Have a look at the first #softcensorCHAT

Did you miss the #softcensorCHAT co-hosted by WAN-IFRA and CIMA on 9 December 2015 to foster a conversation about the implications of soft censorship wordwide?

Have a look at the Storify story compiled by Valerie Sinden: https://storify.com/valeriesinden/softcensorchat

You can also read the whole conversation by using the associated hashtag #softcensorCHAT

And do not forget to follow the Twitter account @SoftCensorship to get all updates related to the topic.

Soft censorship has a hard impact on free media

By Andrew Heslop, Press Freedom Director at WAN-IFRA

By using financial and administrative power to pressure media outlets, punish critical reporting and reward favourable coverage, biased government interventions in media sectors not only distort the market but also make it difficult for media to exercise their essential watchdog role. Government advertising, subsidies, paid for content, licensing practices and other corrupt means are some of the subtle practices used by governments to pressure media around the world. And even if we don’t hear much about these practices, the effects of official soft censorship are certainly hard.

Specific research on soft censorship carried out in Hungary, Malaysia, Montenegro, Mexico and Serbia show how these governments appear unwilling to guarantee the non-discriminatory allocation of public funds and government advertising across the media. Having discovered such a subtle and effective method of control, officials are clearly loath to give up one of the last-remaining means of controlling independent media.

For those wishing to stifle the press soft censorship is a far ‘tidier’, more convenient form of official censorship as opposed to direct, inevitably more violent tactics such as killings, beatings, imprisonment and closures. Governments can simply wash their hands of their involvement; such is the obscurity surrounding both the evidence (often lost in reams upon reams of data, if existent at all) and the impenetrability of the topic.

“Research on soft censorship is certainly extremely difficult, largely due to the opacity and lack of transparency of official data,” confirms WAN-IFRA project manager, Mariona Sanz Cortell. “If we care about media credibility and believe in the watchdog role of journalism, however, we have an obligation to persevere in denouncing and preventing – as arduous as it may be – all those rather grey financial and administrative practices that are used to influence reporting.”

While the few high-profile media freedom cases that attract global headlines are unlikely to feature tax inspections or questionable advertising subsidies (at least not in the lead), this does not diminish the effectiveness of such measures when it comes to influencing both journalistic practice and wider public opinion. The more direct forms of censorship remain of great concern for journalists and media rights organisations in many parts of the world. However, it would not be unreasonable to assume soft censorship, or indirect censorship – defined as “an array of official actions intended to influence media output, short of legal or extra-legal bans, direct censorship of specific content, or physical attacks on media outlets or media practitioners” – is likely to proportionally affect a greater number of media, far more insidiously. The evidence from our global monitoring certainly supports this.

While this may be old hat to anyone who has contemplated the phrase ‘who’s watching the watchers,’ it is nonetheless surprising – given the ubiquitous nature of soft censorship practices – that the phenomenon has not caused more public outrage. Don Podesta, manager and editor at the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington D.C. argues we should learn from what leading investigative media has taught us. “It is very difficult to combat soft censorship in the absence of strong public interest in the matter. Government watchdogs in civil society and the news media often expose corruption – such as taxpayer money going into the pockets of government cronies awarded inflated contracts to build bridges or roads. So too then, NGOs that support media should cry foul and raise public awareness when governments do the very same thing with their advertising budgets.”

Overall, soft censorship remains possibly the least talked-about yet most effective – and arguably most widespread – form of official pressure to affect media worldwide. The conclusions from the country reports collectively reflect this; similarly, they echo findings from our Global Review, published in 2014, that documents significant cases in some 30 countries.

Without genuine political will to recognise the problem and reform the systems that perpetuate (and ultimately benefit from) soft censorship, or likewise more willingness to provide access to the crucial data that would allow media and civil society to independently investigate the progress of change, it becomes increasingly difficult to isolate the impact of soft censorship and reverse its detrimental effects on free, independent information in our societies.

As our monitoring continues and more cases are reported, almost on a daily basis, WAN-IFRA only sees the trend accelerating. Wider research ultimately means more exposure; the dogged investigations of journalists and NGOs will continue to uncover, despite a lack of cooperation and the often-deliberate subterfuges of officials reluctant to come clean, the murky world of political influence on a ‘free’ press. The only certainty is that the information will, eventually, inevitably, get out.

