Recently, the satellite providers Nilesat and Arabsat decided on a unilateral basis to block the Al Alam Arabic-speaking Iranian pro-government channel. Without delving into the underlying causes which triggered it, one cannot but notice the zeal and passion with which a large number of journalists, intellectuals and politicians, often known for their opposition to the Iranian regime, have condemned this action, which they perceived as blind censorship. In fact, this comes as a true illustration of Voltaire’s “I disagree with what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.”
Since the channel had not infringed any of the laws that regulate the media sector, the mechanisms that had led to this coercive situation were nothing but a reflection of the modern face of censorship: economic censorship.
Censorship is indeed a phenomenon as old as civilization itself, which has continuously evolved through a myriad of different forms throughout history, adapting to the changing political and social contexts, yet maintaining the invariable goal of controlling and limiting freedom of expression.
Plato, the very first documented thinker to have advocated censorship, has been criticized for his book ‘Republic,’ in which he called for the censoring of intellectual or artistic works that were deemed “dangerous for the spirit.” Around the same time, Socrates was condemned to kill himself by drinking poison as a punishment for his independence of thought, perceived as a menace by Athenian society.
In the following era, religions soon became the censors of reference on all levels by defining what God liked or disliked. This was followed by a more modern censorship, where raison d’état or ‘national security’ proved to be weapons of choice for promoting many forms of censorship, thus simply replacing God with the State. Another form of censorship, intimidation, strived to maintain citizens in a perpetual state of fear by making them feel constantly watched, thereby forcing them to practice self-censorship, as admirably illustrated by George Orwell’s novel “1984,” where the vigilant eye of Big Brother sees to it that citizens are well-behaving.
The Free (Re)press
But censorship did not only flourish during antiquity and the middle ages, it also managed to find its way into the Age of Enlightenment. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” which signified the emancipation of the individual by free-thinking, thus became an “I think for you,” hammered by all absolutist regimes, and even a “You are what I think,” in the most extreme cases.
As censorship adapts to the changing times, we are now confronted with its newest form — economic censorship, which is all the more dangerous and corrosive, as it can be exercised behind the scenes without any kind of institutional or legal framework to regulate it, with existing frameworks actually becoming tools to serve its purpose. As its name indicates, economic censorship takes advantage of a dominant position to exert financial and economic pressure on content producers, journalists or media outlets to influence the content they disseminate. The measure that was implemented by Nilesat and Arabsat perfectly illustrates this form of censorship, as it resulted from financial pressures being exerted by the funders to reach political objectives. Economic censorship feeds on media outlets’ increased dependency on external sources of funding: with newspapers and magazines becoming overly dependent on advertising money for survival, they now constantly monitor their content to remain on good terms with their advertisers, which is nothing but another form of economic censorship in disguise. As an example, in 2007, a not-so-flattering book about celebrity fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and the luxury sector in France was completely ignored by the French press. Since the luxury sector is a heavyweight advertiser in France, this silence was easily attributed to the fear of retaliation, which would have brought many media outlets to their knees.
Another example illustrating the power of economic censorship is the old canard that says that the Jewish lobby controls global media, one we are all familiar with, especially in this part of the world. Without venturing into far-fetched conspiracy theories, it is clear that this perception stems from the long-standing economic censorship practiced by many lobbies and pressure groups, which aims at influencing the content of media channels by using financial levers such as advertisement dollars or boycotting cultural products.
Economic censorship is all the more dangerous as it is far more subtle than its traditional self, which often relied on primitive and crude tools such as the outright banning of a publication or content. By comparison, economic censorship has forged itself a large palette of mechanisms covered by existing rules and regulations, such as imposing high custom fees to prevent the importation of a book or complicating at will the process of acquiring a filmmaking permit.
In a world where financial considerations have taken priority over other values such as freedom of expression and the right to know, we can rightfully fear that the economic form of censorship might actually be its ultimate stage and the prelude for a ‘formatted thinking’ society. This fear could be further justified by the increased consolidation witnessed in the media and culture sectors, which are now in the grip of a limited number of players.
Usurped by the Internet
So has censorship finally won and are we entering an age where our thoughts, ideas and feelings will be dictated by invisible censors?
Fortunately, the answer is a big “No,” as the emergence of the internet has shaken all the foundations on which censorship has been relying throughout its existence. John Gilmore, an internet guru and freedom of speech activist, enunciated what has become known as Gilmore’s Law, which is directly inspired from the way the internet operates as a physical network: “The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
Just at the point when economic censorship had begun to endanger diversity and freedom of thought, the emergence of this super-medium with its social and file exchange networks, blogs, forums, download sites and chat rooms can be seen as the beginning of the end of all forms of censorship.
Today, it is practically impossible to keep an event under cover, distort the truth, silence a journalist, or ban an artistic work.
Even if one played the devil’s advocate and rightfully agreed that there are indeed certain voices that can constitute a potential threat to social well-being, it is not by silencing these voices that we can protect society. It is rather by immunizing citizens against destructive ideas, a feat that can only be accomplished by the dissemination of knowledge and access to uncensored information. The most likely teenager to say no to drugs is not the one who is unaware of their existence, but the one who is perfectly informed of their detrimental effects. Similarly, the success of mankind in protecting itself against viruses was not due to the elimination of these viruses, but to building an immunity that was acquired, precisely, from contact with these viruses through vaccination. By depriving society from the vaccines that information and knowledge represent, censorship does therefore nothing but expose it to all kinds of diseases and illnesses.
One cannot but feel a mix of bitterness and amusement when witnessing the persistent and desperate efforts of some governments that are still swimming against the tide by trying to maintain the grip of censorship over their citizens. Such futile attempts are bound to fail, and we will hopefully have the chance to witness during our lifetimes the complete demise of censorship in a world where each citizen will be able to think freely, and be heard in all corners of the globe.