Censorship combated with wordplay

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

“Gouda cheese dominates French elections” and “The embassy has escaped house arrest”. The inventiveness of internet users knows no limits in the battle against online censorship. Everyday euphemisms and innuendo replace politically sensitive names and terminology. No explanation is needed.

Poor Chinese censors, they seem doomed to lose the linguistic battle against the online community. Like never before, internet users are discussing the fallen politician Bo Xilai and – more recently – the blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng in code language, to avoid the great Chinese firewall.

Battle of words
When Chen escaped house arrest and sought refuge in the US embassy, Sina Weibo – the Chinese version of Twitter – was teeming with excited reports about the “blind man” or the “blind lawyer”.

Inquisitive Chinese do not search using the name Chen Guangcheng (0 results), but use “blind man” or other synonyms instead. The authorities find themselves in an awkward position as the only alternative is to block these code words - and a whole list of alternatives, which is becoming longer by the hour.

All of a sudden “(US) embassy” and “Linyi” - the city where Chen lives – landed in the top ten of the most used search terms. The famous Hollywood escape movies The Shawshank Redemption and The Great Escape were suddenly extremely popular in the internet community. All these search terms have also ended up on the black list, unintentionally blocking search engines from finding the real US embassy website.

In countries where press freedom and free speech are under pressure, mentioning names can be incredibly dangerous. So the political debate is carried out with synonyms, abbreviations, wordplay and references to celebrities. Sometimes they are forgotten again, sometimes they stick for ever.

In the former Dutch colony Suriname, ex guerrilla leader Ronnie Brunswijk still uses his former nickname Romeo Bravo. In the 1980s, he led the Jungle Commando that fought the military regime of Desi Bouterse who seized power through a coup d’ état in 1980. As leader of the armed resistance, the army alphabet had a double meaning for Ronnie Brunswijk.

Mr Bouterse used to have and still does has several pseudonyms: “The command”, “Boss B”, “DB” and “Dad Bouta”. The Surinamese journalist Johnny Kamperveen, in particular, was a master at inventing mock names – not just as a means of derision, but also to avoid ending up in prison.

Goulash versus cheese
In the current French presidential elections, all the candidates have been given nicknames on the internet, based on their name, origins or character. Apparently, in the first round of the presidential elections, it is forbidden to speculate about the outcome until the polling stations have closed. If you do, you could face a heavy fine.

The encumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy’s passion for luxury goods is widely known and his father comes from Hungary, hence the nickname “goulash”. The association of the socialist candidate Francois Hollande’s surname and Gouda cheese is pretty obvious. Everybody understood the meaning and the authorities were powerless: there is no law that says you can’t speculate about the possible defeat of “Rolex”.

Senegalese twitterer Cheikh Fall – better known as @Cypher007 - and founder of the internet platform Sunu2012 on February's presidential election in Senegal, is a little surprised by the way the French get around this form of censorship. “We don’t need to use code language. Here everything is out in the open.”

(with thanks to RNW reporters Sam Jones and Sophie van Leeuwen)

Press Freedom Day
Every day journalists are put in prison or killed because of the work they do. On the World Press Freedom Day awareness is raised on the importance of press freedom and the risks journalists face when doing their job. In addition, bloggers and other internet users in countries with repressive regimes are not free to write what they want.