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Word of the Week: ‘censorship’


We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘censorship’.

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This Friday marks World Press Freedom Day – a significant day for an east London content agency that prides itself on our award-winning newsroom approach to brand content. So this week, we’re going to delve into the deep, dark world of ‘censorship’ asking, what is it?

What does ‘censorship’ mean?

The meaning of the noun ‘censorship’ is: “the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news etc that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable or a threat to security”.

Though the word was first recorded in 1585, the concept of ‘censorship’ dates further back in history. One of the earliest victims of ‘censorship’ was Greek philosopher, Socrates. In 399 BC, he defied attempts by the Greek state to censor his philosophical teachings – thought to be corrupting the youth – and was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock, a poison. Not a good look for the birthplace of democracy.

Later, in Ancient Rome ‘censorship’ referred to “the office or position of censor”.

Their role? To maintain the census – the regular snapshot of information about the population – and supervise public morality.

In Freudian psychoanalysis, ‘censorship’ even came to be defined as: “exclusion from consciousness by the psychic censor”. Put simply, this means we are often unconsciously subject to self-censorship, or repression, particularly in dreams during which the mind excludes “any tendencies which displease it”.

In the Victorian era, famous for its prudishness, ‘censorship’ manifested itself in the form of fig leaves or handkerchiefs placed over the ‘so-called’ offending areas of sculptures and other works of art.

It is rumoured that the nudity of Michelangelo’s sculpture ‘David’, housed in London’s V&A Museum, so shocked Queen Victoria that a fig leave cast was fashioned specifically to cover Dave’s manly bits.

For once, we can turn to the Urban Dictionary for an uncharacteristically reasonable definition: “stopping the free flow of art and ideas”.

But what is ‘censorship’?

A number of high-profile cases have cast issues of ‘censorship’ into headlines of late, including that of Saudi-born Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi – openly critical of the Saudi Arabian Prince and his policies, he was reportedly murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

Reports have found that, shockingly, approximately 250 journalists from around the world have been jailed each year for the past three years. Turkey, China and Egypt were responsible for more than half of those jailed – for crimes ranging from ‘anti-state’ offences to ‘fake news’.

Julian Assange, the Australian journalist and founder of whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks, has made headlines for his recent arrest at the Ecuadorian embassy. Facing extradition for “conspiring to break into a classified government computer”, some free speech advocates are concerned that his arrest sets a worrying precedent for the US government’s power over journalists.

The surge in discourse around ‘fake news’ – a term that, a bit like ‘political correctness’, can mean whatever the sayer wants it to mean – and all-out criminal bans on the phenomenon in countries like Russia and Singapore, has also led to fears that press freedom will be further stifled, rendering ‘censorship’ routine.

Wow. Word of the Week just got really heavy, didn’t it?

Meanwhile, fans of Game of Thrones in China – a country notorious for its strict media censorship laws – were outraged when they were fed a censored version of the most recent episode, which came in six minutes shorter than the uncensored version.

We can suppose that the show, full of sex, dragons and, er, White Walkers, riled the Chinese authorities in much the same way that the mythical David’s nether regions bothered Victorian censors. Some things don’t change.

Read more:

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Roisin McCormack