OUT OF THE BOX

The myth of self-censorship

Ayesha Kabir | Update:

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As the media in Bangladesh wades through a quagmire of overt and covert censorship, journalists are often ‘accused’ of praticising self-censorship. It is with censure that they are said to ‘play safe’ and censor their own work. In fact, many journalists themselves ‘admit’ to self-censorship or, to put it bluntly, ‘saving their own skins’.

But if truth be told, would any truly professional journalist practice self-censorship?

It's a reality. But the question is - is this actually self-censorship or just censorship, plain and simple?

A hard-hitting reporter may be writing scathing reports on, say for example, a corrupt politician and his/her ill-gotten wealth, he may be questioning the extrajudicial killings that have spread across the country like an epidemic, or he may be exposing the flight of capital from sunny Bangladesh to the cooler climes of Switzerland. Then he comes to an abrupt halt when it comes to naming names.

Many small fries will surface in his reports - the local political leader of some remote upazila, a slum woman with her stash of drugs bundled in her sari ‘anchal’, a corrupt constable who takes toll from beggars and rickshaw pullers or a small-time ‘hundi’ dealer who sends paltry sums to destinations beyond the borders. Even if s/he had found the actual kingpin of the drug racket, if he unearths the corruption of a top notch leader of the ruling coterie, or has managed to identify the big name businessmen who siphon off billions from the banks, the reporter will stop short of actually naming them. Is this not self-censorship?

Technically speaking, it can be called self-censorship.

However, a more accurate and honest term would be ‘enforced censorship’. Maybe the authorities haven’t directly said that you cannot name this person or that person (they have drawn a line when it comes to a select few), but the message has been driven home loud and clear. And the consequences for those who have dared speak out and to unmask the frauds and fiends of society is no secret. They have either ended up behind bars or disappeared.

It is not that the law enforcement or the government agencies are always out to ‘teach a lesson’ to the ‘over-zealous’ media. There are many more who are only too eager to deal the media a blow or two. There are the business and banking bigwigs who don’t appreciate the exposure of their dubious deals, there are the drug lords who are ready to go to any extent to protect their racket, there are the hoodlums of the ruling party's youth front, who don’t take interference easily, especially if it cuts into their contracts and ‘tender-baazi’.

A dedicated journalist always wants to get his or her story across. Nothing compares to the thrill of a scoop, of breaking news, of a sensational exposé. A journalist in today’s context does not just disseminate information. He or she must be biased - biased for the people, for the downtrodden, for justice, biased against exploitation and all the evils of the world.

So why would they want to go into self-censorship? It is censorship that causes them to be wary, to deal with sensitive topics with subtlety, cleverness and caution. This is cowardice. They need to tell the story, not to be muffled once and for all. They are the voice of the people. They will not be silent. They will push the limits. But sometimes they will bide their time. But risks they will take. No one with a feeble heart or faltering courage can survive in this profession. It calls for integrity, boldness and intelligence.

Unfortunately, there are the black sheep who can and do put the profession to shame. Not all media men and women are angels with shining halos. Their ‘self-censorship’ too is not self-censorship. It is obsequious bootlicking for which they are amply rewarded in cash or kind. They are the ones who give the media a bad name.

Prudence at times demands self-censorship, but the degree of curbing the pen should not violate the integrity of the media. A scribe may have to remain silent and wait for his time to tell his tale, but he must not lose that vital spark.

The American author Matthew E May has coined a most appropriate word for self-censorship - “ideacide”. He says, ‘I often think of this self-censoring as “ideacide,” because it entails the voluntary shutdown of the imagination, the long effects of which eventually kill off our natural curiosity and creativity.”

There are dangers of self-censorship. Once a scribe dodges the bullet by telling a tale without certain vital, albeit dangerous, information, he finds the easy way out. He is then prone to stick to this easy path and betray the essence of the profession. He can write a fancy article, win praise for his penmanship, but actually say nothing at all. That is not journalism. That is betraying your readership, your profession and, above all, yourself.

In present times where media is under constant threat and tension, particularly in the Bangladesh context, it is important for a journalist to be aware of censorship and ways to work around it. While being mindful of the various acts and ordinances, it would be fatal, though, if a journalist fully succumbs to the temptation of self-censorship. Media people cannot turn out to be the monkeys who hear no evil, see no evil and tell no evil. As long as the media upholds its conscience, integrity and courage, there is hope. Truth shall prevail.

* Ayesha Kabir is a senior journalist at Prothom Alo English

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