Journeys in (Self) Censorship and International Reporting

The distance between journalists, the communities they cover, their editors, consumers and the stories which are being told is a fine and dangerous line. Recent attention has been given to coverage from China. This is no surprise as China is the world's second largest economy, while remaining very much insular in terms of social media.

Here's an interesting comment from someone calling themselves hzzzzzz on Reddit …. "I think journalists working for Western media tend to filter out anything which may shed a positive light on China in fear of being labelled "propaganda". This fear plays a great role of self-censorship in the Western media on China reporting, and is one of the reasons for people not getting the right picture about China…."


Propaganda, censorship, self-censorship, seeking truth, big picture reporting, the right and wrong picture, laser focus, chasing money and fame, dealing with editors with blinders on, click bait pressure, sensationalizing, reporting only what you already know, how you choose your stories, focusing on only the negative or positive, working for a paycheck or an ideal, toeing the company line or touting an activist cause, so-called neutrality and objectivity …. these are all concepts and realities which journalists deal with on every story they work on, as they carve their own career and byline legacy, however big or small it may be.


A recent iteration of this debate concerns China expert Peter Hessler, and whether it's ok for journalists to tolerate certain levels of censorship. It also poses the question of how journalists approach their work, and Hessler is probably not one of those targeted by hzzzzzz. Hessler, who takes pride in his success both in China and the United States, addressed the issue head-on in a fascinating March 2015 New Yorker article titled “Travels with my Censor”.

Hessler sells a lot of books in China, which in translated versions are missing a few words, sentences or sometimes even pages due to state censorship. Usually, it’s about opposition to (or direct criticism of) the Communist Party, references to Falun Gong (that evil meditational group), history which does not jive with current party narratives, and uncovering unflattering information about high-level officials. One book Hessler wrote, Oracle Bones, is simply not published on the mainland. Hessler does not seem bothered by this at all, as he goes on promotional tours in China, where he enjoys celebrity status.


Hessler has a website which alerts readers to cuts, and lists some of what has been removed or changed from his original writing. He points to the website, which he says isn’t blocked in China, on the introductory page of his Chinese books. He does seem slightly irked by criticism, veiled and direct.

Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote in the New Yorker …. "Recently, there have been a number of articles in the foreign press about Chinese censorship, with the tone highly critical of American authors who accept changes to their manuscripts in order to publish in mainland China. The articles tend to take a narrowly Western perspective: they rarely examine how such books are read by Chinese …."

Even though, I haven't included the rest of the citation here, it doesn't sound entirely convincing. Still, there is a lot to learn from Hessler.

The former Peace Corps teacher at a small town on the Yangtze River won a prize for his first book River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, which was published in 2001. Hessler says he believes it's important to have his books available in the communities where he once lived. So far, he's written four books on China, with three of them available (with parts missing) on the mainland.


Another China expert and veteran journalist, Ian Johnson, wrote a rebuttal of sorts to the Hessler conundrum in the New York Review of Books. While praising Hessler, Johnson also calls his fellow journalist “low key”. He says he writes as “a good-natured midwesterner” would.

Johnson describes Hessler as an observer type journalist, whose aim is to watch and describe rather than “interview”. He says Hessler is from the school of journalists who think of the big picture, rather than coming into stories with a laser, sometimes outside imposed focus. The end result reflects the approach.

According to Johnson, Hessler “never foists ideas on the reader, but lets them flow from his characters.” On the tricky issue of dissidents, Hessler says they might “be noble” but are “marginal” to the larger story of what’s going on in China. Johnson describes Oracle Bones, the one Hessler book which is not available in China, as “a wide-ranging work that includes the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the crushing of the Falungong spiritual movement, and ethnic tensions.” No surprise it hasn't been published in China.

Are dissidents or the big picture really the question? Could you do both simultaneously? Apparently not if you want to get by the Chinese censors.


This got me thinking about my own experiences with censorship in international reporting.

I once worked on the graveyard shift helping prepare morning news for the SCTV television network in Indonesia during the tense last days of the Suharto dictatorship. One night at two a.m., with riots engulfing Jakarta, we received a directive from government authorities not to include any scenes of violence or looting. If we did, we were warned, we would face severe repercussions.

