Media Censorship

Media censorship is used all around the world to keep people in check and prevent them from being exposed to controversial information. China is the most censor-heavy country in the world with every aspect of media controlled by the government.  When it comes to the United States, the country is prided for its freedom of speech and press, but it has also done its fair share of media censorship as well. Even though censorship in the United States is less overt than in China, government censorship still has a major affect on media in the United States.

There are several similarities between government censorship in China and the United States. The first similarity is that both countries have a government agency that controls and censors content. Secondly, both countries afford their citizens freedom of speech and press in their constitution, but have separate laws that negate that freedom. Lastly, the United States and China have censored information that challenges political authority.

China has become one of the most powerful countries in the world, but that doesn’t mean that the country is open to any outside media. The media censorship in the country has increased drastically in recent years due to globalization and advances in technology. In April 2010, the Chinese government revised its existing Law on Guarding State Secrets to tighten its controls on information flows (Bennett). The main reason that China has tried to control media is to prevent any challenges to its political authority. China’s socialist government tries to keep a tight leash on everything that it feels would make the government look bad or weak (Bennett).

Currently, more than a dozen government bodies work to prevent information from leaking to the public by enforcing laws related to information going in and out of China. The most powerful agency in China is the Central Propaganda Department (CPD), which works with the General Administration of Press and Publication and the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television to make sure the content shown promotes the Communist Party’s principle (Wines). The way that the CPD enforces its censorship is by contacting the media outlets in the country and demanding that they withdraw any controversial stories. They even go as far as coaching them on how they should cover certain stories. It also helps that most of the media outlets in China are state agencies that are owned by the government.

The United States has a similar agency that observes the content that is presented to the public. Even though it is not as extreme as China, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the watchdog for the government that censors and controls all kinds of content. The agency is appointed by the president and enforces punishments on media outlets that do not comply with FCC laws (Shah).

According to the FCC: The Commission does have enforcement responsibility in certain limited instances. For example, the Courts have said that “indecent material” is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and cannot be banned entirely. It may be restricted, however, in order to avoid its broadcast when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience. Between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M. – when there is the greatest likelihood that children may be watching –airing “indecent material” is prohibited by FCC rules. Broadcasters are required to schedule their programming accordingly or face enforcement action.

Similarly, the Commission has stated that “profane material” is prohibited between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M Finally, the courts have ruled that “obscene material” is not protected by the First Amendment and cannot be broadcast at any time (FCC). The FCC states that it cannot go against the First Amendment but it could restrict content when it finds it to be a risk to children. This shows that the FCC definitely censors media and controls the content presented. Although it claims that these laws are protecting children from being exposed to indecent programming on television, it is not only children that it censors information from but adults as well.

The second similarity that China and the United States share when it comes to censorship is that both countries allow their citizens freedom of speech and press. It is very ironic that China has freedom of the press in its constitution when their reality is definitely far from it. According to China’s constitution: Article 35. “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration” (usconstitution.com). It’s actually Chinese law that regulates media with its vague language and lack of specific information. This allows the government to abuse its power and enforce censorship on anything that it considers offensive (Bennett).

The United States also has freedom of speech and press in its constitution that is supposed to be allowed its citizens. According to the first amendment of the Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Despite the first amendment, the United States has other FCC laws that negate the First Amendment. According to the FCC, “obscene material” is not protected by the First Amendment (FCC). The interesting thing is that “obscene” doesn’t have a specific definition. The FCC and the government could find anything they want to be “obscene” and censor it. This is similar to China because their laws are so loosely worded that they could go against the constitution.

Finally, a major issue with censorship in China and the United States is that both countries tend to censor information that challenges political authority. Both countries have implemented laws to prevent the media from making them look bad and disrespecting them in any way.

The government in China even goes as far as using its power to harass and imprison journalists that disobey the media laws that question the government. Tan Zuron, a reporter in China, was recently sentenced to five years in prison for reporting on Chinese government corruption and the poor construction of school buildings that collapsed and killed thousands of children during an earthquake in 2008 (Ford). As of 2010, China is tied with Iran, another censorship-heavy country for the most imprisoned journalists (Bennett). This kind of treatment pressures many journalists in the country into “self censorship”.

