Censorship in the Media: Pros and Cons

One of the basic assumptions of a democracy is that it has a free and fair media. Many constitutions make it clear that freedom of the press is necessary for a functioning society. The American constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and many other founding documents have explicitly enshrined it in law.

From time to time, questions are raised about if and to what extent the government should be censoring the press. There is a sense that some information may not be suitable for the public domain and may, in fact, endanger the population. This is particularly pressing in an age of international terror and in a time when security is paramount in many people's minds.

Why Censorship?

Security

One argument for government censorship of the media is to protect the security of citizens. In an era when threats to our safety come from international terrorism, it can be argued that not everything is fit to print. If something a journalist or a media outlet releases could put covert operations in jeopardy or exposes something that is vital to maintaining security, it could compromise the entire society. Some people believe that organizations like WikiLeaks or people like Edward Snowden are compromising national security when they leak secret documents to government agencies, even under the aegis of the public's right to know. The argument is that this material has been kept from the media in order to guarantee the safety of soldiers, government agents and the public at large. 

Protecting Children

Another argument that is often put forth for media censorship is protecting children from harmful content in the media. There have been a wide variety of studies that link violence in the media to an increased incidence of violence amongst children. There is also the argument that the broadcasting of sexualized images is having a negative impact on children at large and young women in particular. The idea of absolute freedom of speech is challenged by the notion that protecting vulnerable children is one of the roles of government and that if the media insists on broadcasting or publishing harmful material, they need to be curtailed in that endeavour. Of course, this argument for government censorship can be extended to the online media where a wide variety of content considered harmful to children is widely available.

Preventing A Loss of Morale

In an era when we will continue to fight wars on foreign soil with the stated goal of protecting national security, some people argue that some media censorship is necessary to stop a loss of morale from happening in society. The argument points out that if every negative event that occurs in a foreign war is reported, it might impact on the broader mission. It might be stated that average people are unaware of the risks soldiers take and therefore are critical of what happens on the battlefield without understanding the context in which those events occur. The thought is that if the media publicizes every loss, soldiers will lose the support of the public and therefore their ability to defend national interests will be impacted negatively.

Against Media Censorship

The Public's Need To Know

One central reason to challenge government censorship of media is to protect the public's right to know. The idea behind so many constitutions enshrining press freedom is that without an informed public, democracy can't function. Allowing a free press means that journalists are free to go out and report on stories of public interest, even if they involve the government or officials connected to it. Some might argue that some information should be withheld for security purposes but that argument can be countered by pointing out that more knowledge, in fact, may keep the population safer.

Freedom of Expression

Most modern democracies also enshrine the concept of freedom of expression. The idea of citizens being able to freely air views without fear of retribution is another crucial one in many constitutions. Press freedom and the ability to write or speak freely go hand in hand. If citizens are not able to ask questions about what their government is doing in their names, the idea of democracy suffers.

All one has to do is look to China to see what happens when press freedom is curtailed. Recently there has been a spate of violent attacks on journalists in Hong Kong which many are linking to the Chinese government's harsh suppression of press freedom. The government of the People's Republic goes so far as to jail and silence bloggers for attempting to express their viewpoints.

Maintaining Democratic Freedoms

Press campaigns in the past have helped do everything from ending Jim Crow laws in the American South to revealing the extent to which governments have been conducting covert surveillance on populations across the world from Britain to America. Without a press that can operate free of censorship, societies can't hold politicians to account or address injustices in their structures.


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