The Totalitarian Urge to Censor

By Oriel, Jennifer | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, August 2012 | Go to article overview

The Totalitarian Urge to Censor


Oriel, Jennifer, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Those who favour restrictions on free speech ally themselves with dictators, argues Jennifer Oriel.

Like many a journalist past, Nick Cohen has raised the battle flag against censors. The reason is simple; people who love language should never salute its executioners. Five-time author and resolute liberal, Cohen hedges his bets by writing for the left-of-centre Observer newspaper and right-of-centre Spectator. But the message of this variegated sympathy is perennial; liberty is the fullest expression of humanity, and freedom of speech its principal arbiter.

Cohens latest enterprise, You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, depicts a celebrity censors' ball that spans the globe. In one corner, fatwa-pushers chatting up the academic left; in another, red star comrades selling internet censorship to totalitarian teetotallers; and swishing down the stairs fashionably late, but perfectly coiffed, Julian Assange, in a dance of the seven veils.

The take home message of Cohens book is that censorship is a big and corrupt business, not a personal weapon to protect vulnerable underclasses from wicked words.

Cohens empiricism focuses largely on individuals and events, but it is in the realm of international relations that the suppression of free speech is most clearly apprehensible as a global utility.

Freedom House and the Committee to Protect Journalists provide comprehensive empirical data on international censorship in their annual classifications of press freedom.

According to Freedom Houses 2012 report, the proportion of countries with a free press has fallen to its lowest rate in a decade. Only 14.5 per cent of the world's population lives in countries with a robust and free media. In significant part, this is because the world's most oppressive countries are frequently its most populous.

CPJs 2012 list of the world's most censored countries reveals a stark politics of censorship. All of the top ten most censored countries have authoritarian governments. The top ten countries also appear on Freedom House's list, classified as 'not free'. However, the political and cultural context of these authoritarian governments, namely Communism, socialism and Islamism, is not identified in the reports. It is a stand out omission.

Of the ten most censored countries on CPJ's list, two are Islamic states (Iran and Saudi Arabia), one is a civic state with a 90 per cent Muslim population governed by Sharia personal codes (Syria), two are Communist states (North Korea and Cuba), and two are former Soviet states (Belarus and Uzbekistan). Belarus remains market socialist, while Uzbekistan is ruled by a dictator with political connections to the Soviet period.

Freedom House's data on press freedom by region is equally revealing. Within the designated region of the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel enjoys free press status. 69 per cent of the countries in this region are classified as not free. In Western Europe, 92 per cent of countries are classified as free and the remainder, partly free.

The connection between the suppression of the media and oppressive governments becomes readily apparent when crossreferencing multiple indices of liberty, such as the World Press Freedom Committee's guide to insult laws and Freedom House's annual survey of political rights and civil liberties. With predictable repetition, the same countries appear as repeat offenders across lists.

If media freedom is the canary in the mine for a country's political liberty, Australians have reason to be concerned. The government is currently considering the Convergence Review, which recommends the establishment of a meta-regulator controlling the hitherto self-regulated Australian press. It is based on the findings of the Finkelstein inquiry which many rightly criticised publicly as a report argued from deeply flawed methodology with consequently baseless recommendations.

The Convergence Review repackages Finkelsteins core recommendation of a meta-regulator, while claiming to reject it as an option of last resort'.

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