Commentary Magazine


Topic: censorship

Press Freedom and the New Whataboutism

One of the more entertaining adornments to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to return Russia to some form of imperial influence has been his routine indulging in “whataboutism,” the practice of attempting to highlight the West’s hypocrisy when criticizing Moscow. In the Soviet era, it had a distinct purpose: because the Soviets wanted to spread worldwide ideological revolution, they felt obligated to challenge any assertion or evidence that freedom was better than totalitarianism.

Nowadays, because Putin believes in nothing but wealth and power, Russian whataboutism has lost some of its edge. China, too, has dabbled in its own whataboutism in recent years, encouraging the mention of Western freedom of the press to be qualified with a snide “so-called” preceding it. The two occasionally converge, however, with a helping hand from the West. Such is the case with this ominous-sounding media column from the New York Times’s David Carr. Headlined “Where Freedom of the Press Is Muffled,” Carr wants to talk about the plight of journalists in China–and the Anglosphere:

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One of the more entertaining adornments to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to return Russia to some form of imperial influence has been his routine indulging in “whataboutism,” the practice of attempting to highlight the West’s hypocrisy when criticizing Moscow. In the Soviet era, it had a distinct purpose: because the Soviets wanted to spread worldwide ideological revolution, they felt obligated to challenge any assertion or evidence that freedom was better than totalitarianism.

Nowadays, because Putin believes in nothing but wealth and power, Russian whataboutism has lost some of its edge. China, too, has dabbled in its own whataboutism in recent years, encouraging the mention of Western freedom of the press to be qualified with a snide “so-called” preceding it. The two occasionally converge, however, with a helping hand from the West. Such is the case with this ominous-sounding media column from the New York Times’s David Carr. Headlined “Where Freedom of the Press Is Muffled,” Carr wants to talk about the plight of journalists in China–and the Anglosphere:

In China on Thursday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke plainly about the role of a free press in a democratic society. …

He was speaking against the backdrop of China’s restrictive policies on reporting by foreign news organizations; the Chinese government has so far declined to renew the visas of nearly two dozen reporters from The New York Times and Bloomberg News as a consequence of their coverage, raising the possibility that they could be forced to leave China at the end of the year.

It was the first time a high-ranking United States official had spoken publicly about the professional plight of journalists seeking to fully report on China.

While it was heartening to see the White House at the forefront of the effort to ensure an unfettered press, government officials in Britain, a supposedly advanced democracy and the United States’ closest ally, might do well to consider Mr. Biden’s words. (Some of his colleagues in the Justice Department, which has ferociously prosecuted leakers, might take heed as well, but that’s a matter for a different day.)

In one fell swoop, Carr seemed to be engaged in an ever-escalating bout of whataboutism against himself. The Chinese are restricting freedom of the press, Carr says. Well what about Britain, responds Carr. Don’t forget the United States, retorts Carr. (The game ends there; in whataboutism, American hypocrisy is always the winning hand.)

But it’s not as though Carr wasn’t onto something. Britain and the Obama administration have both recently behaved in ways inimical to true press freedom, and it is indeed more offensive for this to happen in America, which has the First Amendment, notwithstanding Carr’s disdainful swipe at Britain being a “supposedly advanced democracy.”

Nonetheless, the treatment of journalists, even Western journalists, in China is of course far worse than in the West. And it may be heading to a crisis point. Isaac Stone Fish has a comprehensive write-up of the ongoing saga at Foreign Policy, detailing the increased attempts at censoring the more active foreign bureaus of the Times and Bloomberg. The latter is even embroiled in its own scandal amid accusations of self-censorship to keep the Chinese government happy. The whole article is worth reading, but the upshot is that it’s not out of the question that China would expel the bureaus:

If Beijing actually does plan to expel both bureaus it would constitute the government’s biggest move against foreign reporters at least since the upheaval following the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Evan Osnos, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a long-time China correspondent, called this recent move “the Chinese government’s most dramatic attempt to insulate itself from scrutiny in the thirty-five years since China began opening to the world.” Paul Mooney, a longtime China-based chronicler of that country’s human rights abuses, had his visa rejected in early November, in another sign of tightening for foreign correspondents in China. Reuters, Bloomberg, and the New York Times “don’t have the ability to influence the Chinese government,” said Mooney. “I think we really need to have some kind of action. Maybe against media executives in China, or officials — to give the message that this is not acceptable.”

