Struggling for freedom, people will always find a way

Hannes Hofbauer is criticising censorship motivated by power politics in past and present

by Karl-Jürgen Müller

Hannes Hofbauer is a Viennese journalist and publisher. He studied economic and social history. Books like “Feindbild Russland. Geschichte einer Dämonisierung“ (Enemy image Russia. History of a Demonisation) (2016), “Kritik der Migration. Wer profitiert und wer verliert” (Criticism of Migration. Who Profits and Who Loses) (2018) or “Europa. Ein Nachruf” (Europe. An Obituary) (2020), have shown him to be a politically motivated author, avoiding all pigeonholing. He is an independent thinker trenchantly criticising social conditions as well as economic and political power structures. This also applies to his new book, published in spring 2022, “Zensur. Publikationsverbote im Spiegel der Geschichte. Vom kirchlichen Index zur YouTube-Löschung“ [Censorship. Publication Bans in History. From the Ecclesiastical Index to YouTube Deletion).

Hannes Hofbauer states the starting point of his reflections and his interpretative framework right at the beginning of the book: “Compensating for the loss of confidence with coercive measures is one of the oldest techniques of rule, used by church leaders and monarchs in the past as well as by governments and leading media houses today. They all respond to the loss of a customary hegemony of discourse by banning publications. Affected are positions questioning the prevailing narrative which also have the potential for widespread dissemination. This is precisely our current situation. The return of censorship is rooted in the economic weakness of the transatlantic region. In its decline, the establishment is struggling for its raison d’être.” (Translation of all quotes by Current Concerns)

600 years of censorship history

Since questions of power not only determine our present, Hannes Hofbauer approaches his analysis historically – with a focus on Europe and especially the German-speaking countries. The first half of the book is dedicated to this view of history. It begins with the period of early book printing in the middle of the 15th century – not only a time of completely new possibilities for the dissemination of the human word, but also a time of fundamental social and political upheavals. The censor here was mainly the Church.
  The next 100 pages are dealing with censorship measures from the 16th to the 20th century, always vividly documented and presented in an easily understandable manner. The reader learns, for example, that with the beginning of the 16th century, state authorities increasingly took censorship measures. The emperor and the pope now worked hand in hand, and even the post office issued transport bans on “objectionable and recalcitrant printed matter”. While in the 17th century one could “publish largely undisturbed”, this changed in the 18th century – even if it was still easy at that time to avoid the censorship measures of the sovereigns who had set the tone in terms of power politics since the Thirty Years’ War: The publication of a book was transferred to another, more liberal German state. The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century also saw censorship measures. Censorship became an “instrument of enlightenment or counter-enlightenment promoted by the authorities”. With the French Revolution, the princes of the other European states felt that their position of power was under extreme threat. The censorship measures were correspondingly harsh. However, this did not prevent the political and military “revolutionary” and conqueror Napoleon from using no less brutal force against dissenting opinions in his domain.

From the Carlsbad Decrees to the Socialist Law

Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 was followed in the German-speaking countries by Biedermeier and Vormärz in the German Confederation, a period of severe censorship (“Carlsbad Decrees” of 1819) and harassment of dissenters to which renowned literary figures also fell victim. The hopes of many for more freedom through the revolution of 1848/49 were crushed with its failure. The target group of the censorship measures were now primarily politically left-wing forces and socially critical writers. The “Law against the Publicly Dangerous Aspirations of Social Democracy” passed by the German Reichstag on 21 October 1878 stood out.

The 20th century

In the Weimar Republic, the constitution explicitly granted freedom of expression, but Hannes Hofbauer also speaks of censorship measures for the years after the First World War, which were primarily directed against “immorality and fornication” – not least because of the fear of sexual permissiveness spilling over in the early years of the Communist Soviet Union – but also, in the final phase of the Republic, against anti-war literature such as the works of Erich Maria Remarque. It is widely known that National Socialist rule was a time of the harshest censorship. Additionally, this period was also a high time of censorship’s twin sister, state propaganda.
  After the end of the Second World War, the occupying powers in Germany and Austria first determined what could be published. The constitutions adopted from 1949 onwards for West Germany, East Germany and Austria explicitly reaffirmed freedom of expression, and the West German Basic Law even states: “There is no censorship”. But even for the five decades after the war, Hannes Hofbauer notes de facto censorship measures in the German-speaking countries, not only in the area of literary and journalistic portrayals of sexual practices considered objectionable, but also against “enemies of the state” (in West and East).

