Governments Cannot Ignore Soft Censorship

2015-10-29. The release today of three new reports outlining the effects of soft censorship on the media in Hungary, Serbia and Mexico makes for alarming, but altogether unsurprising reading.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | October 29, 2015

Governments in the three countries appear unwilling to follow recommendations that would guarantee the non-discriminatory allocation of public funds and government advertising across the media. Having discovered such a subtle and effective method of control, officials are clearly loath to give up one of the last-remaining means of controlling independent media.

For those wishing to stifle the press soft censorship is a far ‘tidier’, more convenient form of official censorship as opposed to direct, inevitably more violent tactics such as killings, beatings, imprisonment and closures. Governments can simply wash their hands of their involvement; such is the obscurity surrounding both the evidence (often lost in reams upon reams of data, if existent at all) and the impenetrability of the topic. “Research on soft censorship is certainly extremely difficult, largely due to the opacity and lack of transparency of official data,” confirms WAN-IFRA project manager, Mariona Sanz Cortell. “If we care about media credibility and believe in the watchdog role of journalism, however, we have an obligation to persevere in denouncing and preventing – as arduous as it may be – all those rather grey financial and administrative practices that are used to influence reporting.”

While the few high-profile media freedom cases that attract global headlines are unlikely to feature tax inspections or questionable advertising subsidies (at least not in the lead), this does not diminish the effectiveness of such measures when it comes to influencing both journalistic practice and wider public opinion. The more direct forms of censorship remain of great concern for journalists and media rights organisations in many parts of the world. However, it would not be unreasonable to assume soft censorship, or indirect censorship – defined as “an array of official actions intended to influence media output, short of legal or extra-legal bans, direct censorship of specific content, or physical attacks on media outlets or media practitioners” – is likely to proportionally affect a greater number of media, far more insidiously. The evidence from our global monitoring certainly supports this.

By using financial power to pressure media outlets, punish critical reporting and reward favourable coverage, biased government interventions in media sectors not only distort the market but also make it difficult for media to exercise their essential watchdog role.

While this may be old hat to anyone who has contemplated the phrase ‘who’s watching the watchers,’ it is nonetheless surprising – given the ubiquitous nature of soft censorship practices – that the phenomenon has not caused more public outrage. Don Podesta, manager and editor at the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington D.C. argues we should learn from what leading investigative media has taught us. “It is very difficult to combat soft censorship in the absence of strong public interest in the matter. Government watchdogs in civil society and the news media often expose corruption – such as taxpayer money going into the pockets of government cronies awarded inflated contracts to build bridges or roads. So too then, NGOs that support media should cry foul and raise public awareness when governments do the very same thing with their advertising budgets.”

Ringing the alarm bell through detailed research is one way of raising concern more widely. In Hungary, pressures on free and independent media
are accelerating as the Fidesz government enacts new and ever-broader laws and regulations aimed at controlling media output. “The whole media market has become a battlefield for politics,” insists Dr. Gábor Polyák, head of Budapest-based watchdog organisation and think-tank Mertek Media Monitor. “Instead of business it is the governing party that decides on establishing newspapers and news portals, or buying and financing national broadcasters. Under these circumstances there remains almost no place for reasonable discussion.”

As outlined in the new report, “Articles of Asphyxiation: Soft Censorship in Hungary 2015 Update”, the introduction of an advertising tax and other recently passed laws, together with the unfair and opaque allocation of government advertising, demonstrates that intervention in the media market aggressively increased throughout 2014 and the first half of 2015.

On paper at least, “Media Reform Stalled in the Slow Lane: Soft Censorship in Serbia 2015 Update” highlights small improvements in the media-related legal framework in Serbia such as the new Law on Public Information and Media designed to regulate financial relations between the state and private media outlets. However, as reiterated by the new report, efforts to reform legislation alone will not suffice if the Serbian government does not fully respect these regulations.Biased subsidies to media outlets, selective government advertising contracts, and manipulation regarding licensing continue to persist in the country.

