Self-censorship trickier than government censorship
Self-censorship is a much trickier category than plain government censorship because it is much more difficult to recognize, members of the International Press Institute were told at their 40th annual assembly in Kyoto, Japan.
Karel Van Wolferen, a writer from the Netherlands, said it is unrealistic to suppose that self-censorship can be eliminated altogether.
"There are obvious reasons why reporters and editors must censor what they know or think about anything that the owners of their publications consider vital to their interests. These are institutional limitations. Then there are occasions when reporters and editors voluntarily agree with authorities to hold back important information in wartime, or when lives are at stake. There are good moral reasons for certain kinds of self-censorship.
"A more problematical form of self-censorship is caused by the constraints of conformity . . . the fear of going against the grain of social expectations, not in the least those from one's fellow journalists."
He said there is fairly consistent self-censorship to be found in European countries and in the United States. He added that "nowhere else in the industrialized world is self-censorship so systematic and so thorough" as in Japan.
He explained that the uniformity of reporting and commentary in the Japanese press is due to the fact that news from government and business is collected primarily via some 400 reporter clubs that are attached to all the ministries and government agencies, the police, the industrial associations, etc. "To get more than PR information from important organizations without going through these clubs is difficult, and also impossible," he said.
The system is a legacy of wartime censorship methods, he explained. The clubs make collective decisions on what constitutes news and what will be ignored. Such rules can be strict. He said he knew of cases in which brave journalists were suspended from their clubs for writing outside of the rules. Much crucial information never sees print, he said, because of it.
"Japanese self-censorship is more efficient than official censorship could be and it protects those who hold the most power," he added.
"Another famous example is the self-censorship on the subject of Burakumin, a euphemism for the descendents of a former outcast group, physically indistinguishable from other Japanese, but still discriminated against. Editors and publishers have long learned that any mention of the subject may get them into deep trouble," he said. They automatically deleted passages referring to Burakumin from articles and books and some foreign books have never appeared in Japanese editions for that reason.
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