Are there limits to freedom of expression?

Here and there one might object that the author focuses too much on restrictions on freedom of expression governed by power politics and interests. Could there also be legitimate reasons for such restrictions? After all, a threat to freedom – in the sense of the development of the personality in accordance with human social nature – and the common good can not only originate from state power politics, but also from private actors. One may think of the protection of the youth, the right to personal honour, defence against violent political or religious extremism or, more generally, of the “rights of others”, the “constitutional order” and the “moral law” – as formulated, for example, in the German Basic Law.
  However: Those thinking along these lines should be honest and look more closely to see whether it is really about the cause or merely about justifying pure power politics and economic interests. The second part of Hofbauer’s book, “Censorship in the Digital Age”, shows that today, in post-1990 Europe, it is more about such justifications.

Neoliberalism, digitalisation and geopolitical shifts

Hannes Hofbauer also introduces this second part of the book with a compact political-economic analysis of the overall situation. He writes: “The new 21st century reflects in its censorship policy the decades-long triumph of economic liberalism, which has given non-state actors, so-called global players, a wealth of power that was previously unthinkable. In the 1990s, the unchecked power of capital strengthened the economic primacy over political processes, which is also reflected in censorship. The technical development of the digitalisation of more and more areas of work and life played into the hands of monopoly-like media corporations the sovereignty of defining freedom of opinion and freedom of the press, which they know how to use for their own ends – with the support of the state or the EU supranational state.”
  With the global geopolitical shifts of the past 20 years, however, it is also true today: “It is precisely the knowledge of geopolitical and economic decline that is reflected in the question of how to deal with freedom of expression. The consolidation of the Eurasian space, perceived as a threat in Washington, Brussels, and Berlin, has long since had a cultural and discursive impact. The discourse of values of the former political ‘West’, incited by missionary zeal, is becoming increasingly implausible in the face of changing power relations on a global scale. [...] In order to stop this loss, Brussels has particularly set out to provide the EU-European peoples with initially concealed and later increasingly openly formulated truth decrees, so that the historical, political, and cultural reading of the self-representation dominates the discursive terrain with as few alternatives as possible.”

Waves of censorship since 2008

Hannes Hofbauer locates the first “infringement of freedom of expression in the 21st century” on 28 November 2008 with an EU framework decision which, superficially, was supposed to be directed “against xenophobia and racism”. In fact, it was about something else: the EU wanted to gain sovereignty over the definition of what would be considered “genocide”, “crimes against humanity” or “war crimes” in the future and to prevent any controversial discussion about concrete events. At the time, this mainly concerned the events in the former Yugoslavia. And it was about putting a taboo on the public debate about the justification of the actions of the NATO states, which were against international law.
  The second wave of censorship in the 21st century followed the failed summit in Vilnius on 29 November 2013, which was supposed to seal the EU’s Eastern Partnership with six Eastern European states, but failed due to the opposition of the then Ukrainian President Yanukovych. The result was the EU- and US-supported demonstrations and acts of violence on the Maidan in Kiev and the EU-US narrative of the “democratic revolution” – which, however, was very vividly refuted by Russian media. Now these Russian media became the target of the EU and its member states. Under the pretext of taking action against “fake news” and “hate speech”, there was a concerted action in the following years by the EU, nation-state agencies, especially in Germany, and globally operating US corporations in the area of the internet and other electronic communication networks. Hannes Hofbauer goes into detail about these events.
  Here are just a few keywords: the EU’s “East StratCom Task Force” of March 2015 with the claim to want to define what the historical and political “truth” should be and put Russia’s public relations on one level with the propaganda of the IS; the German “Network Enforcement Act” of October 2017, which obliges networks such as Facebook or Twitter with the threat of heavy fines to eliminate “fake news” and “hate speech” – without control by the rule of law and in the arbitrary hands of the media corporations. The German State Media Treaty of 7 November 2020, which obliges specially established authorities of the State Media Authorities to examine the digital publication world for “true” news and to warn and then also ban internet sites in case of detected infringement. Finally, the “fact-checkers” sprouting from the ground, especially in the public media, who presume to be able to decide what is true and what is untrue.
  As a conclusion to these developments, Hannes Hofbauer writes: “Several steps are still necessary before a Ministry of Truth, as it is known from the novel ‘1984’ by George Orwell, can be established – and there would still be a lot of social resistance to overcome. But the political elite in many EU countries is working doggedly in this direction.”
  Two examples are used in the book to illuminate this in depth.

