Lydia Lim

Some years ago, I heard a group of editors from Southeast Asia describe their impressions after a week of visiting newsrooms in my country, Singapore. An editor from Thailand observed candidly that what made this candid remark: “What gets to me about you Singapore journalists is that you talk so differently from how you write.” What he was pointing to was an apparent gap between what Singapore journalists express in private, and what they write for publication. That observation struck me as both insightful and disturbing. It spurred me into thinking harder about the phenomenon of self censorship.

4 thoughts on “Lydia Lim

  1. shinichi Post author

    Censorship is most commonly understood as the suppression of information by governments. What then is self censorship? How does it affect the practice of journalism?

    Some years ago, I heard a group of editors from Southeast Asia describe their impressions after a week of visiting newsrooms in my country, Singapore. An editor from Thailand observed candidly that what made this candid remark: “What gets to me about you Singapore journalists is that you talk so differently from how you write.” What he was pointing to was an apparent gap between what Singapore journalists express in private, and what they write for publication. That observation struck me as both insightful and disturbing. It spurred me into thinking harder about the phenomenon of self censorship.

    Self censorship as a practice by which individuals suppress their own words and actions, has been studied by social psychologists. The practice is a double-edged sword – it cuts against the value placed on freedom and individuality; at the same time, it also enables the healthy functioning of societies.

    Stanford University professor of psychology and organisational behaviour, Dale T. Miller, writes in his book An Invitation to Social Psychology: Expressing and Censoring the Self, “Self censorship is inherently neither good nor bad. Certainly, some acts of self censorship reflect a failure of will, but others…reflect the presence of will power and bespeak courage rather than weakness. For people to successfully negotiate their social world, they must have the ability to suppress their private feelings and thoughts, and equally important, to disguise the fact that they are doing so…Self censorship is also essential to the smooth functioning of society. Civilised life would not be possible were people not able and willing to censor their strongest antisocial feelings,” he writes.

  2. shinichi Post author

    Self Censorship as Power Play

    Self censorship can and does contribute to the social good. However, within the practice of journalism, self censorship can have troubling effects when it occurs in response to power wielded so as to influence the reporting, writing and publication process. That is the form of self censorship which is the focus of this project.

    Press self censorship has been defined as “a set of editorial actions ranging from omission, dilution, distortion and change of emphasis to choice of rhetorical devices by journalists, their organizations and even the entire media community, in anticipation of currying reward and avoiding punishment from the power structure”. (Lee, Chin-Chuan, Press Self Censorship and Political Freedom in Hong Kong, Harvard International Journal of Press and Politics)

    The central concept here is power, and how power affects the flow of information. Discussing self censorship in terms of power relationships provides a basis for thinking and talking about how journalists and editors can empower themselves to act, rather than be acted upon.

    For the purposes of this project, censorship is defined as an action by which a party in possession of significant power uses that power to control the information other parties can generate, distribute or access.

    Self censorship is an act by which individuals or organisations become intermediaries through which a powerful party controls information to suit its purposes. These intermediaries are likely to be in the business of generating or distributing information or both, such as journalists, writers, artists, news organisations and technology companies, whether in search, software or social networking.

    Within the context of journalism, the source of power which gives rise to censorship can be :

    – Political: the government often controls many goods which news organisations and journalists need, such as licenses to publish newspapers or operate television stations, permits to operate as journalists within that country, access to information and key newsmakers. Political leaders may also have influence over appointment and promotion of editors and journalists.

    – Economic: news companies often rely on large corporations for advertising revenue, and may therefore be less inclined to investigate or write critical pieces of their largest advertisers. Large corporations may also control access to information and key news makers.

    – Extra-legal power wielded by criminal gangs can have a chilling effect on journalists and editors. In January 2010, the Committee to Protect Journalists chronicled a striking case of autocensura or self censorship by newspapers in the town of Saltillo, Mexico, which chose to keep silent over the killing of a young journalist by a drug cartel. (

    – Social: there is huge pressure to conform socially and the source of that pressure will vary, depending on the context the journalist works in and his background. For eg. journalists from a minority community may be under pressure to present their own community in a positive light.