What authoritarian regimes are finding out is that in the age of a democratized Web, which creates far more competition for stories among the press, and social media, which enables the citizens in many cases to turn the surveillance state against itself, the traditional avenues of influencing public opinion are subject to diminishing returns. All this means that state-run media are increasingly ineffective.

How to better control the conversation, in that environment? The Chinese response has been to elbow out the foreign press, if they don’t bow to bullying. The Russian response was somewhat novel. Putin dissolved the state news agency in favor of the creation of what is essentially a public-relations firm, dropping the pretense entirely. Putin has always been obsessed with image, but even this is a bit much–though more honest, I suppose, in its own twisted way.

Yet neither should be brushed off lightly. Authoritarian regimes that act like they have even more to hide probably do–or will in the near future.

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A Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim Walk Into a Bar…

No, I’m not going to tell a religious joke here on the blog, but I will staunchly defend anyone’s right to poke fun or criticize religion (or anything else) on the pretext of free speech. Defending religious sensibility, however, has become the latest front in a war pursued by diverse politicians to curtail free speech.

There has been much attention, for example, on efforts by leaders of Muslim states—from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai—to outlaw Islamophobia which, despite its name, has less to do with “fear” of Islam and more to do with constraining an internal debate about some of its more noxious interpretations.

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No, I’m not going to tell a religious joke here on the blog, but I will staunchly defend anyone’s right to poke fun or criticize religion (or anything else) on the pretext of free speech. Defending religious sensibility, however, has become the latest front in a war pursued by diverse politicians to curtail free speech.

There has been much attention, for example, on efforts by leaders of Muslim states—from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai—to outlaw Islamophobia which, despite its name, has less to do with “fear” of Islam and more to do with constraining an internal debate about some of its more noxious interpretations.

It would be wrong to single out leaders of majority-Muslim states for seeking to muzzle criticism and parody of religion at the expense of free speech or open debate. According to Russia’s Channel One (as translated by the Open Source Center), Russian parliamentarians have again approved a ramped-up anti-blasphemy law:

If the bill makes it through both houses of parliament and is then signed into law by Putin, those suspected of breaching its provisions will be liable to criminal prosecution. Those found guilty of “behavior in public that shows clear disrespect for society and is aimed at offending religious feelings” will face a fine of up to R3,000 (just under 100 dollars) or up to one year in prison. If the offense occurs in a place of worship, the maximum penalty will be a fine of R5,000 (just over 150 dollars) or up to three years in prison.”

It was an earlier iteration of this blasphemy law that Russian President Vladimir Putin used to send members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot to prison. Pussy Riot’s performance might not be my cup of tea—and their staging it impromptu in a cathedral certainly demonstrates bad taste—but bad taste is often a characteristic of youth.

The assault on free speech is not simply an Islamist problem, but now goes much deeper. It is simply the latest tactic for autocrats to achieve their desired result of muzzling speech and individual liberty. The fact that the erosion of rights is conducted in the name of tolerance and other buzzwords of the human rights community shows both how cynical autocrats have become and how politicized the human rights community is today. The tyranny of political correctness is far from defeated.

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Can Social Media Bring Free Speech to China?

Despite the Chinese government’s best efforts to block the spread and influence of social media, it appears that its stranglehold on information is slipping, forcing the government to take steps toward reform. Earlier this month, the Twitter feed administered by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began to report on the dangerously toxic air quality in the capital. The New York Times reported on the government’s efforts to shut it down:

The existence of the embassy’s machine and the @BeijingAir Twitter feed have been a diplomatic sore point for Chinese officials. In July 2009, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, Wang Shu’ai, told American diplomats to halt the Twitter feed, saying that the data “is not only confusing but also insulting,” according to a State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks. Mr. Wang said the embassy’s data could lead to “social consequences.”

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Despite the Chinese government’s best efforts to block the spread and influence of social media, it appears that its stranglehold on information is slipping, forcing the government to take steps toward reform. Earlier this month, the Twitter feed administered by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began to report on the dangerously toxic air quality in the capital. The New York Times reported on the government’s efforts to shut it down:

The existence of the embassy’s machine and the @BeijingAir Twitter feed have been a diplomatic sore point for Chinese officials. In July 2009, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, Wang Shu’ai, told American diplomats to halt the Twitter feed, saying that the data “is not only confusing but also insulting,” according to a State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks. Mr. Wang said the embassy’s data could lead to “social consequences.”

