Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Self-Censorship : The French-American Disease.

Yesterday, the NYTimes published an article (first published in the IHT a few days before) on how French newly elected President Sarkozy's ties to almost all major French media owners just might have influenced the elections.

To put things into perspective, the situation in France is nothing like, say Italy where former Prime Minister Berlusconi personally owned a major media corporation which included newspapers and three national TV channels and exerted direct influence on control almost all TV sources of information, while in power. President Sarkozy owns no media and can only exert indirect influence.

Besides, the collusion between big business, the press, and politics is nothing new, either in France or in the U.S.

What is new and strikingly similar in both France and the US, however, is that whereas political pressure used to be exerted directly, it is now much more subtle.
As we have seen in the recent past, the disease of this day and age is not so much censorship as it is SELF-CENSORSHIP.

(...) the issue of self-censorship has come into sharp relief of late because of declining circulation in the print media and the concentration of media ownership among the new president’s close allies. (NYTimes)

Self-censorship is the most pernicious threat to freedom of information because it is so much harder to pinpoint and thus to fight. Besides, it can take many forms and shapes:

In the aftermath of 9/11 and in the run-up to the war in Iraq, it took the form of patriotism in the U.S. (also see this program)

Christiane Amanpour, says that the press muzzled itself during the Iraq war. And, she says CNN "was intimidated" by the Bush administration and Fox News, which "put a climate of fear and self-censorship." (USAToday)

It can also take the form of demagogy and populism when self-censorship is exerted to satisfy any pressure group or just to please the market which can easily lead to excessive political correctness to the detriment of truth.

Real meaning is replaced by tasteless platitudes through hypocritical euphemism on just about anything. You then live under the constant fear that you may have offended whomever. (J2T)
As the NYTimes reminds us, even in a country where the market is more regulated, self-censorship exists just the same:

The temptation of self-censorship is amplified by the economic vulnerability of the print media and its dependence on government subsidies. (NYTimes)

Then, it can be the result of the fear of simply displeasing your boss without his making any move. Here’s a good illustration of the subtlety of the process:

Philippe Ridet, who covered Mr. Sarkozy’s presidential campaign for Le Monde, said he never faced direct pressure. But he recalled how after one of his first campaign rallies, Mr. Sarkozy remarked to a select group of reporters, “It’s funny, I know all your bosses.” (NYTimes)

Who is to say this is not just an innocent remark? Who is naive enough to think it is? Who has enough guts to ignore it?

The problem is that self-censorship is the most successful and efficient form of censorship and it comes cheap for any society but the result is conformity of speech and language which leads to poverty of thought.

Thank God for the Internet… and thank God we don’t live in China or North Korea. That's where I find some comfort...

NOTE: Interestingly, the original title of the (more extensive) IHT article "Fears of self-censorship at French news outlets" was changed to "Free Press in France: the Right to Say What Politicians Want" when it was published in the NYTimes the following day.


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