Spotlight Seminar on Freedom of Speech

Spotlight Seminar

Is the freedom of speech under threat in democracies?

by Lamija Huseinovic (Media Communications Student)

Democracy is transforming the media and freedom of speech is losing ground; the main suspect in this case is censorship.

On Thursday, Sept. 13, I attended the first conference of Webster University’s new ‘Spotlight Seminar Series’. Hosted by the Media Communications Department, these seminars aim to engage communities in discussions with professionals of various specializations, regarding contemporary issues related to Media and Communications.

This month’s topic was Censorship and Democracy: the dilemma concerning censorship for the sake of democracy and its impact on the freedom of the press. Two key speakers, Hélène Sackstein (Reporters without Borders) and Silvia Angeli (PhD in Film Studies, Westminster University), sparked the discussion about the issue of Censorship and Democracy.

Spotlight Seminar

Sackstein, a journalist who represents Reporters without Borders at the UN, mentioned the different kinds of censorship in the media: social, economical and political. She noted that in the world of “fake news” it is very hard to tell the truth from deception; censorship makes this problem worse. Sackstein also discussed whether some kinds of censorship are beneficial, because they protect us from emotional distress to an extent, or if they are detrimental, serving as a curtain between the viewer/reader and the naked truth.

The second speaker, Silvia Angeli illuminated the issue from a different angle: censorship within film. In her speech she presented to her detailed research about the Italian controversy targeting the film Galileo (1968). This biographical film about the well-known philosopher, Galileo Galilei, has never been broadcast in Italy on public television.

During his life, Galileo’s controversial views, which went against the views of the Catholic church in power, resulted in him being accused of heresy and imprisoned. Hundreds of years after his death, his life story was made into a film. However, sharing Galileo's fate, the film was doomed to never be broadcast by the Italian state television channel (RAI) that had funded the film. Angeli highlights the difficulty which she had faced finding a copy of the film, because of an order that was given by Italian politicians, for the destruction of all copies of the film Galileo. Finally, she managed to dig out a copy that was given to an educational institution for academic purposes.

Spotlight Seminar

After a thought-provoking session, the audience was invited to reflect on the issues through a Q&A, where personal experiences and conundrums were brought under the spotlight, such as: Should we experience everything in its raw form? Sackstein provided the example of a photo which surfaced in the media and gained a lot of attention, that is the one of a young Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on shore as a result of trying to escape armed conflict. She argues that uncensored media could be an effective way of raising awareness about issues in the world. However, could that also make us apathetic? The more people see such images in the media, the more they get used to them and start ignoring the messages which are being sent. To conclude the evening, the speakers agreed that censorship is becoming a silent predator in democracies, thus the light given to the freedom of expression is slowly fading.

During the seminar, I also started to wonder: Is censorship obstructing the growth of a collective consciousness? Perhaps censorship is the wall that prevents the majority of society from seeing the truth clearly, and allows conflict to happen. So many tough questions arise, yet not many definitive answers. However, I look forward to continuing my participation in the ‘Spotlight Seminar Series’ and in discussions regarding salient issues, thus getting closer to finding answers.

For more information about the work of Reporters without Borders please see:

Photos by Tino D'Arpa.