The censors presume to say what is best for the public to see, hear or read on any given subject. Since all thoughts, beliefs and opinions are based entirely upon what information and impressions reach one, it is clear that the acts of the censor in releasing or withholding information tend to determine what the public is to think on the subject involved.
In a Democracy, where sound public opinion is most essential, freedom from censorship is seen to be an imperative and basic principle of the political theory.
Censorship is imposed by the government of a country, or by local authorities, ostensibly in the interest of “accuracy.”
Since printing began it has been common for rulers and governments to try to control what their peoples know, or think they know, about affairs at home and abroad.
Some governments have sought, also, to control reports appearing in the presses of other countries. Perhaps never have these practices been more general than at present.
Censorships of the cruder sort, imposed by force and accompanied by heavy-handed penalties, died away in many countries of Europe after Metternich’s time, and did not reappear until the Great War. Then more subtle methods were widely used to control the press and to govern what the public should know.
Bismarck, who was a master of propaganda, said that the best way to deceive the public was to tell it the truth, for he knew that journalists generally would attribute secret motives to purposes frankly stated.
All who deal in public opinion depend in part upon the short memory of readers. Secret funds also have been used to influence the press in some countries.
More recently, flattery and appeals to the honor of the journalist and editor and to the alleged civic responsibility of controlling heads of newspapers have been means to induce them to keep silence or else to take certain attitudes. These men sometimes are rewarded with titles, decorations, and diplomatic or other appointments.
Following the Great War, one of President Wilson’s “fourteen points” most quoted was that calling for “open covenants of peace openly arrived it.”
This was altered to read, merely, “open covenants openly arrived it,” and there was wide agitation for removal of censorships everywhere.
It was expected that a very large measure of what Wilson had at another time called “pitiless publicity” would be permitted to bathe the negotiations surrounding the peace settlements at Versailles and elsewhere.
Hundreds of correspondents representing the presses of almost every country were in and about Paris and Versailles, but they found, to their chagrin, that official news sources were extremely secretive, and that, while the word “censorship” was not used, the effect was much the same.
They were forced to seek their news from individual and unofficial sources, and this sometimes resulted in what appeared to be premature and unauthorized reports—the anathema of governments.
The Paris peace conference was only the first of numerous international conferences that followed the War.
At some of them news was easy to get, at others it was difficult, at all of them there was a great deal going on behind the scenes that might or might not become available to the press, officially or unofficially.
There was no formal censorship, only a continuation of the pre-war type of secret diplomacy. This was inevitable, to a great extent, since the transition from older methods could hardly have been made overnight.
Such a change, like all far-reaching social changes, could only follow a long period of public education and preparation.
In any case, there is indeed something to be said for negotiations carried on quietly, without artificial, press-stimulated emotions, which are certain to follow when every step is conducted in full public view.
With the signing of the peace treaties, wartime censorships were dropped, either promptly or gradually, in Great Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy, and various other countries. The neutral Netherlands and Scandinavian countries never had had any restrictions of the sort.
Was the free press to become a reality everywhere? Some of the new countries declared for the freedom of the press, notably Czechoslovakia, where a special provision to that effect became part of the Constitution. So did the new China, and so did the new Germany under the Weimar Constitution. But not Russia, by that time under the Soviet Government.
Then came one crisis after another, political and economic, with a train of social results in every case. Crisis is like war in that it may demand a temporary surrender of liberties to save a whole structure from toppling into ruins.
The populaces of such countries, almost beside themselves at the course of events, are only too willing to give responsibility for righting matters to some man or group promising a solution.
The Balkan lands were seething, and censorships were imposed whenever matters-became too disturbed.
The Fascisti took over the Italian Government, and imposed a strict censorship. Spain found itself in difficulties, and its papers were censored, as were outgoing dispatches. Japan and China became involved in problems of crisis-proportions, followed by censorships there, also.
South American countries careened with revolution, and censorships appeared. Germany threw out the Weimar Constitution and, under the Third Reich, established its own severe censorship. Intolerance, nationalism, suspicion all demanded more censorship, plus a campaign of propaganda for consumption at home, and sometimes abroad as well.
By 1930 the world was living under a blanket of censorship, breathing air thoroughly tainted with propaganda. This situation grew even more acute in the years following.
