Monday, March 20, 2006

Censorship: Power Struggles and the Limits of Freedom

At first glance, it appears very simple to argue the case against censorship by talking about universal morals and individual human rights. Unfortunately, the issue is somewhat more complicated than it first appears. Although the principal social actors are the state, mass media corporations and interest groups, it is a topic that runs through the entire society, affecting each family and every individual. This is because censorship is but a small part of the ideological struggle for our thoughts and minds. It is part of a struggle between those who want to maintain social relations more or less as they are, and those who challenge the status quo. It is also a question of where the limits to freedom are, and how they in turn depend on power relations. The decision to support or reject censorship is thus neither moral nor ethical. It is instead a question of where one’s interests lie in any particular case where censorship is used.

The principal actors involved on a national scale are the mass media corporations, the state and interest groups. In cases like the Iraq war, the American mass media corporations and the state worked very closely together. Reporters were imbedded with soldiers and received only authorized information. Hand in hand, they censored the reality that would be fed to the world. However, in the age of globalised technology, independent news chains such as Al Jazeera showed another side of the war and forced US television open up slightly. In Venezuela, for example, the relationship is very different. The government of Hugo Chávez has been facing an unending publicity battle with the media corporations. The media refuses to say anything good about their president, and they actively promoted the attempted coup in 2002 (Bartley & O’Brian, 2003). As a response, Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl states that the Venezuelan government has passed a law that makes it illegal to say things contrary to national security (2005). In other cases of censorship, the state is not involved at all. After the attacks of September 11th 2001, the largest owner of radio stations in the United States, Clear Channel Communications, sent a list of songs that it suggested be removed from the play lists of the company’s more than a thousand stations. The list consisted of well over a hundred songs, including highly subversive and violent songs such as the following: Alanis Morissette’s "Ironic," The Beatles’ "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Obla Di, Obla Da," Louis Armstrong’s "What A Wonderful World," The Rolling Stones’ "Ruby Tuesday," and of course, "99 Luft Balloons/99 Red Balloons" (Nuzum, 2003). Leaving aside the corporations, NBC reporter Peter Arnett was fired during the offensive against Iraq because of public outcry after he gave an interview stating that he believed the US war plan had failed (Kovacs, 2003). On a smaller scale, white supremacist groups complain of censorship when their Internet hate-sites are shut down. Even within each household, parents choose which TV programs, books and magazines they want their children to be exposed to. In each case, we have different social actors exercising different forms of censorship.

To understand how all these different social actors relate and are involved in censorship of one form or another, we have to understand what censorship is used for. If we use the Gramscian term of hegemony, we have the general acceptance of the dominant class’s vision of the world. This worldview is propagated through social institutions in civil society such as the church, mass media, the family and the education system. Hegemony crosses the barriers of class, race and gender, and it occurs when people believe that the way things are now is the way they have to be. They accept as natural the current social system. However, as it is simply a belief, people can stop believing it too. Groups looking for change try to show the inequalities in the system and to create the belief that another world is possible. In times of economic, social, political and military crisis, it becomes more probable that people start to question the ways things are. The end of the Vietnam War is a good example of the creation of a counter hegemony that rejects the status quo. However, when hegemony is fully accepted, social actors self-censor themselves, as occurred with the song list after 9/11. When hegemony is strong, deviants are socially censored, as in the case of the NBC reporter. When hegemony is weak, or there exists potentially damaging information, censorship is enforced, as occurred in Venezuela and during the Iraq invasion. In each case, there are relations of power between those who benefit from the hegemony and censorship and those who suffer because of them.

The relationships of power bring us to one of the most difficult parts of the debate on censorship: at what point does one’s freedom impinge upon someone else’s? An example is that of the white supremacist groups. Along with racist hate literature, we can also find violent pornography and sexual harassment. The social actors involved in these all claim the right to free expression, yet they are taking away freedom from others.
On the other side, anarchists call out slogans like “Eat the rich!,” and socialists call for an end to private property and capitalist exploitation. Feminists look for an end to patriarchy. These groups also impinge on the freedoms of others. We obviously cannot take an all or nothing view of censorship nor individual rights. Once again, we have to look at the power relations that are occurring. Discrimination is a form of oppression and must be strongly confronted even if censorship is required. At the same time, oppressed groups looking for social change and equality should be defended from the censorship of the ruling class with its twin arms of the coercive state and hegemonic civil society.

