Democracy & Justice

​What Is Self-Censorship? How Does It Kill Media Freedom?

Have you ever censored your own thoughts? When it happens on a large scale, it can be a threat to society. Here's everything you ever wanted to know about self-censorship.

by Jonathan Day

Having the freedom to express our opinions and understandings isn’t just about exercising our own fundamental rights. It also helps others enjoy theirs, by sparking public debate, increasing the free and open exchange of ideas, and informing people about important issues so they can make good choices when it’s time to vote.

This is why self-censorship is such a big threat to democracy — when practiced by journalists or even members of the public, it stifles the free flow of information and restricts knowledge and understanding. It creates a void, into which steps the government or its allies with spin and propaganda to reinvent truth and manipulate voters. We see it not just in traditionally authoritarian states, but increasingly in Europe as well.

What is self-censorship?

Self-censorship is when someone, most often a journalist or media outlet, censors their own speech or expression. They choose not to say something — perhaps not to report a story on the government or give an opinion on a new law — that could be important for the public, either because of its factual nature or because it would contribute to a robust public debate on the issue.

Self-censorship is considered to be a voluntary act, but it is often done out of fear or pressure. Recent events in Europe have shown the pressure that can be applied to independent media that do not parrot the government line. Threats of closure or state capture in Poland and Hungary, even threats — sometimes carried out — to individual journalists in Slovakia, Bulgaria, Malta and elsewhere.

Intimidation and pressure on journalists to self-censor restricts free media, which in turn affects people’s ability to get information. And this shuts off democractic debate. Our ability to get information, understand issues, and then share and debate our opinions is the lifeblood of a free and democratic society. Self-censorship cuts this off.

Why do people censor themselves?

Self-censorship can happen for a number of reasons. For instance, journalists might choose to show deference to certain cultural, religious or other considerations in their reporting. But when we use the term self-censorship, we are generally referring to situations where someone would like to share something but decides not to out of fear or pressure. A journalist worries for their job, safety or reputation; a media outlet worries about its independence or its revenue stream.

So most people self-censor to avoid occupational or personal harm. A newspaper may self-censor its content to avoid the ire of its readership or advertisers, thus protecting their income. Or they may self-censor because certain laws or regulations forbid them from publishing something they otherwise would.

But one of the most serious causes of self-censorship is when it happens because the person or entity censoring themselves feels pressure or threats to self-censor. It’s a government tactic, more and more so in Europe. Populist authoritarian governments in Hungary and Poland among others use various levers to intimidate and harass independent media. This could include new laws on advertising revenue, threats of takeover by government-friendly corporations, or using state media to slander and smear journalists themselves. This makes the threats more opaque, allowing the government to deny that it’s meddling with the free press.

But taken to the extreme, this can cause journalists to fear for their lives if they do not self-censor. If they do not, the consequences can be real — even in democratic Europe. Daphne Caruana Galizia and Jan Kuciak are two recent examples of journalists who have been murdered in Europe after they refused to stop pursuing stories they were working on. Media outlets in Hungary, Poland and other countries have felt pressure not to be critical of the government for fear of being taken over or closed down by the authorities.

How does self-censorship affect media freedom, journalism and democracy?

When journalists or media companies feel pressure to self-censor, it has serious consequences for our democracy. To ensure that governments work with the interests of their citizens in mind, it is essential that journalists are able to freely ask politicians difficult questions. This keeps citizens informed and compels the government to speak frankly about what it is doing. And journalists and citizens need to be able to express their concerns to their representatives, either through writing or some other form of expression, like protests.

Media freedom is under serious threat in Europe. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia are notable examples of where the government has increased its influence over the media. And in each of these countries, democracy is backsliding. In 2020, a major democracy index produced by an independent non-profit downgraded Hungary from a democracy to a “hybrid regime.” In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš owns almost a third of private media, and those independent journalists that do remain outside his reach are subjected to withering smear campaigns.

Why are some political leaders doing this? Because it allows the government to control the narrative. When an authoritarian government puts pressure on journalists to self-censor, the government is then better able to control what information, which version of the story, the public hears. And using self-censorship means the government doesn’t even need to control all media. Media that self-censors can remain out of government hands, thereby allowing the government to claim to the rest of the world that they still have a free press.

But the news that people have access to is actually very distorted. With the microphone of government-friendly media in one hand and cudgel of self-censorship in the other, governments can, for instance, keep corruption scandals out of the news or, when a scapegoat is needed, apportion blame for public grievances towards groups like migrants, ethnic minorities and LGBTQI persons. And it works. When the truth is suppressed, the lies will take hold.

This is why it’s so important that citizens know the true state of affairs in their country in order to make informed decisions. Truth is a fundamental pillar of democracy, and so too is balanced debate, where the public can hear different points of view, debate them, and then make up their own mind. Self-censorship is a body blow to these things. By suppressing free media through self-censorship, citizens are deprived of information vital to open, wholesome public debate, like ongoing corruption scandals or the true effect of restrictive laws. And this makes them unable to cast an informed vote during elections.

How to detect if you censor yourself?

