Top three: Norway, Finland, and Sweden led the World Press Freedom Index last year.

The US has charged China and Iran of censorship over the coronavirus epidemic. Both Apple and Disney have been accused of censorship. What is censorship? And why is it such a hot topic?

  • What is censorship?

    Simply put, censorship stops someone from saying what they want, or being aware of what they should know. It can be applied to anything from cartoons to countries, to a personal level, such as self-censorship, or to a global level. The censorship of hate speech, for example, is universal.

    And the media is often the first victim. It can be weaponised, as in Adolf Hitler’s use of the media to spread propaganda. Or it can be persecuted – such as the Charlie Hebdo shooting that triggered the free speech movement “Je suis Charlie”.

  • Why does censorship exist?

    In the 5th Century BC, the philosopher Socrates was executed. His crime? The Athenian government was threatened by his teachings.

    Censorship is a form of control. One that was challenged by the invention of the printing press in 1440 . It created a public battlefield and freedom of the press became a nuisance to the ruling power. In 1563, King Charles IX of France actually made a law so that nothing could be printed without his permission. It seems the dictators of today have followed suit. Ahem, Kim Jong-un.

  • What is self-censorship?

    “I want to say it, but I shouldn’t.” Sound familiar?

    This is self-censorship, stopping yourself from saying something for worry of offence or rejection. A young child usually has next to no filter, often asking socially taboo questions like: “Why is that man so fat?”

    And what is acceptable is often subjective. The journalist Alastair Stewart, for example, was criticised for his tweet calling a black Twitter user an “ape”. His actual tweet was a Shakespeare quote. Was it a cleverly disguised racist insult, or an erudite crack at its recipient?

  • Surely, it isn’t all bad?

    It can be bitter sweet. Take internet censorship. The internet has opened up the world, and the world has welcomed it. In 2016, the United Nations (UN) acknowledged that access to the internet was a human right. But even Sir Tim Berners-Lee recognised the need for laws to prevent the dark forces of the web. Cambridge Analytica, for example, used the internet to spread propaganda that hugely impacted the 2016 US presidential election.

    Censorship is a double edged sword. It can both cause harm, such as the spreading of propaganda, but it could also protect – by blocking that propaganda.

  • Is it always political?

    Not at all. From the burning of the Maya codices to the Russian removal of the gay love scenes in the Elton John biopic Rocketman, censorship often targets culture and religion. But religion can also be the censor as well as the censored. As can be seen in 21st-Century Iran, where over 99% of the population is Islamic. There the Gasht-e Ershad, or morality police, ensure all women wear a hijab.

  • Who is fighting against censorship?

    Many take to social media to express their opinions. Everyone from the Dalai Lama to Donald Trump has Twitter – it is an open field for anyone wanting to take a swing.

    Other forms of media are also in action. The South Korean radio station, Free North Korea Radio, broadcasts news from all over the world into North Korea with the hope that someone is listening. Its founder, Kim Seong Min, was a defector from the North Korean army.

  • Is it getting better?

    Because there are so many different types and strengths of censorship, it is hard to compare. But the world does seem to be becoming more liberal.

    The rise of the LGBTQ+ movement has defeated many political and religious censors, opening up conversation about previously taboo topics. The media has helped enormously in spreading a worldwide message of acceptance.

You Decide

  1. Does the world need censorship?


  1. Write a diary entry from the perspective of a citizen in a modern dictatorship, such as North Korea, China, Russia or Venezuela.

Word Watch

Hate speech
The expression of hate towards someone because of race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.
Means of mass communication, such as newspapers, radio, television, and the internet.
The spreading of biased or misleading information for political gain.
Charlie Hebdo shooting
The 2015 attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
Freedom of the press
The right to circulate opinions without government censorship. The rise of the internet brought freedom of the media, the online right to opinion.
Kim Jong-un
The Supreme Leader of North Korea since 2011.
Something that is seen as socially or religiously unacceptable.
An individual’s view of a situation.
Being very learned or knowledgeable.
United Nations
A collection of governments that work together to maintain peace and security.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee
The inventor of the World Wide Web.
Cambridge Analytica
A British consulting firm that was used the personal data of millions of Facebook users without consent. They used it to spread positive and negative propaganda that is thought to have helped Donald Trump win the 2016 US presidential election.
Burning of the Maya codices
In the 16th Century, Spanish missionaries burned the books of the Maya civilisation in Central America, claiming they were against Christianity.
A biographical film.
Morality police
Enforcers of religious law and custom.
A head covering worn by Muslim women in public.
Dalai Lama
The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. The 14th and current Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyasto.
LGBTQ+ movement
A movement dedicated to the social progress of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual, and queer people, among others.

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