Surely it would be better for officials guilty of these practices to volunteer the information and begin the process of putting their own houses in order, instead of waiting to be exposed as having deliberately manipulated the system for their own gains. Perhaps one day they will recognise their own self-interest in doing so. In the meantime, governments will find evermore-sophisticated ways of manipulating media coverage. The longer they ignore the viable solutions proposed by leading researchers to combat the problem of soft censorship, they remain complicit in undermining media freedoms, despite their many promises to the contrary.


The New Age of Censorship and Intimidation

by Don Podesta @podestad


Sounds, well … intimidating doesn’t it?

This was the title of a panel I moderated during the WAN-IFRA’s World News media Congress 2015 in Washington DC this week. The panel grew out of an ongoing joint project by CIMA and WAN-IFRA to research and track the spread of “soft censorship,” a topic I’ve been writing about since coming to CIMA nearly seven years ago.

In the paper I wrote about for CIMA in 2009, we defined soft –or indirect – censorship as the practice of influencing news coverage by applying financial pressure on media companies that are considered critical of a government or its policies and rewarding media outlets and individual journalists who are seen as friendly to the government. Examples of this practice abound in countries in every part of the world. It takes several forms:

  • The awarding or withdrawing of national and local government advertising. In some countries where commercial advertising markets are weak or nonexistent, closing off access to government advertising can threaten the independence—and even the survival—of newspapers and broadcasters.
  • Pressure by the government on commercial enterprises to advertise in certain media and not in others
  • Direct payments to journalists in exchange for writing articles conveying the government’s position on specific topics or promoting the agendas of politicians or companies.

But as became clear from the presentations of the panelists–journalists from around the world–these new forms of indirect censorship have expanded way beyond using advertising budgets and payments to journalists to put pressure on news media. These include questionable ownership structures, denial of access to infrastructure or necessary resources such as printing paper, and use of taxation or broadcast licensing to punish media.

All the panelists were wonderful speakers who told powerful stories. Here, abridged from the conference program and a planning document for the panel, is a just a glimpse of who these courageous journalists are:

Cathrin Kahlweit

Correspondent for Central Eastern Europe, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany:

Correspondents covering the Ukraine have been beset by trolls on social media (allegedly by Russians). The extent and detail are frightening, including the spread of  misinformation  and reputation-damaging false commentary, such as that the correspondents are pedophiles. This new form of intimidation has been felt particularly in German newsrooms.

Ekrem Dumanlı

Editor-in-Chief, Zaman Daily, Turkey

Dumanli was arrested and jailed by the Turkish government last year. He is not allowed to travel and he participated in the panel via a recorded video.

Zaffar Abbas

Editor, Dawn, Pakistan

Abbas and his team know what it is to be targeted. The reporters are constantly at risk from bombs and attack. Vulnerable district correspondents in far-flung areas have all but been silenced, with their parent media organizations unable to protect them. Even in the metropolises, a range of threats have made the job of reporting and bringing the news to the public unacceptably dangerous. In several cases, reporting too closely on certain subjects deemed undesirable by non-state and state actors has become a virtual death sentence.

Ferial Haffajee

Editor-in-Chief, City Press, South Africa

Haffajee is the leading voice on censorship among newspaper editors in South Africa. The media lives under the constant threat of a government media tribunal to keep control of the press. The government uses advertising to reward “good” newspapers as do state led institutions. When she said in a speech that individuals should rise up against censorship, the government called her publisher to complain.

Daniel Dessein

President, DYN news agency and Vice President ADEPA (Argentina´s Press Association), Argentina

Dessien spoke about issues in across Latin America, including physical intimidation, kidnappings, and commercially driven soft censorship through the carrot of advertising and payments to journalists and the stick of tax and business legislation.


Don Podesta, manager and editor, Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA)

Claims some Latin-American governments promote plans to “asphyxiate” the independent press through #SoftCensorship

Independent media in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela are under serious attack from soft censorship – a combination of administrative and financial practices used by government’s to favour positive coverage and punish critical reporting. That’s the view of Argentina’s DYN news agency and Vice President of the country’s Press Association (ADEPA), Daniel Dessein. He sproke to Mariona Sanz.

Foto Daniel Dessein

What indirect censorship practices are promoted in Latin America?

Dessein: In the region there are many subtle censorship practices. In some countries like Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and, to a lesser extent, Argentina, the viability and sustainability of the independent press is at stake. Many media have disappeared or are limited by legal and para-legal tools. They are structuring similar asphyxiation plans, with many legal tools applied in a selective and discriminatory manner against the media.