Do they have the right to spread hate?

Censorship is about power relations among social actors in a continual struggle between order and change. It is an issue that actively involves everyone, from the state, to the media, to the individual. It is used overtly only where hegemony has failed, although it can also be used to defend against discrimination. Even if we do not notice it, it is part of our daily lives, be it self-censorship, social censorship or information that is never shown to us. We cannot say it is good or bad; rather we must look at the power relationships involved, recognize the worldview being formed through censorship, and decide if we want change to the current social order or maintain it.


Bartley, K. & O’Brian, D. (Directors). (2003). The Revolution Will Not Be Televised [Film]. Caracas, Venezuela: The Irish Film Board.

Dile, J. (2005, March 28). Chavez's Censorship. The Washington Post. p. A17, Retrieved January 28, 2006 from

Kovacs, J. (2003, March 31). NBC's Peter Arnett: War plan has failed. World Net Daily. Retrieved January 28, 2006 from article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=31798.

Nuzum, E. (2002). Crash Into Me, Baby: America’s implicit music censorship in the wake of September 11th. Retrieved January 28, 2006 from http://

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Meaning of .... Democracy

At the end of this year, 2006, Nicaraguans will once more elect the person that will lead the country for the next five years along with the people that will represent them in the legislature. The term democracy will once again swing into fashion as every candidate tries to convince voters that only he or she truly embodies the great democratic principles. The question is, what exactly is meant by democracy?

Shortly before the last national elections, I asked a few people from a rural community in the north-eastern mountains of Nicaragua what they thought democracy was. Much to my surprise, they told me that democracy was having a strong leader that “did things” and was not corrupt. What they considered democratic sounded to me as though it leaned more towards authoritarianism, and it was very far from the old Greek ideal where ‘the people’ ruled. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, just a few words above demolish, defines democracy as “government by the people […] rule of the majority […] a government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usu. [sic] involving periodically held free elections” (Webster’s New Collegiate, 1977, p. 302). The comments of the people from the rural community may not have matched the dictionary’s definition; however, they did reflect the ongoing verbal battles between national political parties.

By going back to newspaper articles from that pre-election time, we can see that the political forces use the word democracy in different ways to meet short-term political goals. In each case, democracy is referred to as something positive and related to elections. The rest is variable. It can mean Christian faith, honesty and power sharing, or simply choosing to vote for the friends of the United States of America.

The first example of the use of term democracy is by Dr. Arnoldo Aleman, the then president of the Republic of Nicaragua and leader of the Constitutional Liberal Party. In a talk with evangelical youth, he called upon them to pray to God so that in the elections democracy would “vanquish” his atheist opponents that were “enemies of God and peace” (Sandoval, 2001b, para. 2, 4)[i]. Suddenly, democracy becomes a religious issue between believers and non believers, where divine powers are invited to intercede to make one party win over another. It is also interesting that the electoral process is not represented as part of a democratic process, but rather that democracy will “vanquish” through the electoral process. Democracy becomes synonymous with the Liberal Party, or at least becomes its private property.

Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN for its initials in Spanish) and president of Nicaragua during the eighties also talked about democracy in his pre-election speeches. Since the Liberal government had been wracked by charges of corruption, Ortega promised an honest government with lower salaries for state functionaries. He also proposed a transfer of powers from the Executive to the population in what he called participative democracy (Ruiz, 2001). Ortega associates democracy with honesty and lower salaries. He speaks about a transfer of powers from the government to the population, yet his does not specify what powers or the mechanisms he would use. We are left with the message that democracy is the contrary of the other party, and that only the Sandinistas will bring this new profound yet undefined democracy.

Daniel Ortega, Nicaraguan President during the 1980's and current presidential candidate for the FSLN.

