President Obama: Don't Lecture China on Censorship

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President Obama,
in his visit to China, held a “town meeting” with Chinese
students in which he praised openness and lectured them on the value
of freedom of information, saying that he is a “supporter of
non-censorship” and that open access to information was a “source
of strength.”

And yet America
is hardly free of censorship. Heck, the president himself has gone
to court to prevent the release of photographs of US troops torturing
captives in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo. Talk about censorship!
But it goes way beyond just such crude, totalitarian-style control
over information.

just take the issue of depleted uranium weapons, over 1000 tons
of which have been expended in the US invasion of Iraq, most of
it in populated areas where millions remain exposed to the radioactive
dust of the burned material. There is almost no reporting on this
topic in the US media. The Pentagon has for years lied about and
hidden the effects of this deadly substance, used in shells, bombs
and bullets because of its unique ability to penetrate hard steel
armor and concrete bunker walls. It has refused to disclose where
the weapons were fired, and has denied US troops the tests that
would show if they have been contaminated. It has even resorted
to having paid Pentagon hacks surreptitiously libel, slander and
otherwise undermine those military sources and journalists who have
tried to expose this scourge (this reporter has been the target
of such disinformation attacks).

But censorship
in the US goes beyond these crude efforts at government-directed
control of information. In America, some of the most potent censorship
is done by the privately owned media – supposedly a bastion of
freedom of expression.

There is no
reason why the US media cannot report on depleted uranium and its
deadly legacy in places where it has been used, such as Iraq, Kuwait,
Afghanistan and Kosovo, or on and around American military bases
from Maryland to Hawaii. And yet it does not. Just recently, stories
have appeared both on Britain’s SkyTV and in the Guardian
, reporting on an alarming rise in unusual birth defects
and infant cancers in Fallujah as well as in other Iraqi cities
like Basra, Najaf, Baghdad and Samara – all urban areas where
there were major assaults by US forces both in the initial invasion,
when most of the DU weapons were used, and later during fights against
holed-up insurgent groups.

In Fallujah,
the Guardian reports that birth defects are up by a staggering 15
times normal – an increase of 1400%! While the article doesn’t
mention depleted uranium specifically, and says that doctors in
Fallujah have been "reluctant to attribute" the astonishing
number of birth defects to the massive assault on that city by US
forces in late 2004, they do say those doctors cite “radiation
and chemicals” which were dumped on the city. (A
second article in another British paper, the Independent
makes the link between the birth defects and depleted uranium weapons
more explicit and direct.)

There is no
such report about this in the US media.

Is that censorship?
Of course it is.

The American
government doesn’t tell CBS News or CNN not to report this
story, which amounts to a US war crime. It does not (at least generally),
contact the editors at the New York Times or the Washington
Post and say, “Don’t report on the infant mortality crisis
in Iraq, or on the possible connection to US weaponry” (Though
the government did ask and successfully get the Times to hold a
story about the National Security Agency’s massive electronic spying
program for a year, and managed to pressure the Times’ editors
to kill a Times reporter’s story about President Bush’s likely
use of a hidden cueing device during the 2004 presidential debates).
The editors of those news organizations themselves most of the time
simply decide that either the story is of no importance to readers
or they worry that they may be criticized either by the government
or by other media organizations for being unpatriotic, or biased.

The end result
of such a process of self-censorship, however, is that the American
public is as ignorant about certain things as someone in China.

More ignorant
in fact.

One thing
I learned from living and working as a journalist and journalism
teacher in China back in the 1990s is that the Chinese people, with
their long experience of living in a totalitarian dictatorship in
which all media are owned and tightly controlled by the state and
the ruling Communist Party, are acutely aware that they are being
lied to and that the truth is being hidden from them. Accordingly,
they have learned to read between the lines, to pick up subtle hints
in news articles which honest journalists have learned how to slip
into their carefully controlled reports. They have also developed
a sophisticated private system of person-to-person reporting called
xiaodao xiaoxi or, literally, “back-alley news.”
This system used to be word-of-mouth between neighbors and friends.
As telephones became ubiquitous, it was done by phone, allowing
transmission over long distances quickly. Now there is the internet,
which, while it is systematically controlled via what has become
known as China’s “Great Firewall” – effectively
all of China is like a vast corporate “intranet” which
blocks access to outside websites – still allows the flow of
email. This is nearly impossible to monitor, particularly when the
messages are not bulk mailed to large numbers of addressees.

So in China,
reports of corruption, of local rebellions or strikes, of internal
struggles within the government or party, or of important news about
the outside world that the government wants to keep at bay, manage
to circulate widely inside China despite a huge state censorship

This alternative
highly-personal news network works because the Chinese people know
they are being lied to and kept in the dark, and they want to break
through that official shroud of secrecy and control.

In the US,
in contrast, we have a public that for the most part is blissfully
unaware of the extent to which our news is being censored, filtered
and controlled. Like the President (who knows better), we boast
of our “free press,” and our open society, and indeed,
as a journalist, I am free to write what I want to write.

But given that
most people get their news either from corporately owned newspapers
or from corporate radio and TV stations, it doesn’t really
matter what I or other journalists critical of the Establishment
write because it won’t appear in the corporate media. Since
most Americans, unlike most Chinese people, assume that they live
in a society with a free press and no censorship or control of information,
they don’t even bother to look beyond the information that
is spoon-fed to them by corporate media sources.

The result
is that in my experience I have found peasants in rural Jiangsu
or Anhwei Province to in many cases be better informed about their
own country and the world than are typical American suburbanites.
Certainly if an American wants to be informed, all the information
she or he could want is available, but one has to be first of all
aware that one isn’t getting certain information via the obvious
sources, and then one has to want to get it, and make the effort
to find it. For most Americans, all three of these elements are

The list of
censored stories and issues in the US, about which the American
public knows almost nothing is staggering, going well beyond just
the use of nasty weapons.

Do Americans
know, for instance, that all the other modern western Democracies
in the world have some form of national health care – either
a state-run system like that in the UK or a single-payer model like
that in Canada, or some hybrid like they have in France or Switzerland – and
that in all those countries, the systems are so popular that they
have survived decades of conservative governments? No. Our corporate
media instead report on the crank critics of those systems and allow
us to believe they are hated by their citizens.

Do Americans
know that the US no longer boasts the best standard of living in
the world – or even close? No. Because the American media continue
to portray the US as “number one.”

Do Americans
know that Al Qaeda was actually a creation of the CIA? No. This
important bit of information doesn’t get mentioned in the US
media, which always starts the organization’s history at 1988,
when it got its name, when actually, its early origins date to the
arming of the mujahideen by the CIA and the CIA-linked Pakistani
intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, in
the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the US wanted to create and
support resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

And of course,
we rarely get to see the slaughter of women and children that our
beloved soldier “heroes” are conducting in Iraq and Afghanistan
in our name.

No censorship
in America?

Mr. President,
please. You may fool us, but at least don’t insult the intelligence
of your Chinese audience.

17, 2009

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