When regulating the news becomes censorship

Requiring licenses for websites gives governments a license to censor.

Recent laws passed in Singapore and Jordan requiring news websites to register could be used for censorship [AFP]

Once widely accepted, the practice of licensing journalists is falling out of favour in many countries. The rise of citizen media has posed a challenge for governments to control the flow of news and to define who exactly is a journalist. Yet some governments, fearing the democratisation of media for the loss of power it poses to them, are using old rhetoric to solve a new “problem”: What constitutes the news?

In Singapore, headlines cry out: “New censorship rule bans gay content in Singapore.” And in Jordan, an amendment to the Press and Publications Law just enabled the government to block hundreds of sites, among them Al Jazeera and the website of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Who is a journalist?

Today, if you ask the question “who is a journalist?” to a group of professionals, you will surely receive a variety of answers. Expand that group to include individuals from different regions of the world, and the answer gets even more complicated. Another question – what is the role of a journalist in society – does, and has historically, generated debate, perhaps even more so today given the wealth of platforms for news creation.

Post-World War II, many governments seeking to boost development through journalism chose a strategy that involved licensing journalists. In some places, such as Latin America (where nine countries still keep laws on the books requiring journalists to register), journalists have often preferred this system to the alternative – allowing publishers to dictate who can be a journalist.

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In most of today’s Middle East, licenses are required; and in some countries – such as Saudi Arabia – authorities go so far as to appoint editors to publications. Many African and Asian countries take a similar approach. In the past few years, US politicians have repeatedly floated the idea of a licensing regime.

A license to control

While the original idea to license may have been noble, in this era of high connectivity, new attempts to regulate news content are merely about control.

Over the past decade, many have found the internet a useful tool for circumventing licensing structures, as sites like WordPress and Blogger make it simple for anyone to operate a website. While in some countries online censorship has challenged this alternative, in many others, independent bloggers and journalists have thrived.

Now, a new form of control threatens the ecosphere of digital journalism. Whereas independent journalists and bloggers once circumvented licensing requirements by publishing on sites hosted outside of their countries, some governments – among them Jordan and Singapore – in an effort to rid the network of independent journalism are placing licensing requirements on news websites. 

Defining “news”

In Singapore, a recent rule put forth by the country’s Media Development Authority (MDA) requires certain websites to obtain a license at a cost of 50,000 SGD (roughly 39,000 USD). Included amongst those that must register are sites that have 50,000 daily visitors and which post at least one “Singapore news programme” – defined as any programme that contains “news, intelligence, report of occurrence, or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific or any other aspect of Singapore in any language (whether paid or free and whether at regular intervals or otherwise) but does not include any programme produced by or on behalf of the government” – per week.

Such a loose definition of “news” makes it all too easy for Singaporean authorities to target opposition websites, or – as feared by activists – sites which violate existing rules about gay and lesbian content. Presumably, those sites which don’t comply will face censorship.

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Singaporeans shrugging off concerns of censorship need only look to Jordan, where an amendment to the country’s Press and Publications law has resulted in the censorship of around 300 websites. Although the amendment was announced months ago and was meant only to target Jordanian news sites that did not obtain licenses, authorities have apparently used the licensing regime as a license to censor: According to Arabian Business, amongst the blocked sites are Qatar-based Al Jazeera, US-based Penthouse, and the website of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

The Jordanian regulation is facing considerable opposition. In August 2012, the “Silicon Valley of the Middle East” was the site of both physical and digital protests, with many news sites blacking out in a SOPA-style protest. Nevertheless, the government so far has the upper hand, as activists struggle to find a solution that will hold weight with the government.

A license to censor

Requiring websites to be licensed – just like requiring journalists to be licensed – gives governments a license to censor. As we’ve just seen in Jordan, censorship regimes are all too easily manipulated by overzealous authorities and – when bereft of transparency and accountability – can be used to censor just about anything. We’ve seen this in countries ranging from the Middle East to the United Kingdom: Without exception, once the technology to censor websites is put in place, there is always collateral damage.

Almost universally, governments state the problem as being one of objectivity. Non-professional journalists, they claim, aren’t capable of reporting the facts alone, but are inclined toward inserting their own viewpoints into stories. While some may argue that this makes for a richer news ecosphere, authorities see it as a threat to power.

It is, unfortunately, true that journalists and bloggers are capable of twisting the truth, intentionally or otherwise. This is a problem that cannot be solved by censorship, rather, it is incumbent upon consumers of news to learn how to recognise thorough reporting.

Rather than rely on governments to dictate who is a journalist, or what is the news, then, we should instead be pushing them toward funding educational initiatives that would teach the next generation to be better news consumers. Censorship won’t solve that problem.

Jillian York is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork