Today Latin American governments rarely exercise direct censorship of the press by banning newspapers or other media outlets, reviewing material, or outright prohibiting publication. However, governments across the region are using taxpayer funds and public power to exercise forms of “soft censorship” of the media. Common forms include: withdrawing government advertising funds as punishment for critical content, showering advertising contracts on friendly media, paying journalists directly for favorable coverage, denying broadcast licenses, or blocking access to sources and information for certain media.
Although these practices are not new, for the first time greater numbers of citizens are beginning to denounce the pernicious effects of these much more subtle methods of interfering with press freedom. Cases have been brought to light across the globe—in Latin American, Hong Kong, the Ukraine, and the United States, where the Bush administration was accused of using government funds to plant media stories in the U.S. and Iraqi press, and the governor of Illinois reportedly threatened to withhold state aid from a business deal involving the (Chicago) Tribune Co., if the paper didn’t fire certain members of its editorial board.
Soft censorship practices have a powerful inhibitory effect that extends beyond the media outlets directly affected to the entire media environment. Government officials send a strong message to all journalists, editors, and media owners that they must think twice about the consequences of what they publish. The countless local newspapers and radio stations that depend on government advertising income to survive feel the pressure the most, especially in areas where local businesses take out little advertising.
Photo credit: Ashley Poeticy (Creative Commons)