“It was a pleasure to burn.” This is the opening line of Ray Bradbury’s novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’, which gives us a glimpse of a world where one could not own or read books. People of this society are unable to think independently as they are unable to access alternative perspectives on controversial issues. Instead, the government controls what they can watch or hear through mainstream media platforms. While it may be a fictional world, several parallels between the society depicted in the book and our current world can be drawn, making the issue of censorship ever more pertinent in today’s era. Despite Bradbury’s novel mainly highlighting the negative impacts of censorship in media, it must be noted that censorship serves as a protective mechanism, a set of training wheels that is meant to be a temporary measure to protect the country until it is confident enough to deal with a truly free society. However, technological advancement and an increasingly well-educated populace underpin the rise of new media and citizen journalism, which do come with its perils. I therefore venture to argue that in our modern context, a completely censorship-free society is misguided.
Censorship, which refers primarily to the alteration of certain narratives to fit a certain cause, or the omission of facts or opinions which contradict the dominant narrative, may affirm the viewpoints of individuals and groups, and this may have catastrophic effects. Besides affirming the viewpoints of individuals, the presence of ‘Out of Bounds Markers’, which are a form of censorship meant to control the direction of public discourse, set a precedent where controversial issues are rarely or never discussed, allowing misconceptions or erroneous pre-conceived notions about a particular issue to proliferate. A prime example would be how censorship in China has led to a lack of understanding of its history and a hive mind. The Great Firewall of China, which prevents its citizens from accessing the rest of the Internet, along with prevalent internet censorship and distortion of facts has led to a lack of understanding of historical events such as the Tiananmen Massacre. Further, the way in which Chinese state media distort the motivations of protestors in the recent Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests prevent mainlanders from truly understanding the motivations of the Hong Kong people, furthering the divide between the two populations. Such forms of media manipulation is also rife in other totalitarian states like North Korea. The state news agency, the Korean Central News Agency, provides the only source of information for all media outlets in North Korea. The media effectively paints the country in a positive light and have consistently upheld the personality cult of the ruling Kim family since the country’s independence.
Propaganda that has been promoted in such ways only prevent the locals from uncovering the truth, and as such, they are oblivious to the fact that they could be victims of human rights abuses. Another local example would be the ‘brownface’ controversy in Singapore. This controversy began when an advertisement sanctioned by Mediacorp – in which a Chinese actor portrayed an Indian uncle by painting his skin with dark paint – drew the ire of citizens, including a pair of siblings who responded with a video presumably criticising the Chinese population for its majoritarian, racist tendencies. The Ministry of Home Affairs responded by urging the siblings to take down the video, which it alleged had seditious tendencies, and by warning other social media users not to circulate the video. The blatant censorship of the video, which was simply a response to the state-sanctioned advertisement, sparked a rancorous debate amongst members of the public. Many were unable to view the siblings’ video, and were thus unable to form a balanced view of the situation, which further inflamed tensions between those who felt the original advertisement which used ‘brownface’ was offensive, and those who did not. As a result of the censorship, Singaporeans were unable to logically discuss and arrive at a common definition of ‘racism’, as well as carefully consider the role of satire in public discourse. This illustrates the importance of transparency in the presentation of mass media, so that it may gradually provide people with opportunities to accept and embrace differences in society. The control of information and ideas would only stifle progress and perpetuate ignorance and hence, censorship may not be relevant or necessary in today’s modern context.
It can be argued that as literacy levels increase worldwide, the global population is more educated and more capable of being critical and discerning of the information it receives, and as such, the need for censorship has diminished considerably. Access to education has greatly been enhanced in many countries around the world. In fact, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) reports that more than 50% of the population in developed countries around the world have some form of tertiary education. In schools around the world, the curriculum has also been enhanced with media library programmes which emphasize the importance of reason and rationality. As such, it should be expected that a literate population is able to apply critical thinking to information and narratives provided by the media, and form their own opinions. More importantly, they ought to have the prerogative to decide for themselves what they would or would not like to see in media. That said, however, it appears that even with higher levels of education, citizens are unable to discern between falsehoods and facts presented to them: a study published in ‘Science’, which analysed more than 126,000 tweets on Twitter, found that a falsehood reaches a group of 1,500 individual users at a rate that is 6 times quicker than a true story does. While increasing literacy rates may suggest a population that is more inclined to think critically, reality suggests otherwise. A more well-educated populace may not necessarily obviate the need for any form of control over the dissemination of information to the public, meaning that the concept of censorship may not be any less valid than it was previously.
