In the contemporary era of internet connectivity, access to various media forms has been made easy within and beyond the border the shortest time possible. This means that people or users of these platforms can access any information, hence the need for control. Media censorship refers to measures that are used to control and suppress any content or content that is deemed harmful or can jeopardize an orderly state. Critically, the underlying motive is to ensure the general public is not exposed to information that can threaten authorities. Initially, censorship was used by centralized and autocratic governments to silence the opposition by controlling media outlets. Next, it spread to journalism. However, independent reporters and tech-savvy journalists were able to combat information coup by channeling the information through blogs, news website and social media (Day, 2001). The government was forced to devise stringent measures employing internet surveillance tools to filter information and allowing selective news to penetrate the firewall. This meant that people or particularly a journalist who used disallowed websites to pass their unfiltered contents were tamed. Also, governments argued that as it is usually the case, media focus on news that would sell and as such, media personalities may capitalize on selling potentially harmful information to citizen hence the need to control various media items.
This paper discusses the effect of media censorship on balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility. The article starts by giving a brief history of media censorship and attempts to achieve regulated freedom of the media.
Brief Historical Background
Media is an essential tool of enlightenment in society as an agent of socialization. Censorship was initiated as a tool to silence critics or opposition, control public awareness, and monitor morals. Many people have fallen victims of censorship. One of the first of such victims was Socrates who was sentenced to death for acknowledging the use of unorthodox divinities in 399 BC. However, official censorship is traced back to Rome in 443 BC. China was the first country to enact censorship law in 300 AD (Newth, 2010).
According to Bennett and Naim (2015), government censors focused on examining magazines, news broadcasts, newspapers, films, books before release to filter questionable content. Dictatorships used force and shut down all media outlets that failed to comply with the requirement offenders facing exile, imprisonment, and execution. Opponents felt this was an attempt by the government to curtail freedom of speech, expression, and withholding or altering information to maintain public ignorance.
Although half of the population in the world lack independent media, the most violent attacks on the freedom of speech and expression in the press are prevalent in countries struggling with democracy (Newth, 2010). According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (2015), most challenged countries include Cuba, Myanmar, China, Iran, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Eritrea.
The 16th century marked the historical beginnings of the press independence in India when newsletters where would be distributed to some parts of the country. The trend was adopted with Switzerland in 1610 when they established their first newspaper (Newsth, 2010). Several European countries would follow suit; however, rapid and unlimited access to information of citizens raised some concern in authorities. In Britain, the Licensing Act was enacted in 1662. In Germany, control was not only through censorship but also through unavailability of printing papers and trade restrictions. However, calls for free press from the public gained momentum among European countries. Sweden took the lead in 1766 guaranteeing freedom of the media and abolishing censorship laws. In the United States, the First Amendment of the constitution received consent in 1787, permitting freedom of expression and speech. Government-regulated media censorship was terminated in the 19th and 20th centuries in most western countries with the Soviet Union withholding the most extensive and longest censorship during the 20th century (Newth, 2010).
Although censorship was discontinued, several countries devised other ways to achieve the objective censorship. Countries included various clause and sections in multiple legislations to accommodate matters of national security, criminal acts on obscenity and libel laws. Libel law was used as a substitute for censorship laws due to the broad interpretation of the law (Newth, 2010).
To this day, censorship laws have not witnessed much change even in developed democratic countries as critics and writers continue to be harassed (Herman, n.d.). According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index report compiled with Reporters Without Borders, "Journalists around the world are witnessing violence and fear in their line of work and media freedom is facing a decline." More than three quarters of the 180 countries and territories studied, were categorized as "difficult," "problematic" or "very serious" (Leung, 2019). Media climate in the US is for the first time considered "problematic" falling three spots to 48.
One circumstance when Media Censorship is on the Spotlight
In the United States, freedom and responsibility of the media are put to the test when it covers national intelligence on matters that affect the public and the government. During wars or secret government operations, when officials or the media leaks information regarded sensitive, the First Amendment is always questioned.
