Censorship And Self-Censorship In Times Of Crisis

Whether it’s about Syrian refugees, Syria or Iraq, the truth is sometimes better left unsaid. It all depends on the country in which it is said. One thing is certain: In these troubled times, censorship and self-censorship are thriving.

Chain of thought
Chain of thought
Dominique Moïsi*


Expressing outrage at someone else’s behavior is a classic way of letting oneself off the hook. A few weeks ago, when migrants were sent back to Turkey from Greek islands for the first time, I got a call from a news outlet based in a Gulf country. The young journalist on the phone spoke perfect French (she was Moroccan) and hoped to get the immediate impressions of a European on the subject.

"Is Europe not compromising its principles by acting this way in regards to refugees?" she asked me. I had just seen the latest news. Most of the deportations were of men from Pakistan and Bangladesh who didn’t meet the definition of refugees; on the contrary, they were economic migrants.

After highlighting this nuance, I also made an ironic remark. Was a Gulf country really giving morality lessons to Europeans on this issue? How many refugees had they welcomed on their territory?

The journalist became nervous. To reassure her, I told her that for the remainder of our interview, I would refrain from making any unkind remarks on the political openness of Gulf countries toward refugees.

She seemed reassured. But five minutes later, she called me back. In the end, her television network wouldn’t use my comments, because they were "non-compliant with the editorial policy" it wished to adopt. My nuanced remarks were over the top. They wanted "European outrage, clear and simple."

It is unusual to encounter such ingenuousness and honesty, especially from a news outlet broadcasting from a non-democratic country. But is there such a fundamental difference on this issue between democratic systems and authoritarian regimes? I’ve already faced this "editorial policy" diktat in perfectly democratic countries, including mine, France. In 2003, after the start of the war in Iraq â€" which I initially supported, having been (wrongly) convinced that Saddam Hussein’s regime was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, but which I later opposed â€" I was contacted by one of the largest American newspapers.

The editors were hoping to get the off-the-cuff thoughts of a Frenchman who "had shown understanding for George W. Bush’s politics," for their weekend supplement. I made sure to clarify that my position had evolved since the taking of Baghdad, but they didn’t seem to give my warning much notice.

I wrote the requested article within the deadline. A profound silence ensued. Troubled, I took the liberty of calling the editors, who reacted with evident discomfort. Suddenly, my contribution wasn’t so urgent; they no longer knew if and when it would be published. The piece was no longer appropriate for the slot it had been chosen for.

After spending all night writing to meet their deadline, I refused to let the matter drop. I told them this "incident" would be the perfect topic for a column, for my regular opinion piece in The Financial Times. It wasn’t necessary to go any further: the editors backtracked. Of course, it was all a misunderstanding, my piece would be published as planned in the weekend supplement.

Ultimately, to get a piece that contradicted the newspaper’s editorial policy published, I had to resort to a form of democratic blackmail: "You can censor me, but do you really want me to expose your behavior in a newspaper that is read worldwide and enjoys exceptional prestige?"

More recently in France, I faced the editorial policy issue with a major regional newspaper, one for which I have the utmost respect and whose values and choices I generally share.

This time, the sensitive topic was the war in Syria. Should we support the rebels and go as far as providing weapons to the most moderate of them? I thought so, but this was obviously not the editorial policy of the newspaper. Here again, I had to fight hard to get my opinion published. In a compromise with the editors, we determined it would be made explicitly clear that the opinion was strictly my own and did not reflect the views of the newsroom.

It’s perfectly legitimate for a newspaper, or more generally any kind of media, to have editorial policies that translate into a specific view on a given topic. The problem is knowing how far to take this logic. The desire for consistency and the goal of presenting the theories we espouse in the most convincing way because we believe in them, are one thing. But there are also other important considerations, such as offering diverse points of view, or regional points of view, that are just as firmly held. It’s good to know what other people think, whether they live close by or far away.

And at this level there are, or at least there should be, clear differences between democratic and non-democratic societies. The episode with the Gulf media outlet, if somewhat comical despite the tragic nature of the topic at hand, had something refreshing about it, mostly because of the journalist’s absolute naivety.

But it was also indicative of an interesting evolution in the relations between Europe and the Gulf countries, which are currently feeling defensive and are all too glad to denounce any flaws they can find in the behavior of European countries.

This is precisely why it’s important not to confuse editorial policy with censorship and self-censorship. At the end of the day, that’s where a major structural difference between democratic societies and authoritarian regimes still lies.

*Dominique Moïsi is a French political scientist and a senior advisor of the French Institute of International Relations.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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