Illiberal governments are effective in enforcing self-censorship and obedience to the state
Many people like to talk passionately about censorship; politicians – with their ambition to bend the public discourse to party needs – fascist- and Nazis-prone trolls who see their comments swiftly erased from discussion threads and manufacturers of hoaxes who are denied a free pass to the pages of critical mainstream media. The public-service television director, whose fate hangs on the will of politicians as well as journalists and readers of the free and not-so-free media. They all have something to say.
But censorship is not the same animal that it was in the seventies. There is no censor waving his stamp and diligently adding disobedient authors to the growing list of state enemies. The censor has now been replaced by a system that expels anything incompatible with its own configuration or that goes against the loyalties of the state or publisher; this can be especially so if it doesn’t celebrate a nationalist concept of the country or toe the official state propaganda line.
This new system of media control even incorporates its own codes of criticism giving the illusion that it can be criticised from within in order to appear fair. But any criticism must have clear limits as to not corrode the basis of the illiberal state, the tailor-made identity of the nation or the interests of some media owners.
Thus, “operators” of these content-control systems can confidently brush aside any claim that their “journalists” are not free: look, we are criticised by our own people and the critics go unpunished. But the “critic” who they exhibit like a stuffed trophy of their media crusade never questions the fundamentals of the toxic systems, for example the tight government control over public media. They only gently pan petty faults of its functioning.
Their “critic” grumbles about spelling mistakes in the material ordered by the sponsor of the system or reprimands the reporter for lacking a more refined manner. This exhibited critic would often sigh and suggest that journalists should be more in touch with the average reader since agonizing over the gap between the mainstream media world and the reality of the Slovak, Hungarian, Polish or Czech village is always a welcome theme. It will surely sound sympathetic to all who rarely hear the echo of their voices in media.
Servicing the state
In such a deformed media system, journalists gradually tame down the emotions stemming from the inherent ethical dilemmas they encounter and seek comfort in believing that they work for the good of the state, which in many cases simply means the benefit of the government or an autocratic leader.
They also accept the premise that – by producing articles and op-eds which resonate with the governmental propaganda line – they are supporting stability (as opposed to chaos) and that stability requires a firm hand; no liberal follies.
Journalists of such tamed media no longer see journalism as a public service but as a service to the state, and they pretend that the two have identical missions. They indeed are the co-creators of the state doctrine: if the state needs an imaginary enemy, then a tamed journalist is ready to lend a hand to manufacture it down to the most minute details, such as spinning a tale of a philanthropist who wants to erase the identity of small nations or armies of economic migrants ready to invade Christian homes.
They do not work to inform their readers. The public is no longer their partner in searching for the truth because truth is not their primary task nor even their secondary one.
Their main ambition is to “educate”. This propaganda machinery not only needs a spokesperson or a channel but also a set of co-creators who can work without the oversight of censors. They can keep themselves well under control, based on some peculiar willingness and complicity. Can we still call these manufacturers of propaganda journalists?
The limits of the search for truth
Suddenly, there is less uncertainty in the “journalist’s search for the truth”, because the limits of this search have been set by an unwritten doctrine, endlessly repeated on screens and pages of conquered, tamed, state, alternative, and befriended media. The limits of their freedom are clear.
It is not hard to find out what is acceptable and what is not for Viktor Orbán, Robert Fico and Peter Pellegrini, Andrej Babiš or Jarosław Kaczyński and Mateusz Morawiecki.
Oligarchs who have been buying media like the proverbial nuclear briefcases create similar systems of control. Journalists are free to write whatever they want as long as they make sure to attack and pour dirt on an annoying opponent of the publication’s owner from time to time.
All they have to do is doctor up a news piece about the opening of some new facilities or the launch of new businesses and cite the right source. If they do not harm the interests of the financial group and refrain from too much criticism, the administration does not need to dictate to them daily what is allowed and what is not.
Simulated independence has its rules, too; everything is allowed within the limits. What is not allowed happens outside the system, which works like a safety net under the rope the journalists balance on during their work. Here people rarely bleed for truth.
The aesthetics of censorship
Content in a censored and controlled system is often the reproduction of the power centre’s self-image, writes Miklós Haraszti, former Hungarian dissident, writer and journalist, in his book Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism.
