Censorship in the Digital Age | Columbia Journalism School
Panelists from left to right: Elana Beiser, Loubna Mrie, John Daniszewski, Zelalem Kibret, Alan Huffman, Karen Amanda Toulon. Photo by Courtney Glenn Vinopal

Censorship in the Digital Age

Threats both old and new seek to thwart independent journalists around the world

For the cover of its annual Attacks on the Press report, the editors of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) chose an image that encapsulates the hostility often shown toward American media during the 2016 presidential campaign. The photo, which went viral during election season, shows a man at a Donald Trump rally wearing a t-shirt that reads, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.” Ugly threats are nothing new for journalists in many parts of the world. But today’s challenges have moved beyond traditional censorship techniques, CPJ says in its 2017 edition of Attacks on the Press released on Tuesday.

In his introduction, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon writes that while new technology allows for the free flow of information, it can also be manipulated by repressive governments to stifle free expression. “New information technologies -- the global, interconnected internet; ubiquitous social media platforms; smartphones with cameras -- were supposed to make censorship obsolete,” writes Simon. “Instead, they have just made it more complicated.”

This year’s edition of CPJ’s Attacks on the Press features essays from journalists around the world who are grappling with the complex nature of censorship in this digital age. A few of the journalists navigating this new media landscape spoke at a panel on Tuesday evening at Columbia Journalism School, co-hosted by CPJ and the school’s international program, #CJSGlobal. 

In Syria, “Censorship is not the exception, censorship is something we grew up with for all our lives,” said panelist Loubna Mrie, who joined the Syrian uprising in 2011 and then went to work for Reuters as a photojournalist, reporting in rebel-held areas of the country. “Growing up in a police state, you grow up to believe that the walls have ears and anything you might say might lead you to jail,” said Mrie, who considers herself both journalist and anti-Assad activist.

Government censorship and oppression are also longstanding traditions in Ethiopia, said blogger Zelalem Kibret. State-controlled media dominate the flow of information, a monopoly that Kibret and others sought to break by using the Internet to create an alternative: the Zone 9 blogger collective. But the government lashed back at their innovative run around censorship, by shutting down the Zone 9 bloggers and jailing them. “We’re experiencing this multi-layered type of censorship,” said Kibret. New technologies are not much help against the dictatorial government controls in North Korea, where The Associated Press opened a bureau in 2012. “The odds are sort of stacked against the journalists,” said panelist John Daniszweski, AP editor-at-large for standards. “The access is totally controlled. They have a minder with you everywhere. Interviews are granted rarely and only after lots of letters and meetings.”

Compared with their colleagues in Syria, Ethiopia, North Korea and other repressive states, journalists in the U.S. have far more access and greater protection to do their jobs. That has made American journalism “the city on a hill,” a beacon of hope for others working around the world, noted Alan Huffman, a freelance journalist and editor of the CPJ book. But in the wake of the 2016 election campaign, and now faced with a president who tweets frequently about “fake news,” U.S. journalists today feel more susceptible to censorship, he noted.

“To suddenly feel [censorship] seeping into your own environment gives you a different perspective, and you realize there’s always a fine line, wherever you are...between being censored and not being censored. When you start to feel it creeping into your own world it really does open your eyes,” said Huffman.

In his essay in Attacks on the Press, Huffman spoke with Bill Minor, a journalist who covered the 1960s civil rights movement in the Deep South, when reporters were jailed, sued for libel, and physically attacked for what they wrote. Minor told Huffman he was concerned by a “rebirth of an old animosity against the press” today. It’s a message to be taken seriously, said Huffman. “All the things we see happening in the world happened in Mississippi during the civil rights era,” he told the Columbia audience.

Despite the sense of renewed threat under the Trump administration, the American journalists on the panel said they felt optimistic about the direction of journalism here.

“In some ways it’s a good time because it’s a moment when the population of the United States is really engaged in these issues and is thinking a lot about press freedom and civic engagement and what is so-called fake news,” said Daniszweski.

“It’s rejuvenating journalism in a way, because there are some really good things happening and people are really seriously thinking about what they need to find out,” said Huffman. “Most journalists, when they are confronted with the threat of censorship, have a visceral reaction, and they will try to find a way to work around it.”


Courtney Glenn Vinopal is a full-time M.S. '17 student.