The Practice of Free Speech: America versus China

Edit: An earlier version of this post did not include graphs and relevant details of the personal poll I conducted. That has since been changed. 

A free and robust media is deeply integrated into our everyday life; something that is true in most, if not all Western societies. Freedom of expression is seemingly an obvious right every citizen is entitled to, but it is in fact a foreign sentiment in many countries like North Korea and Cuba. In nations like the United States, a censored press is unconstitutional but nations like China, censorship is not only blatant but also accepted. This highlights a stark contrast in media institutions between two countries and poses interesting ethical dilemmas. For the purposes of this post, it’ll specifically compare the practice of free speech between United States and China, exploring the right to expression (or lack of) and whether or not this is a journalistic or a basic universal privilege.

In the United States, short of yelling “fire” in a public space, publications can decry the president-elect such as the Boston Globe publishing a satirical front page on the Sunday paper, home-bred journalists can express their opinions online or even burn the American flag. In China, major social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (Snapchat was recently unblocked). Even search engines like Google and its attached services like Gmail cannot be accessed. Another common example of Chinese censorship is T.V. blackouts where if a reporter on air is discussing something the government deems as “sensitive,” the screen will turn black and resume when the “sensitive material” has passed. In comparison, the U.S. doesn’t suffer from censorship when in fact it merely takes form in other shapes. For example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) heavily limits the use of profanity and display of nudity. Other instances include self-censorship (even if the concept isn’t unique to the United States) when editors decide not to publish a graphic image.

Alec Cheung, a graduating senior at Northeastern University, completed a six-month co-op at the South China Morning Post — a newspaper based in Hong Kong — and also saw instances of self-censorship.

“At the height of the occupy central protests, Chief Executive of Hong Kong CY Leung gave a joint interview to the New York Times and The Guardian,” Cheung recalled. “He basically let slip that he doesn’t think democracy would be a good idea in Hong Kong as lower class votes could hurt business interests. That ran on the headlines in The Times and The Guardian. But our editor decided to stuff it on page 7 and ran headlines about rowdy protests instead. Any newspaper would have made it the largest story of the day.”

There’s certainly a strong negative connotation attached to the concept of censorship as it does paint an oppressive picture of the communist country. It’s easy to say from a Western standpoint to condemn the practice but it may not feel that way to its citizens. As South China Morning Post’s (SCMP) reporter Cary Huang writes, “Chinese people grow up learning to endure the state-sponsored brainwashing.” This could not be a truer statement. Locals don’t know anything better because they haven’t been exposed to anything different. Based on personal experience, it felt more like an inconvenience as opposed to feeling controlled. It truly is an accepted fact that goes unchallenged. Though it may become a different tune in professional environments. CY Xu, BBC’s multimedia producer in Beijing, recalled some challenges he’s faced as a working journalist in China.

“It’s easy to not feel limited by China when you work for a big news station,” he said. “It had more to do with considering how locals will react.”

He recalled a time when he was working with two interns — one a Chinese local and the other a foreigner. CY explained he was working on a package, needed someone to transcribe and translate the interview from Chinese to English but knew he specifically didn’t want the Chinese-native to do the task because it “dealt with government rebellion and the interviewee was saying bad things about the government that might have been offensive to some people.”

This then poses the question: “should it be challenged or is this a cultural difference that needs to be respected?” I put out a poll, distributed online, to see what people generally thought. There were 27 participants, 18 of which were between the ages of 18-23, five between the ages of 24-29, three were above the age of 50 and one preferred not to say. The results indicated that 60 percent of respondents believe that the U.S. does not have the right to promote free speech in other countries. One response read “The U.S. has absolutely no business in promotion (sic) free speech in China. It is not the United States’ job to tell another country how to run its country.” This highlights that the Golden Rule is in tension but not everyone wants or feels a free press is right. On the flip side, another participant wrote “As it is one of our most valued ideals, we should have the right to advocate and promote free speech worldwide, while understanding that our promotion of free speech will not necessarily result in action being taken by any other country.”

Other results involved with the survey is highlighted below:

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According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, it found that “nearly all 38 nations polled say it is at least somewhat important to live in a country with free speech, a free press and freedom on the internet.” The United States, Argentina, Germany, Spain and Chile are leaders in strong opposition to government censorship. Asia, Africa and the Middle East also oppose the practice but with much less intensity. The survey also concluded that those least likely to prioritize free expression includes Indonesians, Palestinians, Burkinabe and Vietnamese.

