Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley. The greatest invention in the world is freedom of speech.
Joel Simon’s New Censorship looks at censorship in the modern age and how it is used by various governments in various ways as well as the changing state of journalism and online information. Simon is, of course, bias because he belongs to an organization that cares deeply about the safety of journalists. It is this one sidedness, intentional or otherwise, that weakens what is a thought provoking and discussion worthy book.
Simon looks closely at countries such as Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and China as well as hotspots such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and the focus is on journalism and the control or attempted control of journalists. Simon considers not just imprisonment by the government, but also the threat of kidnapping and death that many journalists face as they report from the more dangerous areas. Assange, Wikileaks, and Snowden are also considered to various degrees.
Simon is a passionate, if mostly even handed, writer about the dangers and importance of journalists. His detailing of various cases considers both the pros and cons of reporting on kidnapping. His detailed description about his group’s decision to support Assange as a journalist (note, that Simon does not support Assange’s decisions and actions in regards to the rape accusations; if anything, Simon seems to be of the mind that Assange should face those charges).
The most interesting chapters are the detailed studies of Russia, Venezuela, and Turkey. By placing each of the countries into a context that takes into account not only the current situation but also how Putin and Chavez, for example, would have learned from and adapted those governments that surrounded or preceded them. In detailing such issues, Simon is aware of how some news sources may be seen, and he presents the reader with the charges that various governments may make against such news outlets, such as the view that Kurdish freedom group in Turkey might be tied to a newspaper that the Turkish government tries to censor. He draws a distinction between Dictators and Demotators, an insightful contrast.
At times the stories are shocking even if the reader is aware of them prior to reading the book. The massacre and mass murder of a political family in the Philippines is related in great detail and renews the feeling of horror as does the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. However, not only the big attention stories are dealt with. There are several examples of stories that did not make big American news outlets (if any), such as the imprisonment of a journalist in Iran or the vast numbers of Iraqi journalists who were killed in Iraq for a variety of reasons.
But that also raises other questions, ones that in fairness this book doesn’t seem to have the scope to answer but that should be considered long side protections and the rights of journalists. It is important that journalists be able to report with freedom and with a lack of force. It is important that government does not stick its fingers into journalist work. But there are questions. While a free press is vitally important, no government can (or even should) make all its secrets known. At some level, the government is not going to tell the journalist everything and might even actively try to stop the journalist from discovering information. The question is what does actively mean. Furthermore, while the detainment of Iraqi journalists in particular, and journalist in general (as well as the shooting of a freed journalist’s rescuer) at the hands of the US Armed Forces is frightening, Simon could have presented the Armed Forces side in more detail. Simon acknowledges that part of the reason for the detainment is the fear that the reporters might in fact be terrorist or insurgent groups filming an attack. The problem is that this is given in a vacuum. The fear is logical, Simon makes sure to present that as such, but how often does this occur, rates and statistics or perhaps even a story where the forces are under attack.
Additionally there is the question of what exactly news is or who exactly is a journalist. This is largely dealt with in the section about Assange (Snowden is mentioned but not in the same level detail, not surprising considering the difference in the stories as well as the more recent time frame). In discussing the Wikileaks story, Simon mentions that Wikileaks post Sarah Palin’s personal emails. He also points out that Wikileaks did not redact names of sources, and condoms Wikileaks for this. The other question that rises, in part, is what is the difference between Wikileaks and paparazzi? Are paparazzi also journalists? It’s true that Palin is a political figure, but the release of personal emails even with such a political figure seems rather intrusive. Is it is something that would be protected if it was a public, but not political, figure, say like Brad Pitt? I’m not quite sure what the answer is, but if Simon goes to great lengths to tell us what a journalist is, couldn’t he also tell us what a journalist is not? Do journalists have carte blanche, as the section almost suggests? The answering of such a question would have given the book a little more depth and flesh.
It is interesting, as well, that the British phone tapping scandal doesn’t come under scrutiny in this book. Are British tabloids journalistic? Are journalists the most important members of society?
But those quibbles aside, this is an important book about the important not only of freedom of speech and press but also of the importance of information and reporting. The suggestions and plan spelled out towards the end of the book are worthy of consideration.