ours right. There are many instances where publishing of materials under first amendment rights has greatly harmed people. Still I personally would lean more towards freedom with risk, than censorship with protection.

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  2. It’s so hard to look at the practices of another country and apply personal morals to them. My initial reaction when I hear these things is to be horrified. It goes against every understanding of morality and human rights that I have. However, I have these feelings because I’ve been raised with them by a country that prioritizes them. I don’t think every country in the world has to be the United States, and I try to celebrate difference whenever I can. That becomes a whole lot harder and I tend to find myself being more hypocritical when that difference goes against a major value of mine. As a person, I feel that what the Chinese government is doing is totalitarian and somewhat sickening. As a global citizen, I know that’s me projecting my own ideals on someone else’s culture, but I don’t know how to approach that or work with those two sides of myself.

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  3. I agree I think that your question is certainly a journalism issue but is more largely an issue of government control and the standards and values of people in other countries. Regardless of the country it is in however, I think that the role of a journalist is to inform the people and I’m not sure if that’s simply an American value – people tend to want to know what those who are in power are doing especially if it affects their lives and the protests in Hong Kong (while not mainland China and in a semi-democratic position) illustrates the desire for people to have openness in their own government. I would go as far as to say that as informed by my study of political science, people prefer transparency to censorship.

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  4. You have made me look at censorship in a completely different way. Being an American, I always considered countries, like China, who used censorship are essentially depriving its citizens of the truth. While reading your blog post, I found myself looking at American media outlets as if I were a citizen of China, where the only thing I have known is censorship. I would almost think the news in America is crazy, lewd, and sensationalized. Because we can say whatever we want, there are no limits on what people will write.
    Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe in censorship to the degree of total control. Freedom of speech is what gives us journalists the power of the the written word. Our first obligation is getting the truth to the public. While I still believe in free speech, I look at censorship a little bit differently now. If it is all one knows, it makes sense. I don’t think the American government is in any position to criticize and try to change the ways of another country. They are two separate beings operating in their own way, each one believing that their way is the right way.

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  5. To answer your question, I believe freedom of speech definitely does not eradicate any censorship in America, but the laws we have seem to control speech and media within a scope that protects rather than harms. Well, that’s what we think anyway (not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but we really have know way of knowing how censored we are. That’s kind of the point of censorship.) Operating on the assumption that the only laws restricting speech and press are the ones we know about, censorship is still something relevant in our society but limits us very little.

    The most obvious of the restrictions in the U.S. are those of “fighting words,” seditious speech, obscenity and defamation. The courts have outlawed these forms of speech and press, which, by definition, is censorship, but it still leaves most things open to discussion and print, especially those that are within the scope of journalism ethics (minimizing harm, telling the truth, being fair, etc.)

    In some cases, there are benefits to censorship. One way that the U.S. censors the media is in cases of “compelling government interest.” If a government entity can prove that the publishing of certain information is a risk to national security, it is legal to control the media. It is up for rigorous debate wether that censorship is beneficial or not, but it is certainly censorship in the United States.

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  6. As a Chinese growing up in China, I certainly agree with what you’ve said during class that Chinese citizens are used to the reality that media is highly controlled by the government. After I began to study abroad, I got more access to American media and I began to realize how much information did the government censored. As you said, it is not totally a bad thing for a country that the government tries to protect its people as well as for its own benefits like in this case, the Communist Party. But censorship does limit what people should have known about the nation and about the world more in a more comprehensive way – to some extends, that can be biased and even false information enhanced by media and government, which is something we have been talked about for a long time that journalists need to serve the audience.

    To answer your question, I feel different nations have different political and legal definitions as “free speech” based on different cultural norms and social structures. It’s hard to eradicate censorship under current status. Instead of telling/promoting free speech in another country, I think it would be more useful to educate people in various ways about the facts they need to know; while also, people are getting to know more as they get to know more foreign media via various ways. The government is still heavily censoring media, but the situation might be better now speaking people’s accesses to various media.

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  7. Reading this now makes me wonder if there will be an assault on free speech in the US under a President Trump. He doesn’t seem to understand the importance of net-neutrality at all and even if he does, it does not seem like he is a believer in that.

    Moving forward, I do not think the US will fall into the extreme state-controlled media and censorship. I do think Breitbart will be very interesting to watch. The editor-in-chief, I believe, once Bannon was announced as the top adviser to Trump, stated something along the lines of the idea that Breitbart will become the home of coverage on the presidency. If the Trump administration starts to use Breitbart even more so to peddle their agenda, an attack on the free press from the Oval Office isn’t out of the realm of possibilities.

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  8. After reading this article, I feel like living here and having access to so much more information is a privilege. Obviously it’s different because China is a communist country and US is a democracy so we can’t really compare the practice of media in China and in here.

    I really don’t think there are benefits to censorship, I think that the public should know everything there is to know and then decide for themselves which they want to believe and which they want to ignore. Government censorship is just a way to control the people of China and I think we can all agree that transparency is one of the most important characteristics when it comes to media.

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