When there is an imminent threat to the power of the government during war, conflict or revolt, information coup through censorship is the first line of action (Newth, 2010; Soengas, 2013). During these times, the media is censored through taking over or closing news outlets or suppressing reporters to keep the public ignorant. For instance, during World War I, the Espionage Act of 1917, prohibited publication of any information regarding the national defense. In World War II, information that was deemed sensitive and could be used by enemies including letters sent by the soldiers during the war were censored (Day, 2001). Also, in the US, censorship authority gives a code of practices for American Press during wartime (Newth, 2010). These examples show that during wartime the public is fed information the government feels is relevant, safe and appealing. In such a situation there is a conflict of interest between the government and media. The issue of media freedom and responsibility arises. The media is supposed to be free to keep the public informed, but the government also has to keep the public safe, even if it means withholding information.
The Freedom and Responsibility of the Press
The media as a whole can be grouped into two types: those that publish meaningful and informative commentary and news on critical issues and those that are obsessed with exciting items that attract interests of the public and sell. The first puts the importance of the people before theirs while for the latter means business. However, there is a situation when there is an overlap of exciting and useful information making it difficult to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate content. Under the US First Amendment, the state or the government is prohibited from restricting freedom of the media regardless of the material to be published (Day, 2001; Sturges, 2015). One area of concern about freedom and responsibility is access or publication of inappropriate content to the younger generation.
Younger generations and children have easy access to harmful materials such as pornographic content from inappropriate websites in the global era of internet and social networking. In 1996, the US Congress passed the Communication Decency Act (CDA) prohibiting posting patently offensive and indecent content on websites the minors could easily access. Such restrictions were reduced by the Supreme Court which felt parents and guardians had the responsibility to install such website blocking software if they wanted to limit minors' access to such materials. Still unmoved, in 2000, the Congress passed the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) which required public schools and libraries offering children with internet access to install blocking programs that filter harmful and obscene content. Also, in 2008, the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act was passed and aimed at educating minors on appropriate online behavior. Therefore, apart from blocking access, the minor behavior on the internet is monitored and influenced today (Federal Communication Commission [FCC], 2014). The objective is to achieve a regulated media freedom and responsibility.
Another area of concern in freedom and responsibility is indiscriminate protection to media. Although the US has the First Amendment for the protection of the press, it does not demand accountability from the media. In 1950 European Convention on Human Rights under the Council of Europe in article 10, the press and media are subject to duties and responsibilities in a democratic society. Under article 10, although the media is granted freedom of expression, it carries duties and responsibilities subject to conditions, formalities, penalties or restrictions necessary in a democratic society prescribed by law. Also, the restrictions cover interests of the national security, prevention of crime or disorder, public safety and territorial integrity.
Although President Thomas Jefferson was a proponent of free media, he stressed that the press becomes impotent when it subjects itself to falsehood. There are many instances when people, editors, and journalism publishes derogatory remarks with intentions to bully or defame others. For example, in 2015 some exploited women in the US filed a lawsuit on bullying website owner who allowed former partners to post private videos and pictures of their ex-partners on website. The accused was sentenced to 18 years in prison (Almasy, 2015). When giving their ruling, the jury stressed on the need to practice freedom of expression or speech appropriately to prevent causing agony, trauma, divorce or other party committing suicide. Another example of a similar case is provided in the Anti-Defamation League Act of 2014 which prohibit using advertisement that is intended to provoke nativist intolerance or hatred against a person or a specific religion.
Although there have been attempts to achieve regulated freedom of the press with the media being required to be accountable for their content, the First Amendment is always caught in the middle of such an argument or a court hearing. People use the protection guaranteed in the First Amendment to incite other groups and post indecent content on various media items. Therefore, there is a need to revisit the First Amendment to include duties and responsibilities. This will promote a society where differing viewpoints are not only tolerated but also explored.
Almasy, S. (2015, April 4). 'Revenge porn' operator gets 18 years in prison. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/03/us/califomia-revenge-porn-sentence/
Anti-Defamation League. (2014, May 21). ADL deplores Hitler imagery, anti-Muslim rhetoric in the latest bus ads. Retrieved from http://dc.adl.org/news/adl-deplores-hitlerimagery-anti-muslim-rhetoric-in-latest-bus-ads/
Bennett, P., & Naim, M. (2015). 21st-century censorship. (cover story). Columbia Journalism Review, 53(5), 22. Retrieved from http://www.cjr.org/cover_story/21st_century_censorship.php
Committee to Protect Journalists (2015). Retrieved from https://cpj.org/2015/04/10-most-censored-countries.php
Council of Europe. (1950). Con...
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