Killing us softly : Soft censorship in the media

IN Censorship | 16/06/2014
Soft censorship promotes positive coverage ofâ€"and punishes media outlets that criticizeâ€"officials or their actions.
It is on the rise all over the world. Excerpt from the recently released WAN-IFRA report ‘Soft Censorship, Hard Impact’.
A crucial first step in battling soft censorship is recognizing and exposing its existence. Investigations and analyses by media, civil society groups and academics are now using corporate reports, public documents, freedom of information requests, and wide-ranging interviews to reveal the extent of soft censorship in several countries.
These findings are being transformed into advocacy that demands full transparency and fairness in allocation of all public funds for advertising and media support—and promotes the highest ethical professional standards for media outlets and individual media practitioners in all relations with governments at every level.
Responding to Soft Censorship: Expose and Reform
Soft censorship is used to promote positive coverage of—and to punish media outlets that criticize—officials or their actions. It is the practice of influencing news coverage of state bodies and officials and their policies and activities through allocation
or withholding of state media spending (subsidies, advertising, and other media contracts or assistance), or selective application of licensing, permits or regulations, to shape the broad media landscape; promote or diminish the economic viability of specific media houses or outlets; and/or reward or punish content produced by individual media workers.
These various types of soft censorship are deployed to different degrees and at different times in many countries, and are all potentially debilitating to free and independent media. Soft censorship can evoke pervasive self-censorship that restricts reporting while maintaining the appearance of media freedom.
Governments habitually seek new avenues of soft censorship to influence media content.
Soft Censorship, Hard Impact focuses primarily on financial aspects of official soft censorship: pressures to influence news coverage through biased, and/or nontransparent allocation or withholding of state/ government media advertising and subsidies, or similar financial instruments; use of paid news and outright bribery; and abuse of regulatory powers.
Reflecting recent research, this report groups examples of these efforts into the five categories below. These classifications are neither exclusive nor exhaustive, and sometimes converge and/or are deployed as parallel or complimentary soft censorship tactics.
Advertising and influence
The abusive allocation of government advertising to reward positive coverage and punish critical coverage is doubly pernicious, as taxpayer money and public wealth is used and abused to promote partisan or personal interests. The opaque and purposefully prejudiced use of official advertising subverts both media freedom and public knowledge.
The abusive allocation of subsidies also means that taxpayer money is used to promote partisan or private commercial interests. In numerous countries, direct subsidies distort the media landscape by propping up state media, or through biased distribution to media backing incumbent regimes.
Paid “News”
Paid content disguised as news is a widespread form of media manipulation. Audiences are
denied the honest and impartial reporting that professional journalism should supply. In many cases, arrangements formalized with media outlets institutionalize biased coverage of crucial matters.
At the most delinquent end of the spectrum, journalists, editors and media outlets are often offered—and sometimes seek—direct payments or other compensation to shape or slant their reporting. It is a form of soft censorship often used in countries where journalists are poorly paid to favour and reward positive coverage.
Licenses, Imports, Audits
Several other tools and techniques are used as tools of soft censorship, although the boundaries between these and hard censorship can be indistinct or overlapping. Onerous licensing regimes are one example. Restricting access to physical means of production, such as barring import of newsprint,
is another. Inspections and tax audits might be
used as harassment that imposes serious costs
and inconvenience on targeted media outlets or individuals, or means to shutter independent or critical voices.
Beyond the scope of the investigations
 detailed here are myriad forms of unofficial indirect censorship that may affect media output. These may rise from cultural, religious, or other social norms and traditions, or adherence to societal narratives that influence institutional and individual reporting, and which might be promoted or imposed by a variety of non-state actors.
An early elaboration of the concept of indirect government censorship as soft censorship was offered by the Open Society Justice Initiative [OSJI— which continues to partner in these reports] in a 2005 paper that described three main forms: abuse of public funds and monopolies, abuse of regulatory and inspection powers, and extra-legal pressures.“Indirect pressures,” the paper observed, “combine a semblance of legality with clearly unlawful methods and goals of improperly influencing media content and other forms of political expression.”
….these eight overarching recommendations address the most salient problems of soft censorship globally:
1.Laws and regulations guaranteeing fair and transparent official advertising should be enacted and properly enforced.10
2.Impartial audience measuring systems based on certified standards should be established to ensure that advertising allocation can be based on technical criteria.
3.All state funding for media development and support should be allocated in public competitions on principles of transparent and non-discriminatory state aid under equal conditions for all media.
4.All state funding for media development and support should be paid in a transparent manner, with clear audit and reporting rules.
5.Laws should provide significant penalties to state bodies and officials violating prohibitions on use of public funds to promote individual or partisan political interests.
6.Any state support of content production must be clearly separated from its role as advertiser, with editorial integrity explicitly guaranteed, and be subject to transparent review.
7.All broadcast licenses and spectrum allocation should be fully, clearly, and transparently regulated by law, based on objective, clear, public, and democratic criteria.
8.Media owners and journalists should adopt clear codes of conduct that ban accepting bribes or any other gifts or compensation that influence coverage.
(The findings of this paper, Soft Censorship, Hard Impact, are based on extensive research from several media freedom groups and reporting by numerous media outlets. It offers examples of soft censorship in 30 countries and summarizes in-depth soft censorship reports on four countries-Hungary, Malaysia, Mexico, and Serbia.
Download the full report here. )


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