Censorship: The new cyberpunk frontier

On November 10, 2008, David Rohde, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist working for the New York Times, was travelling in Afghanistan with his translator and driver, when all three were kidnapped.

The New York Times first learned about this event two days after his capture. With the best of intentions, the New York Times and friends of the captured journalist contacted editors for up to FORTY news outlets and successfully discouraged them from reporting Rohde’s capture. 

Wikipedia also deliberately altered, deleted and froze editing of a Wiki entry about Rohde, battling people who were attempting to make his capture public knowledge.

The intent was to de-emphasize Rohde’s profile, making him less valuable as a hostage. The ploy seemingly worked. As a low-visibility hostage, the journalist’s guards got sloppy and Rohde was able to escape on his own.

The first mainstream media report about Mr. Rohde’s capture was printed in the New York Times on June 19th, 2009, seven months after he was kidnapped, when he escaped his captors and returned to safety.

What continues to be fascinating about this story is not only Rohde’s capture and return, but the media blackout around it that reached beyond the printed word to the Internet. This case highlights a level of self-censorship across media platforms that is either comforting…or very frightening.

On one hand, it showed that news organizations had a level of common sense and restraint that some individuals don’t have. Wikipedia battled an insistent idiot who kept trying to make Rohde’s capture public without any thought for the consequences. Compare that to editors at all the major papers who refused to report news that would only serve the kidnappers and harm the victims. They gave up the quick buck that could be made from splashing the screaming headlines on the front page.

Project CensoredThis is good…right? Well, yes and no.

This conspiracy outlined a huge level of censorial clout that hovers over not only the television and print media, but also the Internet. “Legitimate” news sources on the net are just as susceptible to outside pressures as your local town’s paper. Political, economic and legal pressures (not to mention threats of personal violence) can cause a story to be scuttled or under-reported by any organization that doesn’t function with the strictest of anonymity.

And no reputable news source is truly anonymous. It can’t be done.

This case exposes a weakness in what many had hoped would be a unstoppable force, that by the Internet's nature, the truth will always come out.  There are many examples where powerful organizations try to stop this with various levels of success.

Some censorship that interfered with the truth include the following:

China was recently able to lock down Google, blocking all Tiananmen Square searches WITH GOOGLE’S HELP.

Google’s justification? “It's better to offer Chinese Internet users access to a wealth of information they might be otherwise unable to find at the expense of "pulling a few books out of the library."

Cuba constantly limits and runs surveillance on citizen Internet access in order to limit access to information. 

Burma, China and Cuba blocked information about Iran’s democratic elections in order to Wikileaksreduce chances that Cubans would get any ideas of trying to elect a leader rather than have one foisted upon them.

Of course, if Projectcensored.com is correct, Western countries aren't as free and clear as we'd like to think.  Stories are dropped or under-reported daily in the United States, Canada and Britain due to concerns of self-preservation.

In February 2008, a lawsuit against Wikileaks by a corrupt bank temporarily shut down the offending website. The court demanded that Wikileaks could not be accessed through its web address, and the hosting server complied.

Even entertainment isn't spared from censorship in the “land of the free.”

AT&T “accidentally” blocked streaming video of politically-charged criticisms by Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine and other bands at music festivals. At key points in the performances when the bands were criticizing the American government the video feeds were blacked out. 

So when does the truth step aside for “the greater good”? And how can we know how to trust what news we are receiving?

Luckily we have sites such as Projectcensored.org and Wikileaks.org to counterbalance corporate or individual self-preservation.

But with even decentralized information sites like Wikipedia being censored, how long until the full weight of international governments and corporations lock down the Internet?

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