Corporate Policy Leads to Political Censorship

Molouk Y. Ba-Isa, Arab News
Publication Date: 
Tue, 2005-01-11 03:00

ALKHOBAR, 11 January 2005 — The Internet was thought by many to be the greatest hope for unfettered freedom of expression globally. However, controversial political artist Clinton Fein discovered that censorship is alive and well — even online. The December 2004 issue of ME Printer Magazine tells the tale of a printing service, based in Palo Alto, California, that refused to release two images it reproduced for a show of political art at a San Francisco art gallery. Zazzle executives said the images violated company policy against depicting torture and the disparagement of religion, among other restrictions.

The images were part of a show titled, “Numb & Number” which was held at the Toomey Tourell Gallery. One of the prohibited images showed a flag which contained multiple reproductions of the now infamous silhouette of a hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner standing on a tin container, holding wires. The second banned print featured US President Bush’s face superimposed on a crucified figure.

Zazzle’s main business is to print and sell reproductions of artwork over the Internet. Zazzle management claimed that they didn’t actually see Fein’s images until they were printed. The company said its publishing guidelines take into account that viewers from six to 96 years old visit the site, so it must be welcoming to all. The company said they don’t shy away from printing political or anti-Bush images but that Fein’s work was not compatible with the corporate guidelines established in 1999.

Zazzle agreed that the Abu Ghraib picture had been published many times elsewhere. However, they still believed that it represented human torture. Zazzle management insisted that the prints violated the site’s user agreement on the grounds of being both offensive to religious believers and excessively violent. While the user agreement is usually specific to those who publish images on the Zazzle website, Matt Wilsey, director, Business Development, Zazzle, said the agreement also applies to cases such as Fein’s where the customer is using Zazzle exclusively as a private printing service. Wilsey said the company had refused to print other controversial images, including those of Jews in German concentration camps and the Japanese Americans in US internment camps. He added that being associated with pictures such as Fein’s was at odds with the image the company wanted to project and that it was not obligated to print the pictures.

While Fein has fought and won battles concerning freedom of expression in the US courts, on this occasion time was not on his side. He was forced to have the pictures printed elsewhere due to the imminent opening of the show. “From a constitutional standpoint there’s not an issue, but from a corporate censorship standpoint it’s an enormous issue,” Fein said the day before his exhibition’s opening.

It is fair to mention here that the