President Obama: Don't Lecture China on Censorship

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.

Let’s 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 newspaper, 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.)

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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 apparatus.

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.

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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 missing.

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.

November 17, 2009