    – Apart from the external factors cited above, the extent to which individuals self censor also depends on internal factors such as personality and inclination.

    Researchers at the University of Ohio have developed a survey tool to measure individuals’ willingness to self censor, which they believe can be usefully applied in research and thinking on public opinion expression, political participation, group decision making, interpersonal communication, and other areas. The researchers at Ohio defined self censorship as the withholding of one’s true opinion from an audience perceived to disagree with that opinion.

    More on their findings here :

  3. shinichi Post author

    Engaging and Empowering the Self

    The intent of this project is not to examine media and the power structure at a macro level. The aim is instead to zoom in and focus on the self in self censorship, that is, on individual journalists working in
    environments where power is wielded to control information. Proposed here is a framework to spur discussion and reflection of journalists’ sense of their own power and capacity to act. The framework can be used in journalism classes, workshops and discussion groups. It is important to emphasise that this framework does not seek to dictate rights and wrongs, or dos and don’ts to journalists and editors. Instead, its aim is to help journalists and editors think about where their source of power might lie and how they can raise their power, if they so choose.

    Research by experimental psychologists have found that the more powerful a person feels, the more oriented he is towards action. If journalists feel more powerful, they are more likely to act, that is, to pursue journalistic objectives consistent with their own values and priorities, rather than let others influence them unduly, or worse, dictate what they do.

    Key to the framework is understanding what power is. Power is the capacity to control and influence others. A power relationship arises from an asymmetry of dependence between parties. When party B needs party A more than party A needs party B, that gives party A power over party B. Journalists, especially those working in societies where information is tightly controlled by those in power, often suffer from an asymmetry of dependence in at least 3 areas.

    1) Asymmetry of resources: The actual mechanics of press control vary from country to country but the outcome for journalists is not all that different. They fear that if they become too critical of the government, dominant economic players or others in power in their society, then their jobs, promotions and other career opportunities may be on the line. In some other countries, the stakes may be even higher, ranging from imprisonment to assassination.

    2) Asymmetry of ideas and access to information: In authoritarian societies, the state maintains control over information and expression. By contrast, liberal democracies are far more likely to have laws in place on the freedom of information, laws which guard journalists’ and the public’s right to know. However, during times of war and other crisis, the state – whether authoritarian or liberal democratic – will find it easier to justify controls over access to information. Under such circumstances, journalists may end up dependent on the state or other powerful players for information and ideas, which in turn affects their ability to be independent in their reporting and writing.

    3) Asymmetry of conviction and focus : Journalists may not always be clear about what their role and purpose in their society are. As a result, some may end up allowing more powerful players, such as the Government, to dictate to them what their role is or should be.

    Based on the above framework, I believe it is possible to develop a curriculum for a training workshop, or a format for discussion, for journalists to speak about self censorship in a way that empowers them and helps them do better journalism. It is essential that the process be oriented towards helping journalists realise their own sources of power. Psychologists who study power have found that there is such a thing as a power mindset. Someone in possession of a power mindset, that is, someone who feels powerful, enjoys clarity of objective, fluency of action, is more likely to focus on the positive rather than the negative and better able to direct other
    people effectively so as to achieve their goals. Do journalists possess such a mindset, if not how can they acquire it?

    The other important point to note is that the self censorship dynamic is context specific, so it would be ideal if the person who facilitates the workshop or discussion be familiar with and take into account the specific socio-political, economic and legal context that the journalists being addressed, work within.

    The workshop curriculum or discussion format can include some or all of the four elements below:

    1) ANALYSE :

    A case study approach can be used to spark discussion among participating journalists about the coverage of an issue of public interest in their city, region or country. The key question to explore is the extent to which power shaped or influenced key editorial decisions, such as the framing of the issue being reported on, the questions that were raised or not raised, the information that was included or left out of published articles, the written/spoken tone of pieces that were published or broadcast.