Despite these requests, the feed remains open to this day and is again reporting on hazardous and “beyond index” readings over the last several days. The Twitter feed confirms what Beijing residents already knew: smog levels in the capital are dangerous and are only becoming worse. Two years ago the feed infamously called that day’s pollution levels “crazy bad” when it was reported that the levels had surpassed the scale of the EPA’s Air Quality Index. Earlier this month, the feed registered readings of 755, far above the Index’s upper limit of 500. What was considered “crazy bad” by the U.S. Embassy two years ago is now becoming the city’s new normal. The Atlantic reported on the shift from the state-run national media’s reporting on the crisis, in which the presence of social media was credited with a surprising degree of frankness from officials:

Why, then, would the Chinese government allow such candor on the pollution question? Social media plays a role. Prominent Beijing real estate developer Pan Shiyi regularly tweets information about pollution to his several million followers on Sina’s Weibo [a microblogging site similar to Twitter], and the flurry of similar comments by more ordinary users has brought the pollution issue into the open. At a basic level, the government understands that once an issue hits critical mass, there’s little point in perpetuating the myth any further.

To downplay the pollution levels would have required the state-run media to ask Chinese citizens to completely ignore reality and sources on the readings from trusted social media accounts like those of the U.S. Embassy. Another test of the ability of social media to bring about change in China is currently taking place with the case of a blogger, Zhu Ruifeng, who has forced government officials to face the improper sexual and corrupt behavior of some of their peers. The Wall Street Journal reported on the phenomenon last week:

Officials running into trouble over sexual exploits isn’t new in China, but interest in their illicit sexual affairs of officials has recently soared, fueled by social media, the proliferation of pocket-size video cameras and rising public concerns over officials’ misbehavior.

Unfortunately, in this instance, it appears the Chinese government is striking back against Zhu’s reporting; police made an appearance at the blogger’s door last night. The Washington Post covered the intimidation:

“If tomorrow I still end up being taken away by Chongqing policemen,” Zhu said in his last message of the night, “I hope all of you will continue supporting me.”

That post was quickly deleted, apparently by censors.

The Post also explained the far-reaching implications of Zhu’s case: “If local authorities are allowed to punish whistleblowers, experts warn, the anti-corruption campaign will lose what little momentum it has gained in the past two months.”

The Chinese government’s response to outcry over Beijing pollution was heartening and it was hoped that with the increasing prevalence and power of social media, the government would have to bend more frequently to public opinion. The situation with Zhu could demonstrate the limits to the government’s new-found flexibility. How Zhu’s readers respond to his muffling has implications not only for his case and the latest anti-corruption campaign, but also for the future of free speech in China. 

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Turkish Government Censors “Of Mice and Men”

Like Lenny in James Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan doesn’t understand much about how the world works. He does understand, however, how to lead a slow motion social and religious revolution in Turkey and transform a once vibrant if dysfunctional democracy into a strongman dictatorship. In his first decade in power, Erdoğan’s animus has been strongest toward the press. Turkey now ranks below Russia and Zimbabwe in press freedom; Reporters Without Frontiers labels Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Indeed, Erdoğan strokes journalists like Lenny strokes rabbits.

Now it seems that the Turkish government is beginning to turn its animus toward classic literature. According to Hürriyet Daily News, “The İzmir Education Directorate’s books commission is seeking to ban certain parts of John Steinbeck’s classic ‘Of Mice and Men’ for several “immoral” passages, according to daily BirGün.” This should be especially worrying because Izmir is not some provincial Anatolian town, but in the heart of the Europeanized Mediterranean.

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Like Lenny in James Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan doesn’t understand much about how the world works. He does understand, however, how to lead a slow motion social and religious revolution in Turkey and transform a once vibrant if dysfunctional democracy into a strongman dictatorship. In his first decade in power, Erdoğan’s animus has been strongest toward the press. Turkey now ranks below Russia and Zimbabwe in press freedom; Reporters Without Frontiers labels Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Indeed, Erdoğan strokes journalists like Lenny strokes rabbits.

Now it seems that the Turkish government is beginning to turn its animus toward classic literature. According to Hürriyet Daily News, “The İzmir Education Directorate’s books commission is seeking to ban certain parts of John Steinbeck’s classic ‘Of Mice and Men’ for several “immoral” passages, according to daily BirGün.” This should be especially worrying because Izmir is not some provincial Anatolian town, but in the heart of the Europeanized Mediterranean.

