Despite an age of increasing information proliferation across mass print publications, video media and the internet, censorship is still an enormous issue across the world. Recent news stories highlighting the risks facing journalists who publish contentious articles and data from whistle blowers like Edward Snowdon have highlighted that despite the image of democratic countries such as the US and the UK, freedom of speech and true fulfilment of the First Amendment of the US Constitution are far from reality. In fact, limiting censorship and encouraging free speech is a very recent phenomenon dating back only to the late 18th century when Sweden, Denmark and the US started to legally protect expression.
In ancient societies across the world, from the Romans and Greeks to the Asian empires of China, censorship was seen as a perfectly legitimate tool of controlling the morals and behaviour of citizens. The term originates from Rome in the 5th century BC from the ‘Office of Censor’ which was created to ensure good governance. So for generations censorship was viewed as an entirely positive way for the governing entities to control and protect their population.
The invention of the printing press made both mass publications and mass censorship possible and therefore after the 9th and 10th centuries in China and the mid-15th century in Europe, censorship was much more prevalent. While in China a constant censorship and control of ideas is seen during the dynasties, the key feature of this early censorship in Europe was the role of the Catholic Church. The introduction of printing had spread the Protestant ideas of Martin Luther and other ‘heretics’ and the Catholic Church reacted swiftly and forcefully. In 1543 the Church decreed that no book should be printed of sold without permission of the church and Pope Paul IV ordered his first Index of Prohibited Books in 1559 banning key ‘heretical’ texts. The last list was published as late as 1948.
This level of censorship was quickly followed by the monarchs of Europe with Charles IX of France also decreeing that nothing should be printed without his approval. However the Papal Church and the Christian faith was the key factor in the extent of the censorship and stifling of ideas and publications across Europe. Still currently, many of the countries that maintain strict censorship of the press such as in the Middle East, Pakistan or Indonesia are countries where the legal system is intrinsically linked to the national religion. Even in the West, the Catholic countries of Ireland and Malta maintain laws against blasphemy in the press.
The more recent history of censorship demonstrates its increased use by governments in empire domination as religion began to lose its influence in certain areas of Europe. One of the key features of the destructive colonial powers from the 16th century up to the Nazis, Stalinists and Maoists of the 20th century was the annihilation of records and works in the colonised country. Censorship was also a key tool in the destruction of culture, fundamental in expansion across the New World and the Eastern Empires of the European powers.
The British Empire utilised a different method by censoring their postal service. Leading up to the American Revolution, the British manipulated the mail and newspapers that were sent between the different colonies to limit their ability to organize opposition to British rule. As censorship was clearly a central method to control the empire it is unsurprising that freedom of speech is such a large part of the US constitution, yet the US still used censorship in the controlling of their colony in the Philippines. Censorship of civil mail by the Allied and Axis countries also existed until the end of World War II. In direct contrast, today the News of the World editors are being tried for a very similar breach of privacy by hacking the phones of a variety of people after a huge public outcry.
As when the printing press was created, the introduction of the internet has created a huge increase in the speed and breadth of the proliferation of information. Censorship has changed to meet these developments. Public opinions are becoming increasingly more important and actions of censoring mail across Europe now would be as widely contested as the current NSA phone hacking scandal is. However, across much of Asia and the Middle East newspapers and the internet are still strictly limited and huge proportions of the media are controlled by only a few men. While Western countries across the world proclaim their democracy and liberty, perhaps the fact that the US can hack private information unless publicised by whistle-blowers means that censorship is still surprisingly prevalent today. Are we in a world where censorship continues to decline or are authorities becoming increasingly subversive in their attempts to control public opinions and the spread of information?