“The fight against the Russian enemy broadcasting station”

Hofbauer’s first example is his dealings with Russian media, especially RT DE (RT German). RT is the abbreviation for Russia Today. This German-language channel, financed by the Russian state, was prevented by all means from going on the air as a television channel in Europe. The crude justification: The station spreads nothing but Russian propaganda. Hannes Hofbauer wrote his book before 24 February 2022. If he had had a little more time, he should have expanded this chapter. Now it is no longer just RT’s TV channel that is affected, but RT’s entire internet programme (and Sputnik’s too) are banned throughout EU Europe – and those who nevertheless want to ensure dissemination are even said to be liable to prosecution. Sanctions are threatening anyone who questions the US-NATO-EU narrative about the war in Ukraine.

Dealing with opponents of state corona measures

Hofbauer’s second example is the state and media treatment of those who were opponents of the state’s measures against the COVID-19 pandemic in the past two years.
  He closely links these measures and the action against their opponents with the economic interests of the pharmaceutical industry and uses the example of Ken Jebsen to illustrate how a German journalist who worked for many years at a state broadcaster (at Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg RBB), was forced to leave the station because of criticism of Israel’s policies, set up his own internet portal, KenFM, and had a great deal of success with it, had sticks thrown between his legs in every respect after he criticised the state’s Corona measures. The result was that his internet portal was no longer able to broadcast and he was cut off from all funding, so he finally decided to leave Germany.
  Indeed, the state and media treatment of those who were opponents of the state’s Corona measures was not worthy of a liberal democracy in countries like Germany and Austria.
  In a sweeping manner, these citizens were given strongly pejorative attributes such as “conspiracy theorists” or “right-wing”, the SPD chairperson spoke of “covidiots”, the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution (domestic intelligence agency) even invented a new form of anti-constitutionalism, namely the “delegitimisation of the state”. There was almost no serious discussion on the matter. Hannes Hofbauer takes up all this and more.
  Hannes Hofbauer could have added that there were (and are) also quite objective reasons for governmental COVID-19 measures and that not every proponent of these measures was (and is) motivated by power or interest politics. And that the concerns that there could be an “infodemic” alongside the pandemic, i.e., a confusion of opinions that would make it more difficult to combat the pandemic, were not entirely unjustified either.

Counter-publicity cannot be stifled in the long run

It is good that Hannes Hofbauer repeatedly makes clear in between and then especially in a short concluding chapter entitled “Censorship measures are always circumvented” that censorship measures motivated by power politics are not sustainable. The pure power politics of an actually weakened power system is indeed a highly dangerous frontal attack on freedom and the common good, and many victims have to be mourned. But the human being striving for freedom always seeks and finds new ways. Therefore, the last sentence from the book is also quoted here: “And so the concluding message of this book, which observed publication bans through the centuries, is that counter-publicity to ruling discourse can be hindered with bans, but not stifled.”
  My rating for the book: commendable – and Hannes Hofbauer would certainly add that the following also applies here: Have the courage to use your own reason!  •

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