So we switched out all the footage of the rioting we were planning to use and instead used footage of women trapped inside a maternity ward. Riot-induced smoke billowed outside the hospital. We also showed footage of looters holding what they had looted -- chairs, televisions, tables, generators -- lined up outside a police station, but told, for whatever reason, to carry in their stolen goods while being processed.

In a way the program we put together for that morning's show was that much more effective. SCTV stayed on the air and was lauded for walking that line of still informing without bowing to the powers that be or being shut down. In our SCTV van, we were greeted at “reform movement” barricades with victory signs and offerings of clove cigarettes. Eventually, Suharto resigned. In my office, I keep the framed front page of the Jakarta Post from the following day, with the bold headline reading ‘I QUIT’.


At the Voice of America, in the run-up to the second Iraq war, I had an editor on the lightly-staffed evening shift who would always cut out the word “alleged” before weapons of mass destruction in my newscast stories. I would argue angrily, until eventually I was taken off the “Mideast Desk”.

Now, what follows also has the huge caveat of coming from the Voice of America, the international government broadcaster at which I worked a dozen years. Government agency? Journalistic enterprise? A bit of both? We'll come to that later from a side angle.

Whatever its nature, my goal was always to become a foreign correspondent. Thanks to a former news director at VOA, Andre de Nesnera, I was given those opportunities, including trial assignments out of VOA's "Latam Bureau" in Rio de Janeiro. At that time de Nesnera was given an award by the American Foreign Service Association for "constructive dissent". Before the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan began, de Nesnera refused to follow appeals from the State Department to tamper with reporting VOA journalists did with Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Basically, the State Department wanted to minimize the most it could an interview the VOA had done with the elusive leader, who is still believed to head the Taliban. De Nesnera was hailed by foreign service officers for "the courage to challenge the system from within" and was given the F. Allen "Tex" Harris Award in 2002.

I quickly noticed one geographical beat from which it was easier to escape pressure in terms of content was the Africa beat, also a low priority in terms of U.S. diplomacy. Coupled with my native fluency in French, I set my sights on becoming VOA's West and Central Africa Bureau Chief, which finally happened several years later.

Posing with some rebels in Ivory Coast


On one of my first reporting trips as VOA's newly anointed West Africa correspondent, I was actually kind of shocked by the laser focus Hessler says he avoids. This happened as I went on an old Russian plane with celebrated foreign reporters to a Liberian refugee camp inside Ivory Coast. At the time, in the mid 2000s, both Liberia and Ivory Coast had their own civil wars, with fighters, militias and government soldiers spilling across borders.

Once we arrived at the camp, all the refugees complained about the lack of schooling and security inside the camp, the food they were being served, and growing tensions with neighboring Ivorians. But I quickly noticed all the experienced journalists around me were obsessed with one issue: recruitment of child soldiers within the camp. They ran off in corners with the harder looking refugees, coaxing them with cigarettes, to have them tell stories about how they were refugee soldiers. And here I was giving out pens to children as they swarmed around me, wanting to see the picture I had just taken of them in my viewfinder. When a U.N. official spoke at a sweaty and sloppily organized news conference, all the questions were about the potential of recruitment going on at the camp. I wanted to file my report in a second degree style, as much about the journalists, and the spectacle of the visit, but that didn’t go over very well with my editors.

The plane didn’t have enough fuel to take all the visitors back to Abidjan, so some of the less decorated journalists, including myself, were bussed back to Abidjan in a U.N. van with several extremely nervous U.N officials in the front seats getting field reports through their radios. It was obvious there was occasional shooting around us just by rolling down our windows. We made repeated stops, but made it safely back to Abidjan.


Later on during my stay in Abidjan, there was a morning of protesting and rioting against then-President Laurent Gbagbo, who is now being tried at the International Criminal Court. I was on the streets among the protesters when firing security forces started dispersing them. I saw a couple of bodies fall, blood spilling from their heads, while other protesters rushed around them. I quickly went back to the office to file my first of many reports that day based on my own observations. The decorated editor back in London said he wanted to wait for Reuters and AFP reports before letting me detail any casualties in my own report, even if I had seen these with my own eyes.

