Manipulating The Media

4606_RNS_puppet-FULL-revisionTwo beliefs safely inhabit the canon of contemporary thinking about journalism. The first is that the internet is the most powerful force disrupting the news media. The second is that the internet and the communication and information tools it spawned, like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, are shifting power from governments to civil society and to individual bloggers, netizens, or “citizen journalists.”

It is hard to disagree but these beliefs obscure evidence that governments are having as much success as the internet in disrupting independent media and determining the information that reaches society.

Traditional censorship was once an exercise of cut and paste by government agents. For dictator censorship meant that an uncooperative media outlet could be shut down or unruly editors and journalists exiled, jailed, or murdered.

When journalism went online, censorship followed. Scissors and black ink gave way to filtering, blocking and hacking.  Some governments barred access to Web pages they didn’t like, redirected users to sites that looked independent but which in fact they controlled, and influenced the conversation in chat rooms and discussion groups via the participation of trained functionaries. They directed anonymous hackers to vandalize the sites and blogs, and disrupt the internet presence of critics, defacing, or freezing their sites.

Countries such as Hungary, Ecuador, Turkey, and Kenya, are now mimicking autocracies like Russia, Iran, or China who no longer try to hide the fact they are redacting critical news and building state media brands.

Other countries, including the U.S.,  use indirect means of censorship such as controlling access to news inputs, credit, financial pressure, taxes, fines, audits, withdrawal of advertising or pressuring private advertisers to withhold or limit advertising, the stealth purchase of independent media outlets by government proxies, hacking, creating fake stories, spying, etc.

The Edward Snowden leaks made clear that the internet had become a tool for governments to spy into the lives of their citizens, including journalists. Whether domestic spying in the US or UK qualifies as censorship is a matter of debate. But the Obama administration’s authorization of secret wiretaps of journalists and aggressive leak prosecutions has had a well-documented chilling effect on national-security reporting. At the very least, electronic snooping by the government means that no journalist reporting on secrets can promise in good conscience to guarantee a source anonymity. National security policies place the US and other mature democracies in the same discussion with countries, like Russia, that see the internet as both a threat and a means of control.

Most countries no longer hide from charges that they perform surveillance over the internet.  Some have approved security legislation that writes the practice into law.  China has hacked foreign journalists’ email accounts, presumably to vacuum up their sources, and broke into the servers of leading US newspapers.

NSA hacked into Al Jazeera. The Colombian government spied on communications of foreign journalists covering peace talks with rebels. Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency tracked journalists in the US. Belarus, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan and all routinely monitor reporters’ communications, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, describes the sinister consequences of surveillance in his recent book, The New Censorship, recounting in chilling detail how Iran turned journalists’ reliance on the internet into a weapon against protesters in 2009.

Security agents tortured journalists like Maziar Bahari (the subject of the Jon Stewart film Rosewater) until they divulged their social media and email passwords, and then combed through their networks, identifying and arresting sources. Iranian officials also created fake Facebook accounts to lure activists.

“The use of Facebook and other social media platforms by governments to dismantle political networks has become a standard practice.”  And it is not just governments. Mexican drug cartels run grotesque online media operations to intimidate rivals, the government, and the public. They have viciously silenced efforts to report anonymously on their activities on social media. In October 2014, cartel members kidnapped a citizen journalist in Reynosa, Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, and then posted pictures of her dead body on her Twitter account.

A disturbing trend is the banding together of governments to create an internet that is easier to police. China advised Iran on how to build a self-contained “Halal” internet. Beijing has also been sharing know-how with Zambia to block critical Web content, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Technological innovation will create new options that enable individuals and organizations to counteract government censorship, even as governments adopt technologies that enhance their ability to censor. Pressures on governments for transparency, accountability, access to public information, and more citizen participation in public decisions will not go away. Autocratic states face populations that are more politically awake, restless, and harder to silence.

But governments will retain extraordinary capacities to alter the flow of information to suit their own agenda. There is a growing number of governments, including the US, that are undermining the checks and balances that constrain chief executives. The ruling elite are packing the Supreme Courts and the judiciary with loyalists and staging elections that reward their allies. They are weakening the institutions that exist to prevent the concentration of power and in such a political environment, independent media cannot survive for long.

The internet can redistribute power but, it is naïve to assume that there is a simple technological fix for governments and their leaders who are determined to concentrate power and do whatever it takes to keep it.

Censorship will rise and fall as technological innovation and the hunger for freedom clash with governments bent on controlling their citizens, starting with what they read, watch, and hear.

Source: 21st-century Censorship, by Philip Bennett and Moises Naim, Columbia Journalism Review

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