Monday October 15, 2001
The threat of censorship is never greater than in wartime when
governments exploit the pull of patriotism to suppress
The notion that "coded messages" to terrorists in Osama Bin
Laden's videos could be beamed into America by Arabic TV is
the latest specter raised by the US administration as it tussles
for the high ground in the propaganda war.
One might think that experienced journalists and their
hard-nosed bosses would be too streetwise to fall for that.
But no. In a bizarre and unprecedented move, the five major
networks - CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox News Channel - have
rolled over and acquiesced to the call for censorship from the US
president's security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.
They agreed to stop airing broadcasts live and to suppress any
that included calls to violence against Americans by Osama Bin
Laden or his al-Qaida cohorts on Arab satellite channel
"We'll do whatever is our patriotic duty," said Australian-born
US citizen Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News and News
In fact, a certain hacking at the foundations of the first
amendment - which guarantees freedom of expression and
opinion - was embarked on by the US administration while the
dust was still settling on the ruins of the World Trade Center.
And doubts soon surfaced about the capacity of the US media
to hold steady and defend its objectivity and independence as
the shock waves from the September 11 attacks still echoed.
In a report just released into the reaction of the US media to the
attacks, press freedom watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres
(RSF) points out that several disquieting attempts at government
censorship have already been made, both inside and outside the
country and that self-censorship by the media was evident.
The clumsiest involved the US secretary of state Colin Powell's
urging of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa el-Thani,
to bring al-Jazeera to heel and stop "encouraging anti-American
The Emir, the main shareholder in the Qatar-based station,
Tony Blair has perhaps showed more savvy than Powell by
giving interviews on the channel.
The US state department, which has a seat on the board of the
Congress-financed Voice of America, tried to ban an interview on
VoA with the spiritual leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed
Omar, scheduled for September 28.
The journalists protested - 150 of them signed a petition - and
they were backed in their struggle by the Washington Post. The
interview went ahead.
In incidents of corporate censorship two journalists have been
sacked from American newspapers so far, one in Texas and one
in Oregon, both for writing disparaging comments about George
Bush's behavior on September 11.
One said the president had "skedaddled" after the attacks and
another portrayed him as "hiding in a hole in Nebraska".
Not flattering words to use about a president who should have
been steadying his nation's nerves, but they constitute an
argument that can be defended in a democracy.
The truth is that any censorship of the news is unacceptable
and even more so now.
It is arrogant and hugely misguided to imagine that the jitters of
a people, whose government has taken upon itself to go to war
against a nebulous enemy, can be calmed by seeking to protect
them from the truth, however terrifying that truth may be.