On the topic of Afghan “censorship” and the rights and duties of a free press

Merriam-Webster defines the word censor thus:

: to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable <censor the news>; also : to suppress or delete as objectionable <censor out indecent passages>

For censorship of expression to occur, therefore, two things must be present. The expression must be examined for objectionability. The expression then must be deleted or suppressed, which is to say that it must be prevented from being made. Merriam-Webster gives this as the relevant definition of suppress:

: to keep from public knowledge: as b: to stop or prohibit the publication or revelation of <suppress the test results>

It is not enough to simply discourage an expression, but rather it must be prevented entirely.

Recent headlines have been making hay over a request of the government of Afghanistan. By way of background, it is well known that Afghanistan is going through a period of relative instability as it comes under attack from various factions and terrorist elements. These disruptive elements within (and to some extent without) Afghan society attempt to use force to bring about political, social, and cultural changes, through suicide bombings, military attacks, and other violent tactics. These actions compel Afghanistan to consider actions other nations may never even need to consider, in the interests of furthering what stability is possible now and in the future.

On Thursday Afghanistan will elect its chief executive, the president, in one of the finest traditions of democratic society. This occasion will naturally draw violence in an attempt to influence voting: recall the 2004 Madrid train bombings which occurred three days before Spain’s general elections, which undoubtedly strongly affected voting and which very possibly may have changed the outcome entirely. Yet note: election-time violence will directly affect only a few dozens or hundreds, but reports of that violence will indirectly affect several orders of magnitude more people.

Given this, and given that Afghanistan at the moment cannot control election violence nearly as well as most other nations, it is clear that when Afghanistan sees actions can be taken that will reduce the impact of violence, it is reasonable to consider taking them. In particular, Afghanistan has called on domestic and foreign media not to cover election-day violence to avoid such reports potentially driving away voters. Some denounce this request as “an attempt to censor the reporting of violence”. But is it really censorship as is claimed?

Recall the definition of “censor” given above. First, the expression must be examined for objectionability. Assuming that we admit as “examination” consideration of future expression based on past expression upon similar topics in similar situations, we indeed have this: Afghanistan has evaluated coverage surrounding election day and determined that election-day coverage of violence, during voting hours, may do more harm than good. Now, however, consider the second arm of the censorship test: the expression must be prevented from being made. On this point Afghanistan’s actions do not conform to the requirements of censorship. Afghanistan’s government has made a request that media not cover election-day violence; it has not used its democratically-permissible monopoly on force to prohibit such coverage. While a request may under certain circumstances be to some extent a prohibition, as when the request constitutes an implicit threat of future sanctions, nothing of the sort is suggested in the article to which I link. Therefore, Afghanistan’s actions, despite the inveighings of such groups as Human Rights Watch, do not constitute censorship.

A further three points are worth noting. First, the request extends only from 06:00 to 20:00, the period when polls are open in Afghanistan. The request in no way asks that coverage be diminished outside (and most particularly, after) this period, neither of then-present violence nor of violence which occurred during polling hours on election day. Reports of violence would not be “[kept] from public knowledge”, except temporarily, and only in case of voluntary restraint by individual media organizations — not by power of the government of Afghanistan. Second, the request extends only to the particular topic of violence and to no other topic. While this may certainly exclude much newsworthy information, it is limited in scope to that which gives clear cause for concern. Third, note that the request is of both “domestic and foreign media”. Afghanistan cannot censor foreign media because the responsibility for the actions of such organizations lies outside its national borders and sphere of influence (meager as that perhaps may be). The government of Afghanistan might (I have no knowledge of the limits or extent of Afghan government authority, and I only suggest a plausible possibility) have the power to censor domestic media if it chose to do so in light of current circumstances (in the same way that, in case of rebellion, the writ of habeas corpus may be suspended in the United States by the government), but it has not exercised that power, if even such a power exists. A government may have claim to extensive power in theory, but it is the extent to which excessive power is not exercised when it might have been that makes that government worthy of the consent of the governed.

Accepting, then, that media organizations may choose to honor or not honor the request, should they honor the request? Here the issue is not nearly so clear, and strong arguments may be made for either choice. I am inclined to believe that voluntary restraint with respect to a specific topic, for fourteen hours during a singularly important political event with clear cause to do so, ending completely upon its termination and in no way restricting publication of coverage from those fourteen hours after their conclusion, is likely the best choice for most organizations. Media organizations should not allow insurgents and terrorists to wield their coverage as part of an Afghan suicide pact.

One fact, however, remains clear: that organizations have a choice as to whether they will allow themselves to be used in this manner demonstrates that the government of Afghanistan is not engaging in censorship.