What censorship really looks like
Censorship is a strong word. It was bandied about by some very naive reporters after a live Zoom media conference given by Gov. Leon Guerrero last month, so I would like to take this opportunity to educate some of those reporters on what censorship is, and what it isn’t. (Full disclosure here: I work for the governor, but this is my column, not hers.
Plus, over my nearly 20-year career in journalism before I went to work for the government, I worked as a reporter, producer, newspaper columnist, magazine editor, and TV news director (and won a few awards doing so, including the 1999 Sunshine Award from the unfortunately now-dormant Micronesia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists), so I know of whence I write.
The National Coalition Against Censorship says: “According to Webster’s Dictionary, to ‘censor’ means ‘to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable.’”
The ACLU defines censorship as “the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive,’ and says censorship happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others.”
And from the all-knowing Wikipedia: “Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information, on the basis that such material is considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or ‘inconvenient.’”
Was asking reporters to hold off on questions not involving the governor’s plan to reopen the government until after the live portion of the Zoom media conference, when reporters would be able to ask other subject questions and then be emailed answers, censorship? Especially since they were informed that this would be the protocol of this particular conference beforehand.
No, it was not. I know it is hard to believe, young bucks, but sometimes reporters don’t get to call the shots. Sometimes, those are the rules of engagement. Those of us with more than a few years of experience know this.
Were reporters suppressed from asking questions not related to the subject at hand? No. They actually got to ask their questions during the live feed. We heard them. (One reporter was accidentally muted during her question but then her audio was brought back up. This is what spurred the censorship cry. I have accidentally muted myself during Zoom conferences. It is a very easy mistake to make.) Were reporters given answers to those questions?
Not just then. They were told - again - that the governor was only addressing questions about the plan at that point, but that If they emailed the communications person, they would get answers. They weren’t given what they wanted at the time they wanted it, but again, sometimes those are the rules of engagement. But to cry censorship? Again, no.
Dr. Tom Brislin, a journalism expert and associate dean at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, says that technically, censorship is prior restraint of publication. “When a reporter decides not to use a statement by a public official in a story, is that censoring the official? Or a news outlet decides not to cover a particular press conference? Of course not. It's professional judgment. If that same official declines to answer a question is that censorship? Again, no,” Brislin wrote in reply to my query to him about censorship. “If true censorship existed, we couldn't write about censorship because it would be censored - prior restraint. It's self-defining.”
There was no prior restraint here. Reporters were simply told their off-subject questions could be asked and answered after the Zoom conference. Whining because you didn’t get what you wanted at the time you wanted it only makes you look unprofessional.
Let’s take a look at some examples of real censorship highlighted by a 2015 article in the Columbia Journalism Review entitled, “21st-century censorship:” In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban uses his government to collect information about journalists and fines, taxes and threatens the licenses of media critical of his regime.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has jailed dozens of journalists and used tax investigations and huge fines to punish critical coverage of his actions. Russia’s infamous Vladimir Putin has blocked multiple media outlets and simply launched his own government media operations.
In Venezuela, the government of President Nicolás Maduro passed legislation limiting press freedom, restricted access to public information, forced programs off the air, and used foreign currency controls to create a scarcity of newsprint, which is imported.
And let’s not forget the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where in 2018 thugs working for Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman permanently censored Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by cutting him into pieces in an embassy in Turkey, presumably because MBS didn’t like Khashoggi’s criticism of his regime.
An example not of censorship but of attempted media intimidation on Guam happened back in May 2010, when the KUAM News offices were raided by police officers. The reason given was that police were searching for a copy of a confidential document aired by KUAM that dealt with the hiring of a police officer trainee who had not passed a required examination.
Now those are cases of censorship and media intimidation. Asking reporters to hold off on other questions until later so the government can announce details of its recovery plan from the Covid pandemic is not among them. Again: if you get to ask the question and get an answer, even if it is not as immediate as you “demand” it to be,
That’s. Not. Censorship. To any reporter who thinks it is: Perhaps you are in the wrong profession.
Jayne Flores is the director of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs and a long-time journalist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.