Let's Not Lecture Chinese About 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

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.)

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

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

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.

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 mujahadeen 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.

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