The rioting was also followed by mass detentions and torture of residents from immigrant-dominated neighborhoods. There was also talk of a mass grave. Several days into the upheaval, with a press sign attached on the front of my little white minivan, and my sometime Ivorian journalist collaborator in the passenger seat, I drove to the rumored site of the mass grave. The usually bustling city was a ghost town of charred rioting. Not far from the exit leading to the field where bodies were said to be piled, with military helicopters hovering above me, I was suddenly blocked by several military tanks. I was shoved outside my vehicle at gunpoint, and told to sit outside while several uniformed men hovered around me. Another one spoke for half an hour to my Ivorian collaborator on the other side of the van. We were told to return to our office. I decided not to push my luck.

The next day, a government minister, pipe in mouth, walked around the field which had been suspected of being a mass grave, while a tractor churned the ground. With a national television microphone now in his mouth, in addition to his pipe, he said several times there was no mass grave. He chuckled and went back to walking around the field, pipe in his mouth.


Several weeks later, I was told by another journalist that a French journalist who had written about Gbagbo’s presumed “death squads” had been told those helicopters had at one point been ordered to shoot down my mass-grave seeking van, but that higher orders had then attenuated this order, keeping me alive. This was no joke to me, as one foreign journalist was killed soon after I arrived in Abidjan, and another later disappeared, never to be found.

After the first journalist was killed, Gbagbo invited all foreign journalists to the presidency, to photograph them, get information about them, while pretending to also flatter them, and then ending his talk by saying he didn’t know the French journalist who had been killed by a rogue army officer, but that he had just received a carton of red wine from the hometown of the slain French journalist. Gbagbo paused and then said he was currently drinking that red wine, and that it was really good. He laughed deeply, and then told us to keep “balles a terre,” or in English "our guns in our holsters". The meeting was adjourned. I decided never to return to that presidential palace.

Throughout my time in Africa, I was often referred to as a spy. I was sure I wasn’t one but I had no idea if some of my VOA colleagues might've been. One never knows. Often times, a lonely foreigner, often without any support, was arrested as some sort of mercenary posing as a tourist in extremely dangerous or very sparse areas. My editors never asked me to follow up on any of those stories even though they were fascinating to me.


Sometimes, as I delved deeper into what was actually going on, my editors would quickly tell me not to go any further. One morning, when Thabo Mbeki was in Ivory Coast for yet another attempt at keeping Gbagbo in power with one-sided negotiations, rioting broke out near Mbeki's planned parade route. An Ivorian maid had seemingly drowned in the swimming pool at the Lebanese-owned home where she worked and that seemed to have incited violence not related to Mbeki's visit. After trying to find out what was going on, I introed my story with some of the rioting and reasons behind it. My editor asked me if I had dropped acid in my morning coffee. The final story went straight into the predictable Mbeki visit.

As I stayed in Africa longer, wanting to do more and more positive, big picture or at least spinoff cause and effect stories, but with my editors wanting me to do more and more "terrorism"-related stories, focusing more on the current violence and money spent to train militaries, I decided to leave my Africa perch.

Back in Washington, though, it was not smooth sailing. I tried to do diaspora and immigrant stories, but was always pulled into uncomfortable directions. An analysis report I was asked to do on post-Mubarak Egypt with me deciding to quote experts predicting a Muslim Brotherhood election victory did not go over well. I started feeling more and more pressure coming from all editorial directions, even when writing about Africa. I was asked to do repeated stories about the headline-grabbing violent extremist group called "Boko Haram". These stories were important but I was disconcerted as my writing was being increasingly altered, by more and more editors coming from different time zones. I wasn't sure what the reason was for all the changes and additions, but I noticed they were more and more frequent.


The most awkward request though came after VOA’s then top honcho Walter Isaacson said the Voice of America was engaged in some sort of war of international media.

