Journalists have never been more empowered, or more threatened. Information technology offers journalists potent tools to gather, report and disseminate information from satellite phones to pocket video cameras to social networks. Technological advances have democratized reporting. Citizen journalists share real-time information on protests in Yemen via Twitter. They upload cell phone video of police abuses in Boston.
These new capabilities have destabilized sclerotic regimes. The Arab Spring showed the power of journalism in both its citizen and professional incarnations. Proof of journalism's effects is found in the reactions of fearful governments: Syria has deliberately targeted journalists reporting on its massacre of civilians in Homs, and China blocked Internet searches for terms such as "Cairo" and "Jasmine." Governments have sought, with varying degrees of success, to suppress threatening news and images. Their tactics mix overt violence with subtle efforts to discredit or discomfit. Journalists are key choke-points for regimes that need to maintain control.
Technology creates risks along with capabilities however. Governments routinely engage in surveillance of telephone, internet and SMS traffic. Satellite phones, which are critical to reporting from conflict areas, are not only insecure, but may actively draw attention from military forces. Security forces use photos uploaded to social media to identify targets, or track the timing of blog postings to unmask anonymous bloggers. The arms race of information technology is not one-sided.
Governments also happily employ low-tech means of suppression. China summons foreign journalists for informal chats with security officials about topics and angles that are off-limits; those who fail to accede to such suggestions risk expulsion. Russia engages in extralegal violence against journalists, including one who was shot in the head as he sat in custody in the back seat of a police car. Thailand uses its wide-ranging lese majeste laws to suppress criticism of the country's royal family, and Singapore's harsh defamation laws let government officials sue critics into silence. These methods can be even more powerful than formal censorship, since they may cow even those not targeted directly into submission.
Measures against journalists are not limited to repressive regimes. Under the Bush administration, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for contempt of court for refusing to reveal the identity of a confidential source. The Obama administration has increased efforts to identify and prosecute whistleblowers such as Thomas Drake, who revealed waste and unconstitutional surveillance at the National Security Agency (NSA). While these efforts took place within a legal system that offers robust procedural protections, they provide cover for countries that employ legal measures as pretext to suppress investigative reporting.
These risks threaten journalists' ability to report news. Even more ominously, though, governments seek increasingly to prevent citizens from accessing information after it has been disseminated. Iran's security forces routinely confiscate satellite television dishes that citizens use to watch foreign news broadcasts. Pakistan is seeking companies that will help it impose uniform Internet censorship, which raises concerns given the country's history of censoring sites with controversial political or religious material. India's government is pursuing a court case against technology firms such as Google, Twitter and Facebook to force them to delete content that denigrates politicians or insults religious beliefs. The use of Internet filtering to interdict content that states find troubling is manifestly on the rise worldwide, in democracies as well as dictatorships.
It is here that democratic governments can contribute the most or cause the greatest harm. Democracies with a robust, protected and even irresponsible press deliver two benefits. First, they offer a potent riposte to governments who claim that it is necessary to constrain journalism, or repress "harmful" information, to protect national security or maintain harmony in a diverse society or safeguard social mores. The US has survived unscathed despite journalism that government officials warned would cause serious damage: revelations about the government's surveillance of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) financial system and international telecommunications traffic, publication of sensitive diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, and coverage of a Florida pastor's decision to burn a copy of the Qur'an. Second, states with strong commitments to freedom of the press often serve as incubators for technologies that aid journalists. America's information technology sector contributes not only services such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, but also platforms that enable journalists to evade censorship and surveillance, such as TOR and Commotion Wireless.
In contrast, when democracies attempt to suppress reporting, or seek to require communications technologies to build in monitoring capabilities, they provide moral cover and technical power to more repressive regimes. Thus, when UK Prime Minister David Cameron suggested he would seek to compel social networks to ban users suspected of planning unrest and to provide riot footage to police, his remarks were warmly endorsed by China's government; when Minneapolis or Milwaukee police arrest journalists covering political events, it creates rhetorical ammunition for China's security services to engage in similar arrests. In addition, US wiretapping laws require companies such as Nokia Siemens to install network monitoring capabilities that have been used by countries such as Iran to target dissidents.
Suppressing criticism and protecting embarrassing secrets are constant temptations for governments. At times, press freedoms must yield to countervailing interests, such as preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons information. However, democracies and their citizens must recognize that journalism offers benefits of incalculable value and considerable fragility. The revolution in information technology empowers censors and snoops along with reporters. Democracies need to reaffirm their commitments in practice as well as in rhetoric to protecting the press, even when its reporting causes discomfort. Further, countries such as the US that are founts of technological innovation must be extraordinarily cautious in the demands they place on new tools: eavesdropping and filtering capabilities will rapidly move from Silicon Valley to Syria. Journalism's newfound power heightens the threat it will be perceived to pose to governments, and increases the likelihood that its practitioners will be targeted.
Derek Bambauer is an Associate Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, where he teaches Internet law and intellectual property law. He was a member of the OpenNet Initiative, an academic consortium that tests and studies Internet censorship in countries such as China, Iran and Vietnam. Bambauer also writes for Info/Law, a blog that addresses Internet law, intellectual property and information law.
Suggested citation: Derek Bambauer, Technological Innovation and Press Censorship, JURIST - Forum, Mar. 21, 2012, http://jurist.org/forum/2012/03/derek-bambauer-censorship.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Michael Kalis, an assistant editor for JURIST's academic commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org