Censorship and Google’s protest: Why westerners should listen to developing world complaints

According to the Associated Press:

Beijing issued a stinging response Friday to U.S. criticism that it is jamming the free flow of words and ideas on the Internet, accusing the United States of damaging relations between the two countries by hoisting its “information imperialism” on China.

In the United States, mainstream news media have simply dismissed this claim of “information imperialism” without explanation. But to treat this correctly, we should first, understand what it is the Chinese governnment is referring to; and second, determine to what extent their explanation is adequate for their actions.

First, western news media dominate the world’s flow of information. That means the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence-France Press, all news agencies situated in western colonial and/or imperial powers; and reflecting western values of “capitalist democracy,” a certain degree of political (but not economic) human rights, and secularism predominate. It means that in this flow of information, western military interventions in developing countries are assumed to be largely justified. Finally, this flow of information values white lives over the lives of people of color, so, for examples, the “excess deaths” of well over a million Iraqis in the Iraq war are far less significant than the thousands of casualties among the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” and Afghan and Pakistani complaints against drone attacks that kill far more civilians than insurgents are far less significant than the duration and expense of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And when western governments have advocated a “free flow” of information, it has been to promote these values.

In contrast, other societies express different beliefs about the role of journalism. In Agents of Power, J. Herbert Altschull describes a Marxist ideal of journalism as propaganda, a Leninist view of journalism as a tool for activism and organization, and an “advancing world” perspective as journalism as facilitating cooperation. Regardless of belief system, Altschull argues that, in fact, all mainstream journalists more or less explicitly act as agents of power, supporting the status quo.

Governments and militants all understand information as a weapon of war. U.S. military attacks on al Jazeera, U.S. military “information” campaigns, Iranian regime attacks on the BBC, and other attempts to control information all reflect this understanding.

So, can we understand Chinese censorship of Tienanmen Square protests, Tibet separatist advocacy, and other topics of dissent in this light? Can we similarly understand the Iranians’ restrictions on western news media? The Iranian regime is attempting to blame its internal dissent on external forces. The Green movement in Iran is probably too widespread–and in fact too ideologically diverse–for this to be credible. But when Westerners align themselves with dissenters in any country, there is a case to be made that they are being hypocrites and that they enable regimes to blame their problems on countries that have historically sought hegemony over vast parts of the world.

Advocates of a “free flow of information” should understand that this has all too often been a one-way flow. I spend many hours per day trying to bypass this, getting news reports from western, institutional, non-western, and non-institutional sources (the facts that I’m limited to English and that I have not traveled outside the United States are handicaps). But Google, who has recently threatened to withdraw from the Chinese web search market unless allowed to provide uncensored results; Hillary Clinton, whose recent speech supported Google’s position; and western human rights activists would all do well to understand that communication is not a one way street.

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