Can governments control media coverage?

To follow is an excerpt from the November 2010 issue of the CQ Global Researcher entitled "Press Freedom" by Jennifer Koons.

Journalists and press-freedom advocates spent the summer battling the creation of a proposed media tribunal in South Africa, which currently enjoys one of Africa's freest press climates. Warning the tribunal would restrict press coverage, Raymond Louw, chairman of South Africa's Press Council, said the country is headed toward becoming “the kind of state where we want to criminalize information and … put editors behind bars.” [Footnote 17]

Louw and fellow South African journalists have launched a campaign against what they say amounts to reinstating apartheid-era press laws. During the apartheid era, the now-ruling African National Congress (ANC) strongly defended media freedom. But after 16 years in power, it has lobbied for creation of the tribunal. [Footnote 18]

“We need stronger measures where … people have been defamed, where … malicious intents have driven reporting by media houses or reporters,” ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu told reporters in August. [Footnote 19]

South Africa's proposed tribunal and Yemen's new special press and publications court both represent overt government attempts to influence media coverage. And the persistent threat of prosecution in one of those media courts triggers self-censorship.

“Governments are becoming increasingly more sophisticated at dictating the terms and the content of media coverage,” says Byron Scott, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. And governments are aided in those efforts by such journalistic practices as “professional laziness, the blurring of the line between significant news and entertaining and, in many nations under stress, the most important of all, self-censorship.”

Self-censorship often reaches its peak during wartime. Prominent American media outlets self-censored their reporting during the first year and a half of the Iraq War, largely due to concerns about public reaction to graphic images and content, according to a 2005 survey of more than 200 journalists by American University's School of Communications. [Footnote 20]

The growing popularity of social media websites has changed how journalists work in the countries with repressive regimes, such as Malaysia, which falls near the bottom of most international rankings on press freedom. While the government-controlled mainstream media previously screened out criticism in newspapers and on TV and radio programs, opposing views increasingly are appearing on blogs and mobile phone messages.

“All our reporters have BlackBerrys and use them to follow these tweets. The social media [have] changed the way journalists work in fundamental ways,” said Premesh Chandran, founder of the online news source Malaysiakini. [Footnote 21] The prevalence of real-time updates from critics and opposition sources inhibited officials from controlling the flow of information, he said.

In fact, legislators today “are forced to engage and debate their counterparts across the aisle in social media like Twitter and Facebook, allowing us to report on the opposition and avoid much censorship,” said a veteran reporter at one of Malaysia's leading newspapers, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Although the restrictions and controls are still in place, it's become much harder to censor what the opposition or rights groups say in the media.” [Footnote 22]

In 2009, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF) — a Paris-based group that promotes press freedom around the world — ranked Malaysia 131st out of 175 countries on press freedoms. [Footnote 23] The low ranking reflected Malaysia's implementation in 2009 of a publishing-permit system that made it easier to censor publications, according to RSF. [Footnote 24]

Still, the situation is better than it used to be. To promote its information-technology sector, Malaysian officials pledged in 1996 to limit online censorship, which has significantly opened up the country's reporting landscape.

RSF regional correspondent Patrice Victor said Malaysia's experience could be recreated in other nations where authoritarian regimes allow reasonable Internet access. [Footnote 25]

“We are seeing social media free the way journalists report in this region, and the trend in Malaysia can also be seen happening in Singapore, Thailand and Burma,” she said. “Governments here are slowly realizing that it is very hard to censor and restrict information once people have access to the Net, and this trend of using social media to break down censorship looks like it is here to stay.” [Footnote 26]

The Issues
*Can Governments control the press in
*Will new government cyber controls effectively censor journalists?
*Is press freedom a prerequisite for economic development?

For more information see the CQ Researcher report on "Press Freedom" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF

[17] Andrew Geoghegan, “Journalists Fear Return to Apartheid-Era Laws,” ABC News Online, Aug. 18, 2010.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] M. J. Bear and Jane Hall, “Media coverage of the War in Iraq,” American University School of Communication, March 17, 2005.
[21] “Malaysians Use Social Media to Bypass Censorship,” Agence France-Presse, Aug. 18, 2010.
[22] Ibid.
[23] “Press Freedom Index 2009,” Reporters Without Borders.
[24] “Authoritarianism Prevents Press Freedom Progress in Much of Asia,” Reporters Without Borders, Oct. 20, 2009.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.