The Weaponization of Language (Part 2): Censorship

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing extracts from the article The Weaponization of Language: Discourses of Rising Right-Wing Authoritarianism by Celine-Marie Pascale. The previous post is here.


On how capitalism survives and thrives through propaganda see posts addressing aspects of Alex Carey’s Taking the Risk Out of Democracy. Or better still, read the book to see how capitalism relied on advances in propaganda techniques to survive against popular interests and guide the democratic processes.

While media censorship may be the hallmark of authoritarian regimes around the globe, censorship also is associated with capitalist systems that prioritize the interests of advertisers, boards of directors, and profits over the interests of consumers and the general public . . . .

In an era that might be called ‘the information age,’ censorship flourishes in old and new forms. Fundamentally, censorship prohibits language that threatens hegemonic power. Consider that the interests of a free press have long been overshadowed by governments, corporations, and religious groups.

. . .

Historically, US news corporations have censored information that would negatively affect the interests of advertisers and owners. Recently, censorship has taken a different form in the US. 

. . .

This is a new face of censorship for the United States and in line with what appears to be the cultivation of state control over news.

George Orwell is credited with warning that the further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it. 

[Though the quote is widely attributed to Orwell there is no confirmation that he wrote it. A similar sentiment was expressed by Gramsci — we have posted about him before — who said, “To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a communist and revolutionary act.“]

. . .

In 2019 the number killed dropped but that’s hardly a substitute for not being targeted by death squads at all.

Reporters Without Borders publishes a World Press Freedom Index.

According to the International Federation of Journalists,

  • 94 journalists and media staff were killed in 2018 
  • Ninety percent of all journalist deaths remain unresolved.

According to Reporters Without Borders, 

  • Around the globe 348 reporters were detained in connection with their reporting in 2018 

. . .

Journalists are persecuted in countries around the globe including Eritrea, Turkey, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, China, Russia, South Africa, and Uganda.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s regime collects detailed information about journalists as well as about media advertising and editorial content …

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has called reporters ‘spies’ …

In the United States, Donald Trump has called both the press and individual journalists ‘enemies of the people’ …

Trump also has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to collect information on reporters and news media, as well as on individuals who post news on social media platforms …

The US State Department’s Global Engagement Center, created to combat disinformation and online extremism, has recently used online trolls to attack US journalists for disinformation, branding them as ‘Tehran collaborators’ for writing articles the US government perceived as being ‘soft on Iran’ …

Reporters Without Borders added the United States to its list of most dangerous places for reporters after a mass shooting at a local paper that left five reporters dead …

. . .

To break for a moment from Pascale’s article and look across at other instances of media censorship in the West, in particular USA and Australia:

From a May 2018 report by Index on Censorship:

  • Threats to media increased during the Obama administration, which brought record number of whistleblower prosecutions.
  • President Trump’s verbal attacks on the media have worsened a hostile climate to the press.
  • Journalists’ ability to report is being undermined by attacks, arrests, border stops, searches of devices, prosecution of whistleblowers and restrictions on the release of public information.
  • Latest report comes after US falls two places on the RSF World Press Freedom Index.

The United States media – one of the best protected in the world – is facing challenges that threaten the freedom of the press. This is the finding of an unprecedented press freedom mission that took place in January 2018, one year after President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration.


Other major threats to media freedom in the US include:

  • A failure by law enforcement officials to recognise the rights of journalists to report freely on events of public interest. Journalists have been arrested and even assaulted by law enforcement officials at a local and state level, while covering protests.
  • An increase in border stop and searches. Journalists have been asked to hand over electronic devices, detained or even denied entry to the US.
  • A slow and unresponsive freedom of information system, which is preventing the release of information that is in the public interest.

From an AP report by Jason Dearen, May 9, 2020

The decision to shelve detailed advice from the nation’s top disease control experts for reopening communities during the coronavirus pandemic came from the highest levels of the White House, according to internal government emails obtained by The Associated Press.

The files also show that after the AP reported Thursday that the guidance document had been buried, the Trump administration ordered key parts of it to be fast-tracked for approval.

The trove of emails show the nation’s top public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spending weeks working on guidance to help the country deal with a public health emergency, only to see their work quashed by political appointees with little explanation.

And 13th May 2020, in The Daily Beast, Team Trump Pushes CDC to Revise Down Its COVID Death Counts

President Donald Trump and members of his coronavirus task force are pushing officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change how the agency works with states to count coronavirus-related deaths. And they’re pushing for revisions that could lead to far fewer deaths being counted than originally reported, according to five administration officials working on the government’s response to the pandemic.

And ever so subtly, from PBS, CDC director says there are ‘no banned words’ at the agency, Dec 2017 . . .

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald on Sunday addressed a report that President Donald Trump’s administration had banned the CDC from using seven words or phrases in next year’s budget documents.

The terms are “fetus,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “evidence-based” and “science-based,” according to a story first reported on Friday in The Washington Post.

But Fitzgerald said in a series of tweets on Sunday said there are “no banned words,” while emphasizing the agency’s commitment to data-driven science.

Yes, but read on . . .

But in follow-up reporting, The New York Times cited “a few” CDC officials who suggested the move was not meant as an outright ban, but rather, a technique to help secure Republican approval of the 2019 budget by eliminating certain words and phrases.

That’s censorship, a reframing of the discourse, a redefining of reality by a force more subtle than a dictatorial decree.

Lest you think I have only the U.S. in my sights, this was a big story in Australia last year:

AFP = Australian Federal Police
ABC = Australian Broadcasting Commission (a national broadcaster, but independent by statute)

The issue was reporting on evidence for Australian special forces war-crimes in Afghanistan:

On April 1, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) wrote an extraordinary letter which could signal a dramatic change in how the media is viewed in this country: it wanted the fingerprints of two senior journalists.

Fingerprints? Given the date of the letter — sent two months before the AFP’s June 6 raid on the ABC’s Sydney headquarters — the two journalists could have been excused for thinking that this was some sort of April Fool’s joke by their colleagues.

But the letter was serious — the AFP wanted finger and palm prints from Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, the ABC journalists who two years earlier had produced stories on the activities of Australian special forces soldiers in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2013.

. . . .

In fact, that “fingerprint letter” specifically stated that both Oakes and Clark were suspects in relation to three alleged offences — one under s79 (6) of the Crimes Act 1914 concerning “the receipt of prescribed information”, one under s73A (2) of the Defence Act 1903 concerning “unlawfully obtaining information,” and another under s132 1 (1) of the Criminal Code.

And then there’s the ongoing matter that involves such a wide array of issues that the whole story almost defies words:

Julian Assange is in maximum security prison for exposing the wrongdoings of those with vested political interests who wish to silence him . . . .

But back to Pascale’s article. Next, propaganda . . . .

Pascale, Celine-Marie. 2019. “The Weaponization of Language: Discourses of Rising Right-Wing Authoritarianism.” Current Sociology Review 67 (6): 898–917. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392119869963.

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Neil Godfrey

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