However, we must concede that there are certain instances where it is imperative that censorship be present to serve as a moral guide or compass of sorts. Its relevance and function is demonstrated in its ability to protect children from the ills of mass media. Children who are exposed to mass media for long hours become unknowing victims when they are unwittingly exposed to violent or sexual scenes. As such, children, who tend to be impressionable and naïve, are especially vulnerable to the ills of mass media. Due to the egregious impacts of such undesirable material, the need for censorship is legitimate and relevant. While it may be true that information on the Internet is difficult to control, the fact that a task is a Herculean one does not negate the responsibility of ensuring that it is done, especially when it is a necessary one. Age restrictions on movies, such as PG, M-18, NC-16, R-21, prevent young audiences from being exposed to material that is sexually suggestive or where excessive gore could result in unwise decisions. From this, it can be inferred that the need for censorship is justifiable because of the prevalence of questionable or immoral material that could erode the moral fabric of societies.
In addition, censoring sensitive issues such as racial or religious issues could prevent ethnic and religious strife. By eliminating such sources of instability, the government surely has the interest of the larger community in mind as social cohesion is of great importance to any country. For example, in Denmark, cartoons that were thought to have blasphemed the Muslin prophet Muhammed outraged the Muslim community worldwide, leading to the situation being blown out of proportion. In Singapore, a number of individuals have been prosecuted under the Sedition Act for posting insensitive racist remarks online. In 2015, the Sedition Act was invoked against Ello Ed Mundsel Bello, a Filipino nurse who disparaged Singaporeans as ‘Stinkaporeans’ and ‘losers’, and allegedly said that he would ‘celebrate’ when ‘more Singaporeans die’. Another classic case would be that of Amy Cheong’s racist rant case in 2012, where she disparaged Malays for what she perceived to be their low-cost and lengthy void-deck weddings, and also mocked their divorce rate. In these cases, censorship protects individuals and groups from vitriolic speech designed to intimidate and degrade on the basis of race, religion or language and exacerbate existing fault lines. Considering the benefits of censorship which are legion, the practice of censorship especially in a diverse, multiracial country like Singapore, is without a doubt vital.
Furthermore, many individuals and corporations remain insensitive and even abusive of its use of mass and social media and have yet to reach a level of responsibility. This only undermines the reliability of mass media and calls for censorship laws to govern and regulate the media, so that it reports what is accurate and objective. With the rise in profit-making corporates running our media such as ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Daily Star’, sensationalism increasingly pervades our print media. The incessant exaggeration of reports not only clouds the judgement of the readers but also trivializes many important news. it should be acknowledged that mainstream media does also tend towards sensationalism and ‘excessive coverage’ in order to sustain their viewership. For instance, following the release of a report on carcinogenic processed meat by the World Health Organization, mainstream media coverage of the report and its contents were overblown and often distorted the findings of the report. Even the Straits Times is guilty of sensationalizing reports of crime. This is presumably because mainstream media sources, especially those which use online mediums, tend to sensationalize important news to get ‘clicks and likes’, which in turn drives up their advertisement revenue. The lack of journalistic integrity points to the need for some type of control over the information which is presented to the public, to prevent the false propagation of information, especially for news media as people ought to feel reassured that they need accurate news.
On a final note, despite the slew of problems that censorship brings about and its diminishing necessity in society, the exercise of censorship is essential and well-founded. However, with the increasing dominance of new media, it has become increasingly difficult to monitor everything. Hopefully with education and the cooperation of the public to utilize the internet responsibly, we can ensure that we do not end up like the dystopian society presented in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ where the free flow of information wreaks havoc.