“Research into soft censorship hits the weakest spot of the Serbian media,” says Tanja Maksic, programme coordinator at Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) Serbia. “Over the years, budgetary money has enabled the survival of media in what has been essentially a poor and oversaturated market. But it has also served as a highly efficient tool to control them.” BIRN’s research in Serbia reveals a number of undemocratic practices with regards to budgetary allocations that have interfered with editorial independence and distorted fair competition. “In the long run, this has caused curves in media freedoms and increased pressure on free speech in Serbia,” says Ms. Maksic.

In Mexico, a lack of political will to tackle soft censorship is also the issue. Despite President Enrique Peña Nieto’s 2012 pledge to create a body to oversee government advertising, the regulation of the sector remains weak. At the same time, lawmakers have failed to meet deadlines to establish a legal framework, while new legislation proposed by members of the Mexican Congress to regulate government advertising has not progressed. “Breaking Promises, Blocking Reform: Soft Censorship in Mexico 2015 Update” concludes that despite these presidential promises, soft censorship – most conspicuously in the form of the partisan allocation of government advertising – remains a powerful impediment to a free, independent and pluralistic media in Mexico.

For Paulina Castaño, government advertising researcher at advocacy and research organisation Fundar, the lack of concrete government action stifles both debate and decision-making. “State advertising is unregulated in Mexico, which leads to opacity and soft censorship practices,” says Ms. Castaño. “Limiting government advertising spending and making it more transparent therefore forms the bulk of our work.” While positive developments such as a General Law on Transparency and Access to Public Government Information has promised broader access to government advertising data, Fundar’s research shows that compliance has so far “proven extremely weak.”

Overall, soft censorship remains possibly the least talked-about yet most effective – and arguably most widespread – form of official pressure to affect media worldwide. The conclusions from the three updated country reports collectively reflect this; similarly, they echo findings from our Global Review, published in 2014, that documents significant cases in some 30 countries.

Without genuine political will to recognise the problem and reform the systems that perpetuate (and ultimately benefit from) soft censorship, or likewise more willingness to provide access to the crucial data that would allow media and civil society to independently investigate the progress of change, it becomes increasingly difficult to isolate the impact of soft censorship and reverse its detrimental effects on free, independent information in our societies.

As our monitoring continues and more cases are reported, almost on a daily basis, WAN-IFRA only sees the trend accelerating. Wider research ultimately means more exposure; the dogged investigations of journalists and NGOs will continue to uncover, despite a lack of cooperation and the often-deliberate subterfuges of officials reluctant to come clean, the murky world of political influence on a ‘free’ press. The only certainty is that the information will, eventually, inevitably, get out.

Surely it would be better for officials guilty of these practices to volunteer the information and begin the process of putting their own houses in order, instead of waiting to be exposed as having deliberately manipulated the system for their own gains. Perhaps one day they will recognise their own self-interest in doing so. In the meantime, governments will find evermore-sophisticated ways of manipulating media coverage. The longer they ignore the viable solutions proposed by leading researchers to combat the problem of soft censorship, they remain complicit in undermining media freedoms, despite their many promises to the contrary.

Andrew Heslop
Director, Press Freedom

Through more detailed research into soft censorship practices globally, WAN-IFRA and CIMA are drawing attention to the kinds of widespread and deleterious problems facing independent media that rarely generate the same level of international outrage as direct attacks on the press. The findings and recommendations of the soft censorship research series aim to contribute to the implementation of fair and transparent rules that are necessary for the development of independent media sectors around the world.

Country reports detailing soft censorship practices in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Montenegro are currently being finalised and will be published later in 2015.

WAN-IFRA also collects and regularly publishes updated information on the misuse of financial and administrative powers to manipulate reporting, which can be found – together with the soft censorship report series – on the Twitter feed @SoftCensorship. All materials are free to download and share.

The three new reports are available to download for free:






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