“Soft censorship” or “indirect state censorship” is an effective means of media manipulation and control not through direct and violent methods, but by means of indirect pressure.
Soft censorship is used to promote positive coverage of and to punish media outlets that criticize officials or their actions. It is the practice of influencing news coverage of state bodies and officials and their policies and activities through allocation or withholding of state media spending such as subsidies, advertising, and other media contracts or assistance. Other forms of soft censorship are selective application of licensing, permits or regulations, to shape the broad media landscape, promote or diminish the economic viability of specific media houses or outlets; and/or reward or punish content produced by individual media workers.
Five categories of soft censorship
The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) distinguishes five categories of soft censorship:
1) state advertising, 2) subsidies, 3) paid news, 4)bribery and payments, 5)other administrative pressures.
- State advertising: Use of public funds to announce public tenders and procurement, or for information campaigns to promote government policies, programs or service in media outlets. Abuse of state advertising would include advertising that promotes a particular office holder or political party, or when its placement is used to influence media editorial content.
- Subsidies: assistance to a specific media house or media outlet, or to a media sector, provided by the state or a publicly funded body. A “hidden subsidy” is indirect financial assistance to selected media from public funds that is not officially defined and registered as a subsidy.
- Paid “News”: paid content disguised as news, where financial arrangements are formalized with media outlets to promote a biased coverage of certain issues.
- Bribery and payments: journalists, editors and media outlets are offered and sometimes seek direct payments or other compensation to shape or slant their reporting.
- Other administrative pressures: are found when licenses, imports, audits or taxes are used as instruments of soft censorship, although the boundaries between these and hard censorship can be indistinct or overlapping aimed at shuttering independent or critical voices.
Soft censorship has a painful impact on media. Exerting pressure on news coverage through biased, non-transparent allocation of funds and other financial tools may cause self-censorship that will restrict information dissemination and media will seem free only at a glance.
The tactics of official soft censorship are increasingly pervasive and alarmingly effective means of media manipulation and control around the world. Techniques of soft censorship are far less visible and dramatic than blatant media repression that draws immediate and intense attention from press freedom and other human rights groups. Yet soft censorship can prove highly insidious for its relative subtlety; a public that is denied accurate and impartial information is unlikely to be aware and properly wary of its existence and its impact. Therefore, it is extremely important to interest those organizations, which are capable and have a relevant qualification to research and reveal such impact. It is important to study the impact of soft censorship and try to challenge it.
When talking about soft censorship, online media becomes increasingly topical, as the role of online media in modern technologically developed society is further increasing. Online media functioning is related to fewer financial and administrative difficulties compared to TV and radio broadcasting that is accompanied by a number of positive and negative effects. It is established practice in certain countries to use the services of online news agencies by the state and it is important to monitor whether or not the government uses this service to promote partisan or personal interests instead of the state interests.
- Laws and regulations guaranteeing fair and transparent official advertising should be enacted and properly enforced.
- Impartial audience measuring systems based on certified standards should be established to ensure that advertising allocation can be based on technical criteria.
- All state funding for media development and support should be allocated in public competitions on principles of transparent and non-discriminatory state aid under equal conditions for all media.
- All state funding for media development and support should be paid in a transparent manner, with clear audit and reporting rules.
- Laws should provide significant penalties to state bodies and officials violating prohibitions on use of public funds to promote individual or partisan political interests.
- Any state support of content production must be clearly separated from its role as advertiser, with editorial integrity explicitly guaranteed, and be subject to transparent review.
- Media owners and journalists should adopt clear codes of conduct that ban accepting bribes or any other gifts or compensation that influence coverage”.