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.