On a day-to-day level, most of us censor what we say in order to conform to social norms. If someone holds unpopular views, they are unlikely to share them with people they don’t trust. But this is not what we mean by ‘self-censorship’, but rather ‘social filter’ that we all practice, and for good reason. The danger is when this ‘social filter’ is slowly expanded to cover more and more issues, increasing self-censorship and further silencing speech and public debate.

Ironically, the proliferation of social media platforms actually exacerbates this. Researchers have found that social media helps grow a phenomenon known as the ‘spiral of silence’ — when individuals suppress their own views if they think they differ from those of family, friends or colleagues. This self-censorship can be harmful to democracy. For example, if people stop searching for information on certain topics if they think the government is watching them.

People are also becoming more afraid to share their views because of a deliberate effort by far-right movements and connected media to stoke division and polarization. Their extreme views are being shared loudly and widely. This can encourage voices on the other end of the spectrum to speak up, but it is especially damaging to people with moderate views, who are more likely to self-censor out of fear of being criticized by both sides. A recent study in the United States found that 40% of people choose to self-censor because they perceive a certain cost, be it social, professional or otherwise, to sharing their opinion on certain matters.

Examples of self-censorship

There are many examples of self-censorship today. The rise of social media has given a platform to almost anyone to share their opinions or other information. But the most important examples of self-censorship also represent great threats to our democracy.

Journalists in Hungary, for example, are fearful of asking critical questions of the government lest they lose access to interviews or press conferences. Former EU correspondent János Kárpáti asked Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s opinion on the death penalty. Orbán didn’t like the question, and Kárpáti was banned from future press events. Then he was sacked.

Journalists must be even more careful in more authoritarian countries. In Turkey, for example, social media and some press outlets have their pages shutdown during terrorist attacks, so they are unable to report the truth. Even their personal social media channels are blocked or taken offline completely. In the US, multiple independent groups have called out Fox News for self-censoring when it reports on wars or Republican politicians in order to deliver a heavily manipulated narrative to their audience.

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Corporate ownership is another cause of media self-censorship. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman argue in Manufacturing Consent that corporate ownership of media outlets causes self-censorship in the selection of news stories and how they are framed, in order to best suit the interests of the corporate owner. This also happens in scientific publications, for example when climate scientists who are funded by grants from certain corporations or other interest groups suppress data on climate change and global warming in order to appease their funders.

Today, the far right frequently complain that their supporters have to engage in ‘self-censorship’. But this is more about ultra-conservatives waging ‘culture wars’ than freedom of expression. Members of the far right complain that they shouldn’t feel pressure to conform to certain social norms that have emerged in recent decades, which make society fairer for everyone. These far-right movements want to shift social norms back to a time when it was acceptable to discriminate against certain groups. And they want to revive certain narratives and stereotypes that our societies were starting to abandon. When the far right is criticized for trying to do these things, they turn around and claim that they are being silenced as part of ‘cancel culture’.

The far right cherrypicks certain examples to highlight their ‘plight’. Like academics who have been rebuffed or shunned by the rest of academia, or politicians who lose book deals or television contributor positions for pushing right-wing conspiracies. These examples are pushed as evidence of serious restrictions on freedom of speech and ‘forced’ self-censorship. But in fact it’s nothing more than a cynical attempt to spread intolerance under the banner of free speech. While they may be free to say many of the discriminatory things they say as part of their right to free speech, other people are just as free to disagree with them and choose not to do business with them — including by cancelling their book deals.

Council of Europe survey about self-censorship

The Council of Europe (CoE) recently conducted a report entitled “Journalists Under Pressure” for which it interviewed nearly 1,000 journalists on self-censorship and their work environment. It found that threats against journalists –physical attacks, intimidation and harassment, targeted surveillance and cyberbullying — have dramatically increased over the last decade, causing widespread self-censorship by journalists and independent media outlets.

The Council of Europe concludes that, given this environment, self-censorship is “hardly surprising” and calls on EU member states to enact better protections for journalists and media groups in order to combat self-censorship. The CoE underscores that, taken together, these threats and the resulting self-censorship constitute a grave threat to democracy in Europe.

Human rights and pro-democracy groups also look at self-censorship. This has been especially true during the coronavirus pandemic, when self-censorship has increased. A good example of this is in Hungary, where significant pressure and restrictions have been placed on media groups. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, a Liberties member, conducted their own survey on the obstruction of journalists during the pandemic. It found that information about the pandemic was heavily centralized, and significant pressure was put on independent media in order to silence them.

Quotes about self-censorship

“In a democracy it is crucial that the citizens have the right to know (the truth). Journalists’ duty is to seek the truth & make sure that we're informed.” – Rik Daems, president of PACE

"Thank you for being stronger than those who want to scare and harass you. Through your work, relentless search for justice and accountability, you're serving the public good. You're demanding justice and human rights for all of us." – CoE Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović, speaking to journalists.

Self-censorship: suggested books and articles

“The Art of Veiled Speech: Self-Censorship from Aristophanes to Hobbes,” Han Baltussen and Peter J. Davis. University of Pennsylvania Press.

“Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. Vintage.

“Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor,” PEN America, 2013.

“Self-censorship narrated: Journalism in Central and Eastern Europe,” Elisabeth Schimpfössl et. al., 2020.

“Journalists under pressure - Unwarranted interference, fear and self-censorship in Europe (2017),” Council of Europe, 2017.

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