A couple of things come to mind when we hear this phrase. The popular answer for 2017 might be China – with Twitter and Facebook banned from the nation, and Google quick to submit itself to the country’s censorship rules, China is a strong contender for a major censored media environment.
Or perhaps you take a more Orwellian approach. You hear censorship and think along the lines of 1984 – Big Brother is always watching, and the Thought Police are always…well, policing.
And then, this might take you to Russia. Specifically, people might think of Russia as it existed as the Soviet Union. A nation where anyone could be arrested for any remotely anti-government action, and many books and pieces of literature were banned for seeming Anti-Soviet.
This is where I fall when I think of censorship, but for a different reason. Of course, the U.S.S.R. was drenched in censorship as we know it today. Journalism that served more like propaganda and the state had a hand in almost every piece of media produced for the public.
But today, journalists in Russia face an even larger issue: self-censorship. This is the kind that isn’t as overt as a ban on social networking sites, or a disappearance off Google. It is internalized self-censorship, and it is – and has always been – somewhat of an even greater danger in Russia.
An op-ed in the Washington Post pointed out why this self-censorship is so dangerous:
“More overt censorship might be despicable, but it also makes a government’s role in censorship clearer and gives artists a better sense of how they might avoid the repressive hand of the state.”
In Russia today, there really isn’t an active independent press – in fact, this op-ed from the Washington Post argues that it is almost impossible for one to exist. Anna Politkovskaya is one independent Russian journalist who was murdered following reporting she had done on a siege. Her death somewhat confirmed the idea that digging deeper into Russian government affairs was not something journalists should do, if they valued their lives.
According to an article in The Guardian – and a conversation I recently had with an American living and working in Russia – people in Russia do not ask questions. If the state says it is true, the public will accept that. Additionally, mainstream Russian journalists are quick to support the state, and often accuse the Western media of lying about the nation.
I want to be very clear: I am not claiming this to reiterate the American stereotype of Russia being a closed off society – this is simply the reality of how many Russians live their lives day to day.
After years of government censorship, there is almost this sense of complacency in Russia today. People have no desire to challenge the actions of the government. Now, I do not believe this stems from an outright belief that if one challenges the government, something bad will happen. This type of censorship runs deeper – instinctively, many citizens know that speaking out against Putin’s administration could come with consequences…so why even try? This might explain the major lack of an independent challenging press in the country. People aren’t necessarily jumping to critique the government, because that’s simply not what they do anymore.
This sense of complacency can be really scary, especially in a country with a leader like Putin. True free speech has always been a tough spot for Russia – however, it is an ominous reminder of what can happen when a government carries out censorship without protest. Eventually, the public internalizes the censors, eliminating any future attempt at active dissidence.