    For an analysis of American mainstream media’s deference to political power in the reporting of a highly controversial issue, please refer to None Dare Call It Torture: Indexing and the Limits of Press Independence in the Abu Ghraib Scandal, by W Lance Bennet, Regina G Lawrence & Steven Livingston (Journal of Communication, 56, Sept 2006)

    2) REFLECT :

    Invite participants to spend some time reflecting on the following: As a journalist working in your particular country or region, in your particular beat, which person, group or organisation do you feel most dependent on? What do you depend on this person, group or organisation for? To what extent does this relationship of dependence affect what stories you report and how you write them? How does this dependence affect your ability to be the journalist that you want to be?

    As a journalist in this field, what are your sources of influence and power? How have you tapped into these sources of power? What can you do to reduce your dependence on other powerful groups in this arena, and raise your independence? Have you pursued these avenues?

    Participants can then be invited to share those parts of their personal reflection that they are prepared to speak publicly about.


    Clarity of purpose gives clarity of objective, which is empowering. Invite journalists to speak about what they see as their role in their society. Are there any existing codes of ethics that

    inspire them? If not, invite them to write their own code, one that they believe makes sense in the context they work in.

    One example of a code of ethics that many journalists have found inspiring is the one below, crafted by the editors and journalists at Tempo, an independent news magazine in Indonesia, which for many years operated under the authoritarian regime of President Soeharto.

    Tempo’s much imitated code of ethics reads: “Our journalism will not be one-sided, or based on the politics of a single group. We do not believe that virtue nor the lack of virtue is the monopoly of any one side. We believe that the duty of the press is not to spread prejudice, but rather to wipe it out, not to sow the seeds of hatred, but rather to communicate mutual understanding. The journalism of this magazine will not be sneering or insulting, obsequious or slavish. What gives us jurisdiction is not power or money, but rather good intentions, a sense of justice and healthy thinking – all of which will be the basic philosophy of this magazine.”


    In societies where there are limits on freedom of information and expression, the focus of editors and journalists tends to be on what CANNOT be said or published, that is, on the constraints rather than on the possibilities.

    To shift the focus to what is possible, the workshop can include stories of journalists who have pushed the frontiers, who found ways to pursue, report and seek publication of stories that did not toe the line of those in power but which they themselves believed in and thought they public should know about. Such journalists can be invited to address the workshop or forum. Interviews with them can also be videotaped before hand and played during the workshop or forum.

    There are two reasons to highlight such stories. The first is to show journalists that no matter how trying the environment they work in, there are always ways to do meaningful journalism, if they choose to. The second is to inspire them to want to do such work, which is often difficult and risky.


    When journalists self censor, they often do so because they believe they have to in order to protect or advance themselves. They should be encouraged instead to think of ways to tap their own sources of power, so as to enhance their capacity to influence others and the society they work in, in a way that is consistent with their own values and those of the profession. Below are some approaches to consider:

    a) Multi-sourcing: information is a source of power. It is worth exploring how technology can be exploited to help journalists gain access to alternative sources of information and ideas. That reduces reliance on those with power to control access to information and who may seek to limit the spread of critical ideas and perspectives.

    b) Form alliances: a single journalist is unlikely to have any power but a group of journalists with a common purpose is more difficult to ignore.

    c) Negotiate: the self censorship dynamic often plays out in the interactions between editors, reporters and writers. For journalists who feel frustrated because they believe their editors are censoring them, one useful way to approach the problem is to think of the exchange as a negotiation, that is, a process whereby two or more parties decide what each will give and take in their relationship.

    To negotiate successfully, a party needs to know the point beyond which the terms of the deal become unacceptable to him or her. The ability to walk away from such a deal is a source of strength. Journalists in such a position should think hard about their own values and the extent of self censorship they find unacceptable.

    Kelly McBride, Ethics Group Leader at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says journalists need to “know when to take a stand”. In the ethics workshop she runs, she takes participants through various Stages of Ethical Development for the Journalist, the sixth and final one of which reads:

    Know when to take a stand (quit)

    o Identify the threshold for tolerable and intolerable compromises

    o Find outside reinforcement and support

    o Have a plan for making your case


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