Politics, News

Media censorship casts a huge shadow on the future of our democracy

I live in a country where even political cartoons aren't really tolerated, and news of politicians breaking journalists' cameras or destroying stations are not uncommon.

It’s been six days since the government of Kenya blocked three major TV channels in the country, disabling the broadcast of the informal “inauguration” of opposition leader Raila Odinga. Four days since the court ordered the channels to resume broadcasting. Yet the four channels still remain blocked, and if this isn’t a media blackout, I don’t know what else would be.

Odinga, who claims that the recent elections were rigged, swore in as the “people’s president” at Uhuru Park, Nairobi. The inauguration happened on the 30th of January 2018, and the present government consequently shut down KTN, NTV and Citizen Stations, so that the self-declared ceremony would not be covered by the media channels.

While the interesting situation of Kenya’s politics is a story for another day, the most outrageous thing about this scenario is how the government went so far as to shut down the media channels, resulting in them controlling the dissemination of information to the public.

That brings us to the central question: to what extent can the government control the country’s media?

The range of freedom each country’s media has differed from land to land, and there are some citizens who can brazenly criticize their leaders with no consequences, whereas in some places, it’s an offense. I live in Sri Lanka, where even political cartoons aren’t really tolerated, and news of politicians breaking journalists’ cameras or destroying stations are not uncommon. It amuses me every time I see Americans openly mock their president, as it’s simply not done in countries like mine.

It seems as if I like to use my neighboring country as an example for everything, but India really has one of the most twisted censorship boards I’ve ever heard of. The government decides to not only control media channels which might broadcast content that undermines their authority, they don’t tolerate movies and TV shows with even a mention of any concept the government doesn’t agree with. Forbes says that the Indian government cripples its own film industry, and it isn’t an exaggeration. The government bans or severely controls any movie that tries to promote revolutionary thinking, challenges the norms or questions the authority. No political overtones in your content, and absolutely no satires or spoofs.

In countries like China, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea, being a journalist is a nightmare. Not only are the laws extremely strict, media people are constantly looking over their shoulder in fear. The authoritarian approach of these countries is just scary, and they extend to social media as well.

Social media blackouts are another extreme, as it undermines the freedom of every single person in the country, and in 2016, some African countries became examples of this phenomenon. These incidents gave birth to a campaign called #keepiton that heavily criticizes internet shutdowns, calling them a violation of human rights.

The right to information and freedom of speech are two fundamental rights of any citizen, and governments repeatedly ignore them when they decide to apply their influence and control over media of any form. Yes, there are times when governments provide justification, especially during sensitive periods such as war or elections, where information could be leaked, minds can be altered and influenced, and the public can be misled. However, censorship shouldn’t be an excuse to keep the public in ignorance or control their views from being expressed.

The debate also stretches to surveillance and monitoring, and though Twitter loves to joke about the FBI webcam surveillance (honestly, check out these tweets, they are hilarious ), the whole concept of the FBI setting up a task force to monitor social media is actually a serious matter. Where’s the freedom of expression? And does being the government means you get a free pass on invading the privacy of your people?

With the current discussion of net neutrality, it really seems as if we have gone back decades in time instead of moving forward. My mother used to joke that when she was dating my father, who worked abroad at that time, there was always a third party listening to their phone conversations as the country had heavy monitoring and regulations for international communications. My mother claims that it was as if her desi parents had set up a chaperone for her.

But it wouldn’t be exactly as amusing today, when such controls are imposed by the government on media in the current era of media culture. The censorship of media – whether it be news channels, movies and TV shows or social media – is a sensitive matter, and an extreme government influence can undermine the basics of democracy, and we’ll be leading way for exploitation under the guise of censorship.