When we have opinions, even when it’s unpopular, we value our ability to share and express our beliefs. This freedom to share ideas, knowledge, and opinions is a basic human right that we all enjoy today.
Does this mean that our freedom of speech and expression is absolute? No. Our freedom is limited once it harms the public interest and rights of others.
Censorship is a tool used to prevent such violations. In theory, censorship prevents the publication and spread of harmful media and content, such as hate speech, defamation, obscenity, pornography, and violations of private life. Especially now with social media, where everyone holds the power on how and when they want to express themselves and what content they consume, ensuring safe spaces for our ideas and opinions is vital.
Censorship is noble in theory. But in practice, that’s where it gets murky. Even social media platforms fall astray on how they implement their censorship laws in the name of safeguarding spaces and protecting people’s rights.
Like when writer and activist Ijeoma Oluo’s Facebook account was suspended because she posted screenshots of her being harassed for a historically subliminal tweet she posted on Twitter. According to Oluo, Twitter sorted it out quite well — it was Facebook that appeared as “complicit,” when it gave her a three-day suspension for the screenshots she had posted.
Or when links to an article on Sexual Harassment by Alex Zaragoza of San Diego’s CityBeat was removed from Facebook because it was flagged as an “attack” when all it really was, was an article critiquing men for their shock and insensitivity considering “multiple, high-profile sexual harassment scandals.”
Even Instagram has had its fair share of allegations on how it implements censorship, such as the report of a post being deleted from the site just because it shows a woman’s menstrual period.
It makes you wonder what it really means to censor or be censored.
According to Censorship Laws, media censorship is “the act of altering, adjusting, editing, or banning of any or all media resulting from the presumption that its content is perceived to be objectionable, incendiary, illicit, or immoral by the applicable legislative authority or Government within a specific jurisdiction.”
This means that, depending on who’s in charge, the decision to censor information could be to protect the privacy of a person; or to protect news and media channels from political or corporate fall out; or even to safeguard the national security of a country, among other reasons.
Nevertheless, media censorship is necessary and something that all forms of media need to follow in order “to protect the moral and social order” as defined by the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.
The grounds for it becomes murky and a cause for concern when it’s implemented by a mob of netizens, people in power, and big organizations just to tag something as “offensive” or even silence noncompliant parties.
It takes away freedom of speech and of access to information — which is something that has journalism, in particular, in a tight spot no matter the type of government a country has.
Even democratic countries are known to censor information beyond just preserving the moral and social order. The Philippine government’s move to shut down its biggest broadcasting network ABS-CBN is a good example of this.
The closure of the media giant is due to the network’s alleged “highly abusive practices” says President Rodrigo Duterte’s top lawyer Solicitor General Jose Calida in a legal petition against the media network filed before the Supreme Court.
News outlets like Rappler, however, say that “the Duterte administration, through Calida, is resorting to legal gymnastics to push their own agenda of silencing critical media.”
Rappler is another media channel believed to have been bullied by the Duterte administration when the Philippine securities commission revoked the news outlet’s registration back in 2018.
By the Freedom House’s definition of “attacks on press freedom in democracies,” you could say that such instances to curtail the operations of media outlets that have been condemnatory towards the government can be validly described as imposing an “agenda.”
Whether that’s true or not, using media censorship for any reason other than its intended purpose can be dangerous and have dire consequences.
According to Freedom House, this is suggestive “that other political rights and civil liberties are in danger,” and therefore contributing to the further decline of democracy all over the world.
For the Philippines, the repression of independent media such as the shutting down of ABS-CBN is not just indicative of a weakening democracy. Lawyer and expert on media law and ethics at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication Marichu Lambino said on ANC’s Headstart that a “very dark day” will be upon the country if the media network’s franchise is not renewed on March 31, 2020.
“I think it’s very frightening when that day comes when we will just see no signal. It would just be a very dark day for this country when that happens,” said Lambino, describing what it could look like without a news outlet like ABS-CBN.
“We need ABS-CBN to be there when we are all sleeping and your reporters are awake watching the world for us, watching if there are super typhoons, if there are disasters, if the world is going to crack open. We need ABS-CBN there.“
Further, while there are franchisees such as small and local telcos that have continued operations even after the expiration date of their franchise, House Deputy Speaker Johnny Pimentel said that the case of ABS-CBN is different.
“We know very well that the President has been very vocal, has made some pronouncements that he does not want ABS-CBN to be renewed,” said Pimentel, explaining how the media network won’t be able to do anything if the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) orders for the termination of its programs.
The NTC does give a grace period, but even then, gloom still looms, according to Lambino.
“If there are orders from higher-ups, we might see darkness on March 31,” Lambino said.
It seems that media censorship is not what threatens our democracy and nation. The threat and issue lie in how it’s used and abused. The shutdown of a watchdog like ABS-CBN is just a symptom of this global phenomenon.
Lawyer and Freedom of the Press Foundation co-founder and executive director Trevor Timm says that one of the “essential pillars” of a democracy is an independent press. Freedom House states that without such a sector, “citizens cannot make informed decisions about how they are ruled, and abuse of power, which is all but inevitable in any society, cannot be exposed and corrected.”
Informing us of calamities to come is not the only thing we need a free press for — it is informing us of what goes on behind closed doors. Censoring the supposed check-and-balance of a government is a way of keeping citizens ignorant and powerless to fight for their right to live under a just system. Without a free press, we may never truly know what is happening in our nation, right under our noses.