This sample Censorship Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Like other free research paper examples it is not a custom research paper. If you need help with writing your assignment, please use research paper writing services and buy a research paper on any topic.
Censorship is restriction of the circulation of information, ideas, and images or of political, cultural, religious, and artistic opinions; it occurs mainly when the rulers consider that these could weaken or damage their hold on power. Characteristic of nondemocratic systems, and also present in some democracies, censorship is usually exercised by an authority responsible for monitoring the dissemination of ideas, including those circulated by governmental agencies as well as those from private individuals and organizations. The term censorship has its origin in the Roman Empire, where the “censor” was the person who controlled the dissemination of political ideas.
Since premodern times, censorship has existed under different political regimes. It began to be questioned in the 17th century, when critics of the period’s absolutist states started to call for the limitation of state power and discretion and for the institutionalization of civil and political rights and, particularly, freedom of speech.
Censorship has also existed in social institutions such as the Catholic Church as well as in other religions such as Islam. In this case, the upper echelons of the religious hierarchy exercise censorship to ensure that the content of writings by priests and bishops is in line with the religion’s main tenets.
Censorship is generally at odds with democracy, which is characterized by the institutionalization of civil and political rights, civil liberties, and the existence of an opposition. Although free expression is a central democratic value, some opponents of censorship do recognize exceptions. One of the most commonly proposed exceptions is of child pornography, due to its connection with individuals or organizations that commit crimes such as pedophilia. Supporters of censorship in such cases argue that the right to free expression is outweighed by the need to prevent the extraordinarily harmful impact on children caused by the creation and distribution of child pornography. In contrast, critics of censorship with respect to child pornography argue that the connection between pornography and actual harm to children has not been established. Although some proponents of free speech argue that it has precedence over the defense of children’s interests, most Western democracies ban the possession, production, and distribution of child pornography.
Hate speech is another controversial subject of censorship; again, supporters argue that hate-filled speech encourages actual violence and that this potential harm outweighs the value of free expression. For example, such arguments are made to justify the censorship of neo-Nazi propaganda both in the United States and in Europe.
The use of censorship may be seen not only in a formal way—that is, through officials entitled to control political information using known political means—but also through informal mechanisms, such as threatening independent journalists, punishing a critical press through the denial of paid advertisements, and so forth. These informal censorship mechanisms can be found in young democracies established after military or authoritarian regimes, in which there are political constraints inherited from the prior political order limiting the institutionalization of political rights or caused by the lack of democratic beliefs among the governing elite. Referred to by Wolfgang Merkel as “defective democracies,” they may simply not have repealed the previous regime’s restrictions on press freedom or may consider that censorship is necessary in certain cases for reasons of national security. In this latter case, it is used to restrict publication of information about issues that are considered very sensitive for the armed forces and to avoid possible tensions and ensure the consolidation of democracy. In defective democracies or hybrid regimes, censorship by governing officials is exercised through formal and informal mechanisms, including threatening journalists. The elimination of censorship is one of the priority demands of an agenda that seeks to establish real democracy. In delegative democracies, such as Venezuela during Hugo Chavez’s presidency (in power since 1999), public officials use a variety of methods to limit freedom of press, including not only censorship but also actions such as the cancellation of TV and radio licenses. Although censorship is formally rejected in established democracies, freedom of speech can be restricted not as a governing decision but as a consequence of the ownership structure of the media, when business people seek to influence public opinion with their own beliefs or political views, rejecting the dissemination of opposing views. In these situations, editors may employ extensive self-censorship to block the dissemination of news and ideas that may damage the government.
Censorship can be imposed preventively—by defining conditions for the dissemination and circulation of ideas through any channel—or ex post facto, with the authority sanctioning those who infringe the norms that establish limits on freedom of speech.
Although censorship is incompatible with democracy, this does not mean that public officials lack the resources with which to attempt to persuade the media to block news and information that may be damaging or favor reports that may be negative to the opposition. One of these key tools is the placement of advertising, which can be an important source of media revenues.
With the development of modern technology, particularly the expansion of Internet, the imposition of censorship is more difficult than ever, posing enormous problems for public officials seeking to limit the dissemination of information and news critical of the government. The Internet opened a new channel of communication for dissidents in nondemocratic regimes (e.g., Cuba and China) to denounce abuses and make their demand for pluralism and freedom known to the world. These actions, in turn, trigger support from NGOs and political parties and governments in democratic countries, which helps protect the authors from reprisals. Large international corporations—notably Google— have also emerged as new players in favor of greater pluralism in nondemocratic regimes or defective democracies.
Censorship plays a very important role in authoritarian regimes. It serves as a tool to ensure that limited pluralism—a central element in their identity—remains within the bounds established by the authorities. These regimes allow certain sectors of the elite access to, and even control of, the media and publishing houses through which they seek to gain political power or influence while also restricting the access previously enjoyed by other sectors of the elite. Self-censorship is widely applied in these regimes by editors of private media companies that support the regime, are interested in its continuity, and are particularly strict in preventing the publication of negative news, particularly that referring to opposition activities or conflicts and divisions within the governing elite.
Francisco Franco’s Spain (1939-1975) provides an example of the evolution of censorship, which was not applied uniformly during his regime but underwent a number of changes as a result of conflicts among factions of the ruling elite, which had more influence when the regime was consolidated. With the consolidation of political power and in a context of economic development and social progress, there was a tendency to relax censorship in order to allow the press to play a role in controlling excesses, abuses of power, and, particularly, corruption among top officials. This explained the press law of 1966 in Franco’s Spain, which began a certain liberalization of the official press, bringing greater transparency about the decisions of the authorities. However, the information concerning abuse of power, particularly of economic character, was used by sectors of the governing elite to weaken the power position of other factions, provoking a scandal that led to a cabinet reshuffle and the dismissal of ministers involved in this conflict. However, it also permitted the appearance of opposition publications and even magazines (e.g., Cuadernos para el Didlogo), which had costs for the regime in terms of a significant increase in negative political information since they published news about cases of corruption and conflicts within the government and the elite. As a result of these direct and indirect effects of the liberalization of the press, censorship was, in practice, reestablished.
In the context of liberalization of authoritarian regimes, the relaxation of censorship and self-censorship was widely extended, as in the Pinochet regime in Chile (1973-1990) during a period of political instability caused by the economic crisis in 1983 to 1984. Independent radios and magazines could inform in a broader way on several political facts that had been censored earlier, including repression against opposition organizations. However, the government continued threatening and punishing journalists with formal and informal mechanisms and applying censorship in particular cases. The political space opened by the weakening of censorship was widely used by journalists and media, leading to a significant increase in political information, including adverse information, and favored the development of the opposition and, as a result, the weakening of the political bases of authoritarian rule.
- Jones, D. (Ed.). (2001). Censorship: A world encyclopedia. London: Routledge.
- Norris, P. (Ed.). (1997). Politics and the press. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
- Norris, P. (2000). A virtuous circle: Political communications in postindustrial societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.