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Self-censorship: A how-to guide for dictators

This statement was originally published on article19.org on 28 November 2014.

By Georgia Nash

Picture the scene - you want to control the media landscape in your country and shut down any pesky critical voices but you still want to maintain your friendships at the international level. So what's a poor dictator to do? Well, you're in luck - here we have a handy five-step guide to implementing a regime of self-censorship. Because why censor bloggers, media workers and journalists when you can make them self-censor? Get them to do the hard work for you!

So without further ado, here are the crucial elements of an effective regime of self-censorship:

1. HAVE A PRESS SYNDICATE. PAY THEM A SALARY. AND MAKE SURE THAT ONLINE JOURNALISTS CAN'T GET MEMBERSHIP

This will come in handy during unwanted protests – those annoying online journalists with their 'alternative voices' won't have a press pass. This means they won't be able to cross police barriers and you can arrest (or shoot) them for taking part in the protest.

2. MAKE SURE THAT THE ECONOMIC INTERESTS OF THE MEDIA OWNERS ALIGN WITH THE STATE


This is a really easy way to implement self-censorship. Satellite companies and newspapers need investment. Make sure those investors are your friends.

3. THE LAW IS YOUR FRIEND: INTRODUCE A COMBINATION OF VAGUE AND SWEEPING LAWS.


So, there has been a revolution and you can no longer justify the long-term use of emergency law. No problem, you can recreate the same effects with a combination of other laws. First, have a constitution that nominally protects freedom of expression – and then sneak some police traps into the rest of your statute book. A good place to start with undoing those protections would be a law criminalising protest (5 years of prison for 5 minutes of protest is a good guideline), an anti-terrorism law and laws against incitement to hatred and defamation (make sure that your definitions are vague so that you can apply it as broadly as possible).

You might also want to think about forcing Civil Society Organisations (they keep criticising, so it's important to get them in line) to register under a restrictive law. If that law isn't quite enough, make some small amendments to the penal code introducing life imprisonment for receiving funding from abroad (don't worry this only applies to the CSOs, not you!)

Pro-tip: You don't have to enforce these laws all the time. Occasional but extremely harsh implementation of the law should do the trick.

4. TERRORISM IS A VAGUE WORD – MAKE THE MOST OF THAT VAGUENESS

Inciting terrorist acts is wrong, so play it safe and make sure that you define 'incitement' as anything you want it to be. That way, journalists will be extra-careful about their reporting on political opposition.

5. SET THE PARAMETERS OF THE DEBATE – BAN THE OPPOSITION

Outlaw them immediately, particularly if they are popular enough to be elected. Arrest anyone who promotes their views. This may sound like censorship rather than self-censorship, but a little bit of work goes a long way – crack down on them and no one else will dare speak up.

The result: a homogenised media speaking with a single voice. Get it right and you could even end up with a group of newspaper editors joining together to pledge allegiance to you.

Troubleshooting: What to do if you have a popular democratic uprising? Time for some straight talking: you (the dictator) may have to go. The best advice I can give here is to flee the country before you are put on trial. But never fear, as long as economic and international interests align, you will soon be replaced and the self-censorship system should only be temporarily disrupted. Your legacy will live on.

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