Briefing| Global censorship: the usual suspects and a few surprises

When it comes to media censorship we think of the usual pantheon of dictators and autocrats who unashamedly shut down news outlets, stifle the free flow of information, and throw journalists in jail.

And it’s in countries like North Korea, Cuba and Islamic Republic of Iran where print and broadcast media as well as the Internet are blatantly suppressed and controlled the old fashioned way.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based media monitor has released its latest list of global transgressors; varied and sundry regimes who harass and suffocate the press in places both familiar but equally obscure.

In its Ten Most Censored Countries, the CPJ cites Eritrea, North Korea, Syria, and Iran as the worst of the worst.

Eritrea, a tiny African land of just over five million wedged between Ethiopia, Sudan and the Red Sea is the number one culprit.

Though few people can find the place, lest have heard of it, Eritrea had fought a long and bloody war against Ethiopia before breaking free.

It’s capital Asmara used to be a pleasant place with Italianate architecture and optimism. Today Eritrea is a forgotten land; there is no freedom of expression. Only state-sanctioned media is permitted and foreign journalists are banned.

In such places newspapers often resemble poorly printed pennysaver-type publications with ubiquitous pictures of the local dictator greeting farmers, schoolchildren or soldiers.

The second culprit is communist North Korea, the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

There’s more than a dozen newspapers and twenty magazines, but all information comes from the regime-run Korean Central News Agency.

Needless to say, North Korea follows the propaganda script of the Kim Dynasty. The media promotes the cult of the deceased Leaders Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and the new leader Kim Jong Un and follows the party line in lockstep lest they disappear into the country’s vast prison system.

The North Korean case is pure Orwellian where everything is seen through the proletarian prism of a bizarre communist regime. Few foreign reporters gain access to this hermetically sealed socialist state except on special occasions.

Syria comes in as number three.

Given the country’s civil unrest, the ruling Assad Family dictatorship has cracked down the old fashioned way; killing and jailing journalists, intimidating others, and making others simply disappear. The Damascus rulers control a fairly wide and sophisticated media ranging from print to broadcast TV. Now that the foreign press are operating in parts of the country, the official story is challenged, and the violence and carnage against civilians is witnessed by the world.

Iran ranks fourth. The Islamic Republic is known for stifling the press and opinion but within the context of a fairly sophisticated media. According to CPJ, “The government used mass imprisonment of journalists as a means of silencing dissent and quashing critical news coverage.

“Since 2009, the once-robust reformist media has been battered by a government onslaught that has included the banning of publications and the mass arrests and imprisonments of journalists on anti-state charges.”

In 2009 a mass protest movement arose in response to the regime’s blatantly rigged presidential elections.

Importantly the Internet plays a vital role in Iran but the Tehran rulers “maintain one of the world’s toughest Internet censorship regimes, blocking millions of websites, including news and social networking sites.” The regime also “frequently jams satellite signals, particularly that of the BBC Persian-language service.”

Equatorial Guinea and Uzbekistan come in next with the usual heavy-handed restrictions on how to cover and adulate the local dictator.

While both countries have plenty to hide, their advantage of a sort, is that they are off the political radar and thus can get away with murder. Burma ranks in the top 10, but happily here the trend may be positive after decades of military rule has showed some hopeful signs of change.

Saudi Arabia comes in eighth as CPJ argues, “The Saudi kingdom’s media law is highly restrictive and vaguely worded, with penalties severe and arbitrary.”

Cuba naturally makes the list of shame.

The CPJ states, “All authorized domestic news media are controlled by the Communist Party, which recognizes freedom of the press only “in accordance with the goals of the socialist society.”

Reporters are often arrested. The Castro family dictatorship cleverly plays cat and mouse games with the Internet.

Belarus rounds out the list.

A retro post-Soviet theme park, the Belarus regime represents the perfect example of what has gone wrong in many post-Soviet republics.

Runners up include the People’s Republic of China where increasingly sophisticated media market outlets ranging from independent newspapers to cyberspace are equally coerced and pressured through more subtle forms of censorship.

Interestingly CPJ states that Beijing exports a how-to “censorship model” for so many developing countries.

Censorship is increasingly challenged by the Internet in Iran and China. It’s equally unchallenged by a growing ambivalence that the world beyond our shores does not exist, nor matter.

* Originally published on the China Post, on June 3, 2012, titled ‘Global censorship: the usual suspects and a few surprises’ , authored by John J. Metzler, who is United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues and author of “Transatlantic Divide; USA/Euroland Rift?”(2010).


[The Emphasis in the text are inserted.]

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