Self-censorship is the act of censoring or classifying one's own discourse. This is done out of fear of, or deference to, the sensibilities or preferences (actual or perceived) of others and without overt pressure from any specific party or institution of authority. Self-censorship is often practiced by film producers, film directors, publishers, news anchors, journalists, musicians, and other kinds of authors including individuals who use social media.
In authoritarian countries, creators of artworks may remove material that their government might find controversial for fear of sanction by their governments. In pluralistic capitalist countries, repressive judicial lawmaking can also cause widespread "rivercrabbing" of Western media.
Self-censorship can also occur in order to conform to the expectations of the market. For example, the editor of a periodical may consciously or unconsciously avoid topics that will anger advertisers, customers, or the owners in order to protect their livelihood either directly (i.e., fear of losing their job) or indirectly (e.g., a belief that a book will be more profitable if it does not contain offensive material). This phenomenon is referred to as soft censorship.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of speech from all forms of censorship. Article 19 explicitly states that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
Freedom of Expression
People often communicate to affirm their identity and sense of belonging. People may express their opinions or withhold their opinions due to the fear of exclusion or unpopularity. Shared social norms and beliefs create a sense of belonging, but they can also create a suppression of expression in order to comply or belong. People may adjust their beliefs or opinions to go along with the majority attitude. There are different factors that contribute to self-censorship, such as gender, age, education, political interests, and media exposure. For some, the reason for their change in beliefs and opinions is rooted in fear of isolation and exclusion. For these people, the expression of their own beliefs is less important than the fear of negative reactions of others to the expression of those beliefs.
According to the survey on self-censorship in Germany, conducted from May 3–16, 2019 by Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), 59% of respondents said they can express their views among friends, but only 18% believe the same is possible in public. Only 17% of respondents express themselves freely on the Internet.
Journalists often censor themselves due to threats against them or their interests from another party, editorial instructions from their supervisor[s], perceived conflicts of interest with a media organization's economic sponsors, advertisers or shareholders, etc.). Self-censorship occurs when journalists deliberately manipulate their expression out of fear of, or deference to, the sensibilities or preferences (actual or perceived) of others and without overt pressure from any specific party or institution of authority. Self-censorship of journalists is most pervasive in societies where governments have official media censorship policies and where journalists will be jailed, fined, or simply lose their job if they do not follow the censorship rules. Organizations such as (Media Matters for America, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Democracy Now!, and the American Civil Liberties Union) have raised concerns about news broadcasting stations, particularly Fox News, censoring their own content to be less controversial when reporting on certain types of issues such as the War on Terror.
In their book Manufacturing Consent (1988), Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman argue that corporate ownership of news media very strongly encourages systematic self-censorship owing to market forces. In this argument, even with supposedly liberal media, bias and (often unconscious) self-censorship is evident in the selection and omission of news stories, and the framing of acceptable discussion, in line with the interests of the corporations owning those media.
The journalists have actively sought censorship advice from military authorities in order to prevent the inadvertent revelation of military secrets. In 2009, The New York Times succeeded in suppressing news of a reporter's abduction by militants in Afghanistan for seven months until his escape from captivity in order to 'reduce danger to the reporter and other hostages'.
Journalists have sometimes self-censored publications of news stories out of concern for the safety of people involved. Jean Pelletier, the Washington D.C. correspondent for the Montreal La Presse newspaper, uncovered a covert attempt by the Canadian government to smuggle US diplomats out of Iran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis before the "Canadian Caper" had reached its conclusion. In order to preserve the safety of those involved, he refused to allow the paper to publish the story until the hostages had left Iran, despite the considerable news value to the paper and writer.
Self-censorship became a quite frequent practice in Russia after 2000's government take-overs and consolidation of media, further deepened after 2014-2015 laws on 'undesirable organisations'.
As for Europe, threats to media freedom have shown a significant increase in recent years. Journalists and whistleblowers have experienced physical and psychological intimidation and threats. Self-censorship is one of the major consequences of such circumstances.