Media self-censorship refers to non-externally compelled acts committed by media organizations aiming to avoid offending power holders such as the government, advertisers, and major business corporations (Bennet). Since the journalists are in fear of being harassed and imprisoned if they release any information that the government finds controversial, they are not taking that risk and are not releasing that information.
A major issue in the United States that involves censorship has been the censoring of coffins with deceased soldiers coming from war. For the past 18 years, the United States government has not allowed media outlets to release photos of the coffins.  According to former president Bush, he had seen photos of the coffins of soldiers and felt that releasing the photographs was wrong. Former White House spokesman, Trent Duffy said, “we must pay attention to the privacy and to the sensitivity of the families of the fallen, and that’s what the policy is based on and that has to be the utmost concern” (Taranto).

According to Taranto, a major reason that the coffins coming from war are censored is to prevent people from seeing the real truth about the war. Not allowing photos to be published might give people a false idea about the war and take their attention off of the realities of war. A major way that the government benefited from this policy in the past is with the mindset that if people see the deaths that the war has caused, than they will not have support for the war and the administration.

Another way that the government has tried to punish people for questioning the authority of the government is by outing the name of an undercover CIA agent named Valerie Plame. Her husband, Joseph Wilson, was a diplomat that traveled to Niger to investigate accusations that they were selling yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Even though his investigation proved that the accusations were false, the U.S. government still invaded Iraq (Ballard).

With the war already taking place in Iraq, Wilson wrote an article for the New York  Times called “What I Didn’t Find in Niger?” to prove that the reasons behind the war in Iraq were false. A week after the article ran in the paper, an article for the Washington Post revealed his wife’s identity and ruined her CIA career. It was later determined that it was the Bush Administration that was responsible for releasing the identity (Ballard).

Lewis Libby, the former chief of staff to the president, was found guilty of giving false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison, but his sentence was commuted by President Bush and he didn’t have to serve any time (Ballard). This kind of retaliation by the government at a CIA agent shows how the government cared about its reputation and tried to cover up information.

The censorship in China is very extreme, but with the Internet as accessible as it is in a country with 420 million Internet users, it is becoming a challenge for the Chinese government to censor every website that it finds offensive (Wheterbee).  Although China has between 30 thousand and 50 thousand Internet monitors, there are still opportunities for information to become accessible through blogs, social networking sites, and forums. Bloggers have also been able to go around the censorship by altering characters and making them undetectable (Ford). Other bloggers use humor and satire to criticize the government.

This is the one major difference between censorship in the United States and China. Even though the United States censors information, it still has outlets for people to get the truth. The United States does not censor the Internet and lets its residents access any kind of information.

The media censorship in China is much more severe than the United States. China is depriving its people from regular human rights and severely punishing those who go against the country’s censorship laws. The United States’ censorship laws try to protect people from being exposed to inappropriate content even though they fail at times.

Works Cited

Ballard, Tanya. “Key Players in the Plame Affair.” The Washington Post. 20 Oct. 2005. Web. 20 Apr. 2011. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/20/AR2005102001487.html>.

Bennett, Isabella. “Media Censorship in China.” Council on Foreign Relations. Web. 29 Mar. 2011. <http://www.cfr.org/china/media-censorship-china/p11515>.

“Constitution of the People’s Republic of China – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net.” Index Page – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net. Web. 11 Apr. 2011. <http://www.usconstitution.net/china.html#Article35>.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Home Page. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <http://www.fcc.gov/>.

Ford, Peter. “China Sentences Quake Activist Tan Zuoren.” The Christian Science Monitor. 9 Feb. 2010. Web. 16 Apr. 2011. <http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2010/0209/China-sentences-quake-activist-Tan-Zuoren>.

Lee, Francis L. F.; Chan, Joseph. International Journal of Press/Politics, Jan2009, Vol. 14 Issue 1, p112-133

Shah, Anup. “Media in the United States — Global Issues.” Global Issues : Social, Political, Economic and Environmental Issues That Affect Us All — Global Issues. Web. 11 Apr. 2011. <http://www.globalissues.org/article/163/media-in-the-united-states#FreePressCriticalforFreeDemocraticSociety>.

Taranto, James. “Censorship Inc. (The American Spectator, 4/10).” James Taranto’s Opinions. Web. 15 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jamestaranto.com/spec0410.htm>.

Wetherbee, Rebecca. “Censorship and Evolving Media Policy in China.” The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications 1.1 (2010): 112-18. Print.

Wines, Michael. “China’s Censors Tackle and Trip Over the Internet.” New York Times. 7 Apr. 2010. Web. 21 Apr. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/world/asia/08censor.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2>.