Russia Today made a big deal rebroadcasting one of Isaacson's 2010 quotes …. “We can't allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies,” said Isaacson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. “You've got Russia Today, Iran's Press TV, Venezuela's TeleSUR, and of course, China is launching an international broadcasting 24-hour news channel with correspondents around the world [and has] reportedly set aside $6 -10 billion dollars – we have to go to Capitol Hill with that number – to expand their overseas media operations.”

One of my many higher ups at the time, in an exceedingly confusing editorial hierarchy, the late Jack Payton, called me into his office and said I was a “straight shooter” perfect for coming up with a reaction type piece. Reaction to what, I wasn't sure. I was dreading the assignment from the start. I interviewed Isaacson, a former top VOA journalist turned commentator, and several international media critics to write what was called at VOA a background report, analytical, with lots of long soundbites, and not usually suited to the ear.

I worked on the report for several days, but was then told to redo it, without exact details on how or in what direction. Payton told me my story started out strong but then fizzled. I did more expert interviews and wrote a new story. The story never aired. I was never told why. To me, that was the worst type of censorship.


Several months later, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed Isaacson's comments. "So we are in an information war," she told the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. "And we are losing that war. I’ll be very blunt in my assessment. Al-Jazeera is winning. The Chinese have opened up a global English-language and multi-language television network. The Russians have opened up an English-language network. I’ve seen it in a few countries, and it’s quite instructive." To be honest, I didn't care. Those comments seem to have dated very quickly. I always approached my work as a journalist, based on my formal studies, and what I thought journalism should be.

Any which way, it was time for me to start planning on moving on, which I eventually did. It was a "golden handcuffs" scenario broken open by a generous buyout. The news director at the time asked me if I was sure this was a good decision, as I seemed shocked when I told her. I was more in shock I would soon be free.

Free from what? Free from everything journalists have to face as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Self-censorship to avoid more censorship, spewing propaganda and rebaked story lines as well as distorted realities, these are all loaded concepts, but journalists are human and guilty of these habits to remain palatable, relevant within their organizations and marketable. Hessler writes his own books, so presumably he has much more choice in what he puts into those. But he's also sometimes a journalist, perhaps to pay some of his bills, or to have a wider readership. In both cases, though, he can't escape what afflicts us all. Whatever you call it, wherever you work, you can't escape your own ideas and intentions in your reporting, whatever its nature.


In an interesting side note, Hessler may have been a victim of his own Chinese popularity. He says he didn't write an editorial which appeared with his byline in the state-run China Daily earlier this year comparing China with Egypt, where he now lives. The article copied his style and took from many of his ideas, while also praising China’s stability. Hessler says he was interviewed along with a translator for mainland editions of his books, and that some crucial parts of what he said were omitted, while quotes from the translator were not used. Doesn't that sound a little like the Chinese versions of his books?

Despite his irritation, Hessler took pains to soften the blow about what the fabrication meant. In a Facebook posting, Hessler wrote, “the incident has not been representative of my recent experiences with Chinese journalists.” Chinese journalists, he wrote, have “worked with me directly in an effort to find the best way to convey ideas responsibly and accurately.” Does responsibility though have anything to do with reporting? Responsibility to whom?

I think when you are writing for someone other than yourself, and if you aren't able to truly express yourself without constraints, it is very difficult to avoid self-censorship or creating your own propaganda. If you are trying to be successful, if you are trying to sell your reporting, if you are trying to be consumed by a wide audience, if you are trying to pass your writing through a surly, seasoned editor, there has to be some measure of censorship and intentional focus. Some truth may lie in that beautiful chaos of uncensored social media posts, at least those not distorted in the pursuit of virality, but truth to me seems shaded by many degrees in what most journalists produce, because the filters and hoops they are going through to be market-successful or editor-approved are too pervasive to ignore.

If you enjoyed this posting, I also wrote a series on my journey in and out of international reporting:

Chapter 1 -- Wanting to Become an International Journalist

Chapter 2 -- Studies, Soccer and Internships

Chapter 3 -- Getting a First Job (with RFI in Paris)

Chapter 4 -- Getting to Indonesia

Chapter 5 -- Surviving a Revolution

Chapter 6 -- Fixers and Fixing

Chapter 7 -- Getting the Dream Job

Chapter 8 -- African Stories