The number of countries with free presses was few, and there was doubt about some of those. The whole trend seemed to be toward increased control of all channels of information, and especially toward regulation of the press.
In the entire world, the only countries where newspapers were free to speak without government permission, and from which foreign correspondents could send dispatches without official approval, however hidden or indirect, were the United States, Great Britain, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Here are 12 countries out of all in the world and only four of these—the United States, Great Britain, France and Switzerland—can be classified as important news sources, and only three of them as “great powers.”
The rest of the world, some 700,000,000 persons out of a world population of 2,000,000,000 or more than a third are being fed with information that is biased and distorted to serve diverge purposes.
The purpose of censorship, as applied to the domestic press of a nation, commonly is to prevent the dissemination of statements that might disturb the status quo, and also to build up a public state of mind favorable to the government’s program, whether that be the fighting of a war or the continuance of its own tenure of office, by controlling what the public knows.
Statements such as might incite to riot, violence or disorders; others which might shake public confidence in the government, or those tending to undermine the moral or ethical standards of the people all are barred from the press by censorship, where it exists.
In all negotiations, whether national or international in character, a difficulty is instantly created when the press broadcasts to the public the fact that such negotiations are going on.
Such publicity may hamper free and amicable discussions between the conferees, and reduce the chances for a favorable outcome, because the relations, once they are in the press, become a matter of trading advantages, and the honor apparently goes to the negotiators who bring back the best bargain.
Diplomats, under such circumstances, are virtually forced to make their appeals to the public, with all its prejudices, rather than to the representatives of the other people. The merits of the case cease to have primary importance.
For this reason, those who apologize for censorship say that open covenants openly arrived at are impractical and that foreign affairs, particularly, should be carried on privately.
It is possible to make a plausible case for censorship, in some instances. The danger arises, however, from the fact that once the bars are down to censorship in one circumstance it becomes difficult to prevent its use in other circumstances.
Before long, a constant censorship is likely to exist, and there is no assurance that it will be administered wisely and unselfishly, rather than by persons acting in the interest of privileged groups or individuals and without regard for the public welfare.
Censorship makes dictatorship possible, and no dictatorship is possible without a censorship. If a censorship is held to be a need, moreover, it implies that the standard of general intelligence is so low that the public could not act wisely in its own interests.
A censorship upon outgoing news dispatches usually is based on an attempt to persuade the world that all is well in that particular country.
Opinion in the great investing countries the United States, Great Britain, and France has in past years been most important to other nations where governments and private business have wished to borrow money, and hence have wanted a “good press,” e.g. favorable publicity, in those money-lending lands. This desire has provided an economic reason for censorship.
Sometimes there is a political reason, as when a nation feels that its internal situation is too delicate to warrant free discussion either at home or abroad, perhaps because the government fears a possible adverse effect not only upon its currency exchange rate, credit balance, or volume of tourist travel, but also upon actual government policy, tenure of office, personnel, or administrative authority.
A government’s fate may actually seem to rest on the maintenance of a strict censorship, particularly of the domestic press.
This would be true during a period of crisis or internal change, and, as some countries have been in a state of almost perpetual crisis for years at a time, censorship has found a seeming justification.
A third occasion when censorship is invoked is in wartime, when it undoubtedly is necessary. Once in a war, it would be reckless for a government involved to permit the local press, if so disposed, to print full details about troop movement or to discuss progress without some restriction.
Editors, even inadvertently, could disrupt the morale of the military or civilian population by printing discouraging, defeatist, or pessimistic reports and commentaries. Nor would it be any wiser to permit correspondents for the foreign press to provide the enemy with aid or comfort through such reports.
The need for a peacetime censorship is far more dubious, however, particularly on outgoing dispatches.
If a government does maintain a censorship, if it does expel correspondents whose reports do not agree with official ideas of what should be said, if it suppresses outspoken newspapers within its own borders, then the world tends to believe that the government must have something unfavorable to conceal.
Censorship, therefore, has taken on a rather disreputable air. Because of this, governments which place restrictions either upon domestic journals or upon outgoing reports, sometimes deny that censorship exists, or they may insist that the press is free, at least “within the social order,” as the phrase goes; and declare it is intended simply to insure accuracy.