A study published in 2017 by the Council of Europe found that in the period 2014-2016 that 40% of journalists involved in the survey experienced some kind of unwarranted interference, in particular psychological violence, including slandering and smear campaigning, cyberbulling. Other forms of unwarranted interference include intimidation by interest groups, threats with force, intimidation by political groups, targeted surveillance, intimidation by the police, etc. In terms of geography, cases of physical assault were more common in the South Caucasus, followed by Turkey, but were present in other regions as well.
In China, the media has to go to even greater extents to censor much of the material that it would post online. Many companies have been shut down by government because of the content that they have published. Nearly 10,000 social media accounts in October 2018 were shut down that published entertainment and celebrity news. As well as 370 different streaming apps that were pulled off of the app stores for non-compliance. Due to these high numbers of government interference, the companies and networks that publish on the internet are now employing people and utilizing sophisticated programs to find videos and pictures that are offensive to remove before the government can get them in trouble.
James Gomez writes about this phenomenon in his book Self-Censorship: Singapore's Shame. He argues that citizens and foreigners in Singapore practice self-censorship that results in the censorship of others when it comes to political matters.
Religious affiliation is a topic in which many occupational fields and areas may be a source of self-censorship. One particular area is psychology. From the origins of psychology, the field has frequently viewed religion with distrust. Psychologists and therapists often refrain from claiming to be part of any religion believing in the possibility that any expressions of any devout faith may be viewed as markers for mental illness or distress. A 2013 survey from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that “relative to the general population, psychologists were more than twice likely to claim no religion, three times more likely to describe religion as unimportant in their lives, and five times more likely to deny belief in God.”
Self-censorship in scientific publications that have been criticized as politically motivated include scientists under the Third Reich withholding findings that disagreed with the commonly held beliefs in differences between races, or the refusal of these scientists under Hitler to support General Relativity (which got the reputation as "Jewish science"). More recently, certain scientists have withheld their findings related to climate changes caused by pollution and to endangered species.
Professor Heinz Klatt argues that hate laws, speech codes, cowardice, and political correctness have resulted in an intellectually repressive atmosphere in modern-day academic circles, with widespread self-censorship on topics like homosexuality, (learning) disabilities, Islam, and genetic differences between human races and sexes.
Risks from scientific publications
In the early days of atomic physics, it was realized that discoveries regarding nuclear fission and the chain reaction might be used for both beneficial and harmful purposes - on the one hand, such discoveries could have important applications for medicine and energy production, however on the other hand, they might also lead to the production of unprecedented weapons of mass destruction. Leo Szilard argues that if dangerous discoveries were kept secret, the development and use of such weapons might be avoided. Similarly, findings in the field of medicine and biotechnology could facilitate production of biological weapons of mass destruction. In 2003 members of the Journal Editors and Authors Group, 32 leading journal editors, perceived the threat from biological warfare as sufficiently high to warrant a system of self-censorship on the public dissemination of certain aspects of their community's research. The statement agreed on declared:
We recognize that the prospect of bioterrorism has raised legitimate concerns about the potential abuse of published information... We are committed to dealing responsibly and effectively with safety and security issues that may be raised by papers submitted for publication, and to increasing our capacity to identify such issues as they arise...[O]n occasions an editor may conclude that the potential harm of publication outweighs the potential societal benefits... the paper should be modified, or not be published...
Taste and decency
Taste and decency are other areas in which questions are often raised regarding self-censorship. Art or journalism involving images or footage of murder, terrorism, war and massacres may cause complaints as to the purpose to which they are put. Curators and editors will frequently censor these images to avoid charges of prurience, shock tactics or invasion of privacy.
When the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art was interviewed regarding his decision to whitewash an antiwar mural showing dollar-draped military coffins, he speculated that the mural would have offended the community in which it was placed. He then added that "there were zero complaints, because I took care of it right away,".
Information society and hygiene
Self-censorship can be considered as a method of preventive medicine and health maintenance: it stands in connection with the development of the information society, information overload and information pollution, the evolving information ecology and is associated with informational hygiene.
- Thought suppression
- International Freedom of Expression Exchange
- List of songs deemed inappropriate by Clear Channel following the September 11, 2001 attacks
- Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
- OB marker
- Overton window
- Opinion corridor
- Hawthorne effect
- Media bias
- Political correctness
- Bradley effect
- Social desirability bias
- Preference falsification
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