The Rise of Soft Censorship

By Don Podesta
Monday, February 2, 2009

Among the accusations swirling around ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is one that touches on his relationship with the most important newspaper in his state, the Chicago Tribune. Blagojevich reportedly threatened to withhold state assistance from a deal involving the sale of Wrigley Field, owned by the Tribune Co., if the paper didn't fire members of the editorial board whom he viewed as highly critical of him.

Thus Illinois joins a growing list of places across the globe where media-government relations are often ruled by money. Or, more specifically, money used as a tool to manipulate news coverage. This is a serious problem in countries where democracies are fragile and there is no culture of strong, independent news media.

Traditionally, authoritarian regimes have exercised control of media through direct censorship -- forcing media outlets to submit news reports for review before publication or broadcast. Physically taking over media outlets or intimidating and arresting journalists and media owners are also familiar methods of controlling the press. But in recent years, as once authoritarian regimes have moved toward more open societies, or at least their appearance, a more insidious type of censorship has arisen.

This new "soft," or indirect, censorship takes several forms:

In many parts of Latin America and Africa, governments exert pressure by threatening to withhold government advertising from newspapers and broadcasters whose coverage they find too critical. The other side of this coin is the use of government funds to buy advertising in media outlets considered friendly. In countries where there is no strong private sector and little or no tradition of commercial advertising, government advertising contracts are essential to the survival of newspapers and broadcast stations.

In several countries of the former Soviet Union, official sources pay journalists directly to write stories favorable to leaders or their programs. This is particularly true during political campaigns. In Ukraine, the practice is called "jeansa," after the blue jeans that Ukrainian journalists typically wear. Because there was never much commercial advertising in Ukraine before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, private businesses don't see the need to buy an ad if they can buy a story. And many journalists, who view TV stations as businesses entitled to make money, see nothing wrong with this arrangement.

Reporters in many developing countries do not make a living wage, and media owners expect them to supplement their incomes -- in effect turning journalists into waiters working for tips.

Colombian radio reporters in provincial cities pay station owners for air time and cover the expense by selling advertising to the same government officials they cover. Essentially, this means interviewing officials in the morning for a news report and contacting them in the afternoon to solicit advertising.

In countries where there is no strong commercial advertising market, "the media begins to live off official advertising," said Catalina Botero, the Organization of American States' special rapporteur for freedom of expression. This, she said, allows governments to exercise "decisive interference in the press."

The Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily lost commercial advertisers -- an airline, a bank, the travel industry -- because the Chinese government pressured the companies. The paper's sin? Opposing a proposed security law -- since withdrawn -- that many felt could have led to suppression of freedom of expression and political liberty in Hong Kong.

Some countries have laws governing the use of official advertising, but in many cases they are ignored.

The one tool that has been effective in combating this practice is litigation. Rio Negro, a newspaper in Argentina's Neuquén province, sued the provincial government on grounds of discrimination after the government pulled its advertising in reprisal for negative coverage. Argentina's supreme court ruled in favor of the paper, finding that the government had violated its constitutional right to freedom of expression. A similar case brought against a municipality by the South African newspaper Grocott's Mail was resolved in the paper's favor when the government settled out of court.

Another solution that has been put forward is the nonprofit model, akin to National Public Radio in the United States and the British Broadcasting Corp. A newspaper or broadcast station owned by a foundation, an endowment, an academic institution -- and, yes, even the government, if done transparently and through an independent board of directors -- might be better positioned to resist threats of advertising losses. (In recent days, some opinion writers have suggested this as an answer for what ails newspapers in the United States, too.)

Does any of this matter? It should to those seeking to promote democracy around the world. Many fledgling democracies have no tradition of independent news media, without which it is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain an open political dialogue and transparency in governance. Strengthening independent news media in the developing world should be the cornerstone of any effort to build democracies.

Don Podesta, a former Post editor, is a consultant for the Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy. He wrote the center's recent report "Soft Censorship: How Governments Around the Globe Use Money to Manipulate the Media."

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