Some argue that man’s ability to communicate using a structured and developed language is what separates us from animals. The existence of a verbal language and the ability to communicate with each other beyond this verbal language were instrumental for the development and survival of human civilization. With the turn of many nation-states toward a more liberal democratic orientation, the clamor for a clearer guideline for one’s right of speech and expression reached a whole new height as evidenced by many civil society movements in the 1970s. Nowadays, language and communication gives a whole new other dimension to our already complex society. Much critique and analysis has been directed towards international standards on laws addressing and regulating violations against the freedom of speech. More specifically, the issues of censorship – its legal dimensions and its social and political implications, have been put into spotlight recently.
This paper will attempt to look into the whole issue of censorship and its implications to the society. To do this, textual examples will be used to further support the arguments and the stand of the paper towards the validity and importance of censorship.
Before proceeding to the main discussion and thesis of this paper, it is imperative to define and set the parameters of the main topic – censorship. Censorship, as defined by Hampshire and Bloom-Cooper, “is the process whereby restrictions are imposed upon collection, dissemination and exchange of information, opinion and ideas” (1). This is a very straightforward definition giving us a good idea on the nature of the act of censorship. It should be noted here that censorship is a process to limit, more than anything else, the access or spread of information. Furthermore, censorship can be done by imposing or developing laws which thereby structures and regulates the information that can be released or disseminated to larger public (Hampshire and Bloom-Cooper 1). By imposing specific guidelines, only certain parts or kinds of information are offered for public consumption. Simply put, this kind of censorship acts like a sieve, whatever undesirable or ‘impure’ gets strained out of the main mixture. But censorship in general does not stop there. Regulation also entails monitoring what is consumed by the public (Karlekar 6). It is one thing to establish a guideline, but ensuring that such a guideline is followed is quite another.
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To further explain the dimensions of censorship, it will be helpful to relate the concept to a literary work familiar to the general public. Ariel Dorfman’s play, The Death and the Maiden garnered much praise and critique when it was first adapted in 1991. One of the main themes of the play revolves around the argument of the main characters regarding reliving or letting go of traumatizing past experiences (McClennen 179). Having experienced the trauma of rape and other forms of abuse, Paulina, the female lead character, decides to take the matters into her own hands, once confronted by her oppressor, Roberto. On the other hand, Paulina’s husband, Gerardo, a lawyer for a government commission that handles human rights cases, argues that Roberto should be handed over to the authorities and be tried properly. Gerardo further advises Paulina to let go of her anger suggesting that she keep it to herself, since their country’s oppressive phase had already passed. The play presents a dilemma in deciding whether to forget a painful memory, keep it to oneself or be vindicated by such memory and risk letting the entire country know of the government’s inhumane past.
And this is where censorship comes into play in the work. A horrifying past experience bothers a person and she is ‘persuaded’ to ignore such an experience because it is seen as a hindrance to a country’s progress. Censorship here involves shutting down a story, depriving the public of its own history, thereby impeding an individual’s right of speech. Of course, the play does not proceed to tell a story about curtailed civil rights. Censorship here was a mere commentary on the perils of having a painful past and letting go of this pain for a seemingly progressive outcome.
This brings up a number of important questions in the discussion, namely: When and how is censorship acceptable? Is it even acceptable at all? Does censorship purely revolve around personal discretion or does it entail a more structured guide such as a law? Everyone has heard of stories regarding governments’ actions on controlling or even manipulating the flow of information. Scandals, stories and even public documents manipulated so as to ‘protect’ the citizens. But where should the line be drawn?
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To answer this question, it would be perhaps helpful to look into an institution where censorship is pervasive. The media may be the most closely monitored institution in terms of censorship. Having the power to inform and at the same time persuade the public, governments arguably spend much time and effort to sieve through the information flowing out to the public through various forms of media (Karlekar 8). For the sake of simplifying the discussion, this paper will use broadcast media as the main example. As television and other broadcast communication technology became widely available to the masses, broadcast media correspondingly became one of the most influential forms of the media. As Karlekar further noted, “Historically, broadcast media have almost always been subject to greater restrictions than print media” (9). Hence, the government feels that meticulous monitoring should be done. Some of the criteria for censorship include materials which contain sexually explicit content, extreme violence or crude language. Beyond this, even greater degrees in censorship in broadcast media lies in the fact that ownership of companies in the broadcast industry is heavily regulated by the government. This kind of restriction does not stop in limiting the release of broadcast licenses. Fines and penalties, such as suspension of permits, are also executed to maintain a controlled media environment. These scenarios may be uncommon in the context of the United States, but Censorship in electronic or online media is quite pervasive nowadays. Considering ease of access to the Internet, various factions seek to explore more mechanisms to regulate and monitor the content available to the public through the Internet. A wide array of online content and even website or blogs themselves had been shut down by hosting companies citing various reasons for such actions (Zuckerman 71). For example, BluHost a web service provider based in the United States brought down various websites and blogs they used to host in the past. One of the most controversial websites that BluHost brought down was the website of Kabatana, a civil society organization based in Harare, Zimbabwe. BluHost cited that Kabatana was in violation of one of their terms of service, Zimbabwe being one of the sanctioned countries cited by the U.S. Treasury Commission (Zuckerman 76). If BluHost had done otherwise, the company would have been sanctioned by the commission. More interestingly, Zimbabwe was only one among the thirteen (13) countries ‘sanctioned’ by the commission (Zukerman 77).
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But the government is not the only institution that executes and advocates censorship. The church had also been quite involved in the monitoring of information flow to the public. Historically speaking, various accounts of destroying books and other forms of print media through burning support this former claim. More recently, religious groups have been campaigning against the exposure of the public to sexually obscene content and materials suggestive of homosexuality. Moreover, many other kinds of civil society groups advocate and help monitor media content – from extreme right traditionalists to left-wing factions who seek to abolish capitalism. These groups do not necessarily advocate censorship per se, instead they merely want to control and maintain a general culture of media sensitivity, saying that all individuals who seek to express their thoughts and feelings on a public platform should be able to discern possible repercussions of what they are going to say.
Censorship may have been a process rooted in our history. Some even argue that censorship is even an inevitable sacrifice or compromise that permitted modern human civilization to persist. But based on the textual examples of earlier censorship, more than anything else it is a restriction. It restricts the flow of information, and more importantly, it restricts one’s right to express one’s thoughts. Of course, censorship has its own merits. It would be difficult to imagine a world where children are exposed to violence or, perhaps, sexual obscenity, such as pornography. However, censorship nowadays goes beyond the necessity of protecting children from obscene things that might harm them. Censorship in the recent years also entails issues of national security, internal relations or even concerns of national values formation.
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We should understand the consequences if we take freedom of speech in the absolute sense. Taking this freedom absolutely is like taking a step away from universal human respect. Everyone should strive to be media literate and more sensitive media consumers. This is to ensure that the youth are protected from the various forms of media they are exposed to. Having said all of these, this paper stands for censorship. This is not to say, of course, that we should accept the fact that it does impede certain facets of our right of speech. Nor it is to say that we should be contended or caged into the fear of being reprimanded if we say something allegedly wrong.
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