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Regardless, the notion of censorship will inevitably bring tension to several ethical principles, one of which is to act independently. The SPJ code of ethics states that “the highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.” Although this is more directly related to avoiding conflicts of interests and refuse any forms of gifts that compromises objectivity and credibility, there is another perspective to consider. In the United States, journalism is the only vocation that has a constitutional protection because, in part, only then can it hold those in power accountable as well as speaking freely without the fear of consequences. If the media was answering to a specific institution, whether it be a multibillion-dollar company or the government, the flow of information would be much more selective. Additionally, the best interests of the audience would most likely not be considered, highlighting that news consumers are stakeholders in this ethical issue. Building off that, another ethical principle in tension is truth telling, to say nothing of transparency. If the media needs to answer to someone, in this case the government, how can it be expected to act freely and honestly. It’s like expecting a teenager to do and say whatever he or she wanted while under parental supervision. At the end of the day, the media exists to serve the audience and its readers and we must do so in accurate, honest and fair manner.  If the government is controlling what can or cannot be said, the underlying purpose of a journalist is undermined.

There’s another worthy element to explore; is freedom of expression a journalistic right or also a basic human right? Rewinding back to the poll I created and put out, a little over 90 percent believe it is also a basic human right. Personally, I think it should be a universal right but it is in my opinion more accurately a privilege. While it’s personally important to me that everyone has the ability to express their thoughts and opinions, no matter the way in which it’s done, the reality is that there are countries where its citizens can’t do that. It is a privilege that Northeastern University students can protest the university’s use of fossil fuels. It is a privilege that we can call the president-elect a “fascist.” It is a privilege that we can say what we want in the U.S., for the most part, without any consequences. But of course, not everyone shares the same view. In the case of Cheung, he feels freedom of speech as a basic human right is harmful.

“Giving everyone an equal voice sounds good on paper,” he said. “But what you get as a result, at least from what I’ve seen, is the ability to spread lies and propaganda with no repercussions.”

In the United States, the First Amendment is in place to protect an old-aged value so legally speaking, it’s a right. However, it’s one that should not be abused. While it doesn’t provide a free pass to every form of free speech, does this mean we’re allowed to say what we want whether it’s based in facts or not? Does this mean anyone can express bigoted and offensive opinions at the expense of any given population? No, probably not. Many tend to agree that freedom of expression is important but draws the line at hate speech or the rise of extremists. But it is equally difficult to draw the distinction of what is okay and what is not. For example, as someone who aligns herself with Democratic ideologies, I can rally behind some of the policies from Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and find the thoughts from the right-wing party is preposterous and to some extent, detached from reality. But it wouldn’t be surprising to find someone who believes in Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and feel that the Liberals are just as crazy. In other words, two very different opinion and if I find a disagreeing opinion to be offensive, it may not actually be offensive. The point is that freedom of speech equips us to express a breadth of opinions and in fact, I would even encourage that kind of discourse. However that in itself makes it almost impossible to say what is considered okay speech and what is not (even if most of us can identify hate speech or extremists speech when we hear it).

When dealing with any journalistic ethical issue, it’s always helpful to have a set of guidelines that will ease the decision-making process. It’s been established that media control does occur whether in the United States of China but also that there are arguments in favor of censorship. Xu explained that he doesn’t necessarily have a set of guidelines and he goes on a case-by-case basis, but prefaced it by mentioning he will always talk with my editors “because you never know with the [Chinese] government sometimes.” In my opinion, applying ends-based ethics is a good starting point because it is in the media’s best interest to consider the long term utility as well as the consequences of the actions. Furthermore, based on my personal ethics code, there are a few points from that post highlighted below that can perhaps help ease the decision if something should be censored or not:

  1. What is the point? This is the first question any journalist or editor should ask. If the reasons for why something is censored cannot be clearly articulated or expressed, then that’s not good enough. If censorship is proposed option, it has to be justified.
  2. Be compassionate. This may not necessarily directly relate to the issue at hand but I still believe it’s an important component to always consider no matter what. Journalists are sometimes required to be persistent, but at the end of the day, the nature of job does impact people and we would be both careless and reckless to not consider how those lives will be affected.
  3. Always consider a third option. Is there a compromise? Is there a middle ground? As it’s been discussed in class, it’s always helpful to evaluate all options and consider and brainstorm alternatives as well.

Censorship is trove full of ethical issues and questions and in a world with so many different perspectives and backgrounds, it’ll be impossible to reach a universal consensus. It’s clear there are stark differences between how China and the United States handles the media. After exploring this issue, I realize more than ever I do deeply value the right (or perhaps privilege) of free speech but that doesn’t mean I think China is wrong for limiting it. It’s just different.

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