Now, many American progressives and liberals will note that American conservatives have tried on moral and religious grounds to censor classic literature. Two wrongs don’t make a right. America has the courts and the legal structure to resist such attempts at censorship; the censors in Turkey, however, have an intolerant prime minister on their side. The AKP has already reformed high school curriculum to insert religious content into secular subjects. “Muslim philosophy” has replaced the classics of Western philosophy in the new AKP-imposed curriculum. Islam is therefore mandatory even for students who opt out of religious studies. In May 2006, Turkey’s chief negotiator for European Union accession ordered the removal of references to Turkey’s educational system as secular from a negotiating paper.

If European and American diplomats do not stand up to Turkey now, the censorship will only get worse. Perhaps it’s time for the Congressional Turket Caucus to stop running interference for Turkey and to start demanding Turkey adhere to the standard of Western democracy to which it once claimed to aspire.

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Re: WH Asks YouTube to Pull Anti-Islam Video

Alana’s right that the White House’s effort to encourage YouTube to take the video down is a “dangerous precedent.”  It’s also Sisyphean. YouTube is just the best known video hosting site: if they take the video down, it will show up elsewhere. Or for a nominal fee, its creators — or anyone else — could serve it from their own website. The whole approach is not only dangerous; it’s ridiculous. As the U.S. movie and music industries have found out, it’s impossible to win a war against the Internet if your only weapon is take-down notices.

The White House’s effort to play on YouTube’s terms of service could only have arisen in the context of an Administration that desperately wanted the video to go away, but recognized that mounting a legal challenge to it was a public opinion loser. I’d love to have been in the room when some bright young staffer said, “We can’t tell them to take it down.  We can’t even ask.  But what if we ask if it violates their terms of service?” I wonder if anyone in Silicon Valley is rethinking their support for Obama 2012 now.

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Alana’s right that the White House’s effort to encourage YouTube to take the video down is a “dangerous precedent.”  It’s also Sisyphean. YouTube is just the best known video hosting site: if they take the video down, it will show up elsewhere. Or for a nominal fee, its creators — or anyone else — could serve it from their own website. The whole approach is not only dangerous; it’s ridiculous. As the U.S. movie and music industries have found out, it’s impossible to win a war against the Internet if your only weapon is take-down notices.

The White House’s effort to play on YouTube’s terms of service could only have arisen in the context of an Administration that desperately wanted the video to go away, but recognized that mounting a legal challenge to it was a public opinion loser. I’d love to have been in the room when some bright young staffer said, “We can’t tell them to take it down.  We can’t even ask.  But what if we ask if it violates their terms of service?” I wonder if anyone in Silicon Valley is rethinking their support for Obama 2012 now.

But the White House’s effort to persuade YouTube to censor itself has a larger significance. Prof. Anthea Butler’s “Sam Bacile deserves arrest” op-ed in USA Today last week is already notorious. (From the balanced world of academia, where tenure is a license to pontificate and deadlines are overrated, I look forward to the publication of Prof. Butler’s The Gospel According to Sarah: How Sarah Palin and the Tea Party are Galvanizing the Religious Right, forthcoming — according to UPenn — from The New Press in Spring 2012.) But over on the Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh points out that it’s not just professors of religious studies who are eager to start arresting people and banning speech.

On Opinio Juris, Prof. Peter Spiro of Temple, a leading scholar of international law, is making the argument that we need to get with the program and recognize that Europe is right: hate speech can and should be banned. True, in the U.S., that tiresome First Amendment would seem to prevent this, but Prof. Spiro, like Harold Koh, now the legal adviser to the State Department, has an answer: treaties — and, more broadly, recognition of an “international consensus” — will (and should) be used to create “an international norm against hate speech [that would] supply a basis for prohibiting it, the First Amendment notwithstanding. . .  Deploying international law as an interpretive tool reflects a defensive strategy, . . . [that] may mask what is, in fact, a partial displacement of constitutional hegemony.”

The problem with the White House’s efforts is not just that they are wrong in principle and feeble in practice. It’s not just that it has handed all the agenda-defining power to Islamist radicals, and refused to recognize that the video is an act of political judo against the U.S., and a pretext for violence, not its cause, in the Middle East. It’s not even just that it plays into the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s seemingly lost campaign for U.N. action against the “defamation of religion,” which the Obama administration rightly opposed.

The problem is that Prof. Spiro has generously spelled out the progressive game plan: use the international consensus, and the occasional foreign outrage, against the U.S.’s exceptional tradition of free speech (and other forms of U.S. exceptionalism, such as Second Amendment rights) to persuade U.S. authorities to define and use legal means to restrict those rights. And that is exactly what the White House is trying to do.

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