Free Speech

Few countries have the US First Amendment







During the Cold War most countries, especially the Dictatorships (communist and non-communist) had rigorous control of the press and other media. Censorship of the internal media and prohibition of imports were the main means. Registration of typewriters and photocopiers were universal. Listening to telephones and opening letters were common in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. (This was easier when there were few phone lines.) The East German regime maintained a huge establishment of spies and listeners.

Short wave radio was jammed by broadcasting noise on the wavelengths it used.

In the Communist world the system began to break down with some kinds of modern media. Fax machines enabled messages to spread rapidly. Computers needed printers and controls slipped.

However attempts at media control continue in such countries as Iraq (and virtually the whole Arab World). In North Korea special radios are distributed which can only be tuned to the regime's own broadcasts. In many other countries Short Wave radios are prohibited - which reflects the fact that since the invention of radio no regime has been able to seal itself off completely, as could occur in the past e.g. Japan before the Meiji Restoration.

Areas of Free Speech

  • United States (limited by commercial curbs)
  • Most of Europe (but note British government secrecy and libel laws)
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • South Africa (at present, but will it last?)
  • Japan
  • India

Specially bad areas

  • Arabia (physical controls of imports and ownership by Saudi interests of most electronic media) but Al Jazeera, based in Qatar, has opened up television
  • Russia (Government intimidates journalists and buys up all media)
  • Burma (Myanmar)
  • most of former Soviet Union
  • most of Africa (some freedom in Nigeria and Kenya)
  • Iran (religious censorship of all media)
  • North Korea
  • Singapore (control of imports)
  • Latin America (varies according to regime).

Is there censorship in western countries? Yes. see this article.



Possible Solutions

In Communist countries Samizdat (self-publishing) occurred with copying of whole novels and magazines on individual typewriters with carbon copies (because even photocopiers could not be used). These copies circulated by hand in an underground network: such works as Solzhenitsyn's history of the Gulag and unofficial magazines such as the Chronicle of Current Events.

The advent of computers, which could not be excluded because otherwise the economy would seize up, made possible more and more transfer of news and information. Possibly the Internet is a medium not easy to censor (but the US and other governments have tried, especially China).

Censorship is not beaten. Many regimes make use of modern technology to try to reimpose it. Thus Saudi Arabia, with unlimited money, is controlling satellite television by imposing encryption devices and delay devices on cable systems which enable the ruling group to interfere with news from such sources as BBC World Television. (Short Wave radio is harder to censor.) They also try to control Internet access. This also occurs in other Persian Gulf countries.

Large media conglomerates such as those of Rupert Murdoch also act as censorship mechanisms. e.g. The Chinese government wishes to keep out western news and has persuaded Murdoch to keep the BBC off his satellites covering China.

The US experience shows that a constitutional prohibition of interference with free speech is important. Only democracy can maintain it. However, most of the media even in the US is controlled by commercial interests which limit the range of ideas they permit or allow air time to. Advertisers censor programs as willingly as governments. Militant fundamentalists also object to views they dislike.

The flow of news is probably better now than at almost any time in the past, but this could change without constant vigilance. All ruling groups, without exception, would like to control people's access to information.

China and similar centralised dictatorships are trying to control the Internet - with some success, aided by such companies as Yahoo and Google.

Last revised 9/06/10


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