The third major actor in the 1991 Nicaraguan elections was the government of the United States of America. Different American functionaries spoke to let people know their version of democracy. After the September 11th attack on New York, the messages became more belligerent. The US embassy in Nicaragua put out a news release, in which they affirmed that the “interest of the United States is that Nicaragua has fair elections […] which show the will of Nicaraguan voters and that our programs help in the strengthening of the democratic institutions in the long run” (Sandoval, 2001a, para. 4). The State Department assured Nicaraguans that they would respect the results of free and fair elections; however, at the same time, they also said that they had “serious reserves” about the FLSN, since the Sandinistas had violated democratic principles and basic human rights and sheltered terrorists. The State Department continued by stating that “there exists no intermediate point between those who oppose terrorism and those who support it” (Chamorro, 2001, Section II, para. 5). Democratic senator Bob Graham and Republican senators DeWine y Jesse Helms wrote a proposal to Congress asking the US president to modify U.S. policy towards Nicaragua if the Sandinistas won. They claimed it was necessary because the Sandinistas had historic ties to “terrorist” states such as Cuba and Iraq, and the absence of free and fair elections in Nicaragua would constitute a serious reverse for the people of Nicaragua and for the democracy in the hemisphere (Briones, 2001). The logic seems quite clear. Democracy means free and fair elections. Free and fair elections means voting for the candidates the U.S. government promotes. Should the population choose not to do so, the country will be labelled a terrorist threat like Afghanistan and Iraq and treated accordingly.

Quickly looking through a few newspaper articles from the 1991 election period shows what messages Nicaraguans received about democracy from the major political forces in the country. In each case, democracy means voting for the speaker’s party and not the other. Aside from that, they have very little in common. One type of democracy is divine retribution against the unbelievers. Another type is honesty and some undefined participation of the population in the state. For the U.S. government, it is apparently voting for whom they tell people to, or face the same fate as all the other “terrorist” nations that failed to have “free and fair elections.” Each political force uses the term democracy in the way they feel best suites them. They cash in on its positive image and use it to forward their own agenda. In the end, this makes the word empty, simply referring to elections and little more. Instead of bringing “supreme power” to the people, it leaves them powerless. They are allowed to vote under dire threats and choose between candidates that they have not chosen, who will represent them on issues that have not been publicly debated, and they will not be taken into account for another five years when the circus starts up again. As we start a new election year, we will have to wait and see how many new and inventive meanings the political leaders give to the word democracy. However, this year, people may stand up and take back the word that should, by all rights, be theirs. As the Creole poet from the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua wrote in his poem “Tell dem fa mi”:

Dem a talk bout democracy, dem styla way

wen dem yusta go wit wi banana an wi lomba

wi gold an wi labsta, wi fish an so fort

dem was happy, tings was good, fa dem do.


But tel dem fa mi, wi da billup owa democracy

Ina owa styla way statin fram wi roots.


(Hurtubise, 1995, p. 50)


Briones Loáisiga, W. (2001, November 2). Senadores de EE.UU. proponen modificar política si gana el FSLN. La Prensa. Retrived January 26, 2006 from

Chamorro, X. (2001, October 6). EE.UU. sacude al Frente. La Prensa. Retrived January 26, 2006 from
06/ nacionales/nacionales-20011006-05.html

Hurtubise, Josef. (1995). Poesía en Ingles Criollo Nicaragüense. WANI Revista de la Costa Caribe de Nicaragua, 6, 43-56.

Ruiz López, N. (2001, July 20). Ortega ofrece cambiar sistema político actual. La Prensa. Retrieved January 26, 2006 from 2001/julio/20/politica/politica-20010720-03.html.

Sandoval, C. (2001a, January 27). Estados Unidos espera “elecciones sin fraude”. La Prensa. Retrieved January 26, 2006 from cronologico/2001/enero/27/politica/politica-20010127-03

Sandoval, C. (2001b, July 1). Presidente Alemán ora por la democracia. La Prensa. Retrieved January 26, 2006 from cronologico/2001/julio/01/politica/politica-20010701-02

[i] All quotations except for those from the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and the Creole poem are my translations from the originals in Spanish.

[ii] With Standard English spelling the poem would read as follows: Them talk about democracy, them style way/ when them used to go with we banana and we lumber/ we gold and we lobster, we fish and so forth/ them was happy, things was good for them. […] But tell them for me, we will build-up our own democracy/ in our own style way starting from we roots. […] They-are-crazy [or democracy].