Can you describe these ‘plans of suffocation’?

Dessein: They include the use of public resources to build a state communication apparatus [meaning politicised public broadcasters and government-friendly private media], the enactment of laws influencing media content, the pressure of tax agencies on newspaper companies, or restricting access to paper, which is meaning the disappearance of many newspapers in Venezuela, among other discriminatory practices.

Are these practices ‘subtle’?

Dessein: Governments try to disguise pressures with legal loopholes…but that does not mean that the attacks against freedom of expression are weaker. In the case of Venezuela, the abuses are obvious and brutal. But in Ecuador, the Communications Law…is emblematic [of] an effort to legitimize the offensive against the independent press. It creates unusual crimes such as ‘media lynching’… And it stipulates fines, and eventually closings, not only for what is published, but also for the content that is not disclosed.

Could you provide specific examples?

Dessein: President Correa received an honorary doctorate in Chile and some newspapers were reported for not publishing sufficient information on it. El Universo was sentenced to pay compensation of 40 million dollars for an article on a police mutiny thatCorrea denounced as a coup. This fine was almost equivalent to the value of the newspaper at the time. In another case [in Ecuador], the cartoonist Xavier Bonilla, alias Bonil, had to publicly apologize for a cartoon, in addition to the fine falling on the newspaper. Many other media such as La HoraExtraExpreso or El Comercio have suffered different types of legal convictions.

Is financial pressure also used to manipulate the media?

Dessein: Of course. States use control bodies to exercise it. The compulsory insurance for workers in the media sector in Bolivia is suffocating the media. We are also seeing purchase of media companies by businessmen [who] are threatening press freedom. In Nicaragua, except for one channel, the rest of TV stations are controlled by the Mexican businessmanAngel Gonzalez or by the presidential family. This phenomenon is transnational.

Is the allocation of government advertising an instrument of pressure?

Dessein: Yes, and it has increased in recent years. Usually there is no standard governing the distribution of government advertising, which is released at the discretion of officials.

At the same time, there is also pressure on private advertisers to stop advertising in certain media. In Argentina, the main advertisers of newspapers are, along with the state, household appliances chains and supermarkets, which account for 20% of the revenues of advertising. In 2013 these companies were pressed and systematically all advertisers pulled out their ads for one year, which put the financial viability of many media at risk. When the then Trade Secretary left the political scene and was sent to an embassy in Italy, immediatelyadvertising returned to the media. These are difficult cases to prove, but officials are pressuring the large advertiser, conditioning and threatening it with tax investigations, for example.

What happens elsewhere in Latin America, such as for example in Chile, Peru or Colombia?

 Dessein: In other countries we find distortions of a much lesser degree. Although there are levels of discretion, there is a huge distance. In the countries of the Bolivarian orbit, the press has been demonized and marked as the political opponent of the Government, strategically displacing opposition parties. The opposite occurs in countries such as Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Brazil, with a much friendlier government discourse and a more fluid relationship with the media. The strategic decision to place the press in the place of the opposition and try to control, subdue and create a communications device that responds to the state to override dissenting voices creates a democratic imbalance. This is very much linked to the populist governments with an anti-liberal model. 

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has worked on standards to regulate the allocation of government advertising. Are these legal instruments useful?

Dessein: Yes, they serve as ideal models and parameters. In Argentina we are close to a presidential election, and many of the media experts of the candidates try to translate these standards into concrete projects. In fact, some projects have already been presented at Congress. Any regulation that complies with objective criteria and reduces levels of discretion will be a step forward. Peru, for example, has a law that responds greatly to the Latin American standards. For other countries, approaching or incorporating some of these principles to limit abuses would be already a huge advance.

Note: Daniel Dessein will be one of the panellists of the session The New Age of Censorship and Intimidation in the World News Media Congress 2015.

The new dictators rule by velvet fist

While dictatorships used to be sustained by violence, new autocrats use propaganda, censorship and other information-based tricks to inflate their ratings and to convince citizens of their superiority over available alternatives.

Sergei Guriev and Daniel Trisman describe how “soft” dictators concentrate power, stifling opposition and eliminating checks and balances, while using hardly any violence. The new autocrats bribe media owners with advertising contracts, threaten libel suits, and encourage pro-regime investors to purchase critical publications.

Read more: Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman (2015, May 24) The new dictators rule by velvet fist The New York Times