In 1983, he gave a detailed description of how the system of censorship and self-censorship worked during communism. Obviously, his book was banned by János Kadár’s regime, but it was subsequently published in the West and has been translated into many languages.
It might seem that the phenomenon Haraszti described no longer exists. The book itself could be portrayed as a historical reminder of the creativity of the regime on how it conquered the artistic community and journalists as well as how it involved even the most talented artists, writers and journalists into the system. Essentially, it morally castrated them and convinced them that they were free and that real prison was outside the protective borders established for them by the regime. They weren’t the victims but the co-creators of the system.
But the truth is that this creativity is still developing in the new regimes where it has become the much-desired media policy of autocrats.
Old and new
Yet, those in power are similarly effective in promoting self-censorship, allegiance to the state and passion for the nationalist ideology similar to the communist propaganda machinery, commented Haraszti. However, the techniques are different, and this is why it is illiberal and not totalitarian. Most of the time, they refrain from violence.
In the communist system described by the former Hungarian dissident, the tools of communication were in the hands of the state and the journalists were employees of the very same state. Only very few opted for the sole alternative to the “irresistible contract offered by the state”, which was being part of the dissent.
However, today the propaganda machinery is tuned to foster fake competition and simulated pluralism. And the propaganda-driven state is indeed created as a result of quasi-democratic elections and a quasi-market economy since even privately-owned media joins in as has happened in Russia, Turkey and Hungary.
Today, the propaganda and thus the new censorship is focused on winning elections (at least in countries where they are still counting votes), and thus it is not purely oriented towards the state but rather populist causes and movements which strive to coax the real or relative majority over to their side usually through emotionally charged policies or rhetoric which can appeal to the shared identity of this collective.
As Haraszti explains today, the new-age censors are not here to ban hostile thoughts by individual authors but rather to keep the simulation of pluralism under control and make sure that it never becomes a full-blown media pluralism. Most importantly, they strive to limit access to investigative, fact-finding and muckraking journalism from broadcasting in the first place.
This is commonly accomplished by concentrating the media in the hands of the state and autocrat-friendly oligarchs while profit-making is not a prime motivation; their goal is to have a monopoly over the dissemination of information, and the media owners get compensated or rewarded by the taxpayers, directly or indirectly. The state achieves this not by banning outright those deemed unfriendly but rather through policies that favour the tamed media, according to Miklós Haraszti.
All this leaves little choice for the audience of a tamed-media empire: tabloid entertainment or propaganda-soaked news and opinion.
Integrity is the only true violator of the “censored” system. When morals and journalistic ethics set the limits for journalists, they are able to sensitively detect modifications that the system administrator forces upon them. Today, the system no longer invests energy or money into any “re-education” programmes or through the constant penalisation of such individuals.
It simply spits them out and emphasises that they are not forcing anyone to do anything.
And so, not only for the independent journalist but also for the country, the last hope remains in the media who have understood that the only limits in the journalistic public service are the ethical principles of journalists complete with a sense of human dignity and a devotion to the facts, at times critical when needed. Publishing the truth, without adornment.
What is censorship?
Today, it gets ever harder to define what censorship is and to explain to people with fascist-leaning opinions that if the editor of a critical daily deletes their comment about the “potential use of gas in the solution of ethnic demographic challenges”, the paper is not censoring them.
Because this deletion is part of a different system, which is guided by values and principles that a group of people has agreed on, a group much greater than one nationalist government, for instance. And it continues respecting those principles as the limits for the discourse in the society.
So yes, a free, democratic and critical medium also sets limits to its discourse and creates rules for everyone who wants to join in on its website. But these rules are not based on whom the participants can criticise nor whom is being sheltered from any criticism. These rules explain the limits to human dignity and to media which will not provide a channel for these incendiary thoughts that a wide spectrum of society – regardless of state borders, race or religion affiliation – has marked as unacceptable.
A medium does not suppress pluralism of opinions when it refuses to have conspiracy theories on its pages or denies exposure to people who have been proven to spread lies and hoaxes or replaces arguments with personal attacks worthy of a dive bar.
This medium tries to keep the discourse on a decent level that ensures truth-seeking individuals are not forced to dip their knees in manure that has nothing to do with the truth but only with the reality of those who do not care about truth at all.
Beata Balogová is the editor-in-chief of SME.