The fear factor – why journalists censor themselves

© Shutterstock - Stalin

In his preface to ‘Animal Farm’ George Orwell wrote : ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’. The British author knew what he was talking about. It took him a year to find a publisher for his agricultural allegory on the hypocrisy and brutality of Soviet communism under Stalin, because when he wrote it the USSR was a key ally of Britain and the USA in the war against Hitler. Only when Stalin fell out of favour in the West in 1945 was the book finally published.  It was a classic case of self-censorship, in this case not by journalists but by publishers – six in all, including the famous poet T.S Eliot - who decided it was not in their best interest to publish a book that unmasked the immorality of the Soviet system. These days, thanks to the Internet, an author can get around such obstacles by self-publishing a book at minimal cost. But journalists are still often faced with a dilemma that has always existed in their profession: should they write the truth and suffer the consequences, or keep quiet and thereby maintain their jobs and promotion prospects intact?

Council of Europe survey: an alarming picture of widespread intimidation and threats

But sometimes the pressure on journalists goes well beyond the issue of job security and career blight. A new survey of nearly a thousand European journalists, conducted on behalf of the Council of Europe, paints an alarming picture of widespread intimidation and threats. More than half the journalists surveyed said they had been subjected to intimidation by public authorities, while four out of ten reported being threatened with physical violence. The same proportion said they had been slandered or smeared by public officials and one in four said they had been belittled and humiliated by their own management. More than one in five journalists also reported being arrested, investigated, prosecuted or threatened with prosecution by law enforcement agencies. As a result, more than 30 per cent of the journalists surveyed said they had toned down sensitive or critical stories they were working on, while another 15 per cent said they abandoned these type of stories altogether. One in five respondents said they shaped their reporting to suit their company’s political or business interests.

Veteran media freedom monitor Aidan White:  ‘When a journalist or editor makes an editorial decision over a story and its contents that is motivated by the threat of reprisal – whether from the state, the police, the owner, or the advertiser – it has nothing to do with the principles of good journalism’.

Within Europe, when it comes to media freedom there is a huge disparity between countries. According to the pressure group Reporters Without Borders, Finland was number one in its 2016 global media freedom rankings, with the Netherlands second and Norway in third position. At the other end of the scale, Azerbaijan came in at 163, ten places behind Turkey at 151 with Russia at 148. All six countries are members of the Council of Europe, which places a high priority on media freedom as a key component of a healthy democracy.

Finnish journalist: “I felt frightened also for my children...those attacking me know who my children are”

But even top-rated Finland is not immune from self-censorship. Some time ago, a Finnish newspaper journalist wrote a column in which he appealed for tolerance from Finns towards immigrants. The article sparked a flood of negative feedback from anti-immigrant groups, who attacked the journalist in online forums. He says that after such a harrowing experience he no longer writes about immigration issues. “It is not nice to get mud splashed over oneself. I felt frightened also for my children. From the messages attacking me, it emerged that they know who my children are.”

© Shutterstock - Voltaire

Anonymous journalist: “Hateful comments show that my writing has relevance!”

One ray of hope emerged from the Council of Europe survey. In Western and South Eastern Europe, nearly half of the journalists who suffered from unwarranted interference said that their experiences had made them more committed to not engage in self-censorship. One said the harassment had made him ‘tougher’, while another said the interference made him ‘more determined to resist pressure’. A third respondent said she had ‘learned to appreciate a reasonable amount of hateful comments: they show that my writing has relevance!’.

When it came to recommendations to combat self-censorship, the study urged states to carry out an independent review of laws and practices on terrorism, extremism, national security and defamation to ensure that the right to freedom of expression is robust and effective. It also called on states to implement a Council of Europe recommendation on the protection and safety of journalists in the spheres of prevention, prosecution and the promotion of information, education and awareness raising concerning the importance for democracy of independent reporting.

Voltaire: “I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it!”

Fortunately, there have always been staunch defenders of media freedom in every country, and it is to be hoped that they will be supported both by like-minded citizens, and by international organisations such as the Council of Europe and Reporters Without Borders. Finally, it is not necessary to agree with every shade of opinion in order to support the general principle of press freedom. The French writer and philosopher Voltaire’s famous dictum is as true today as it was when he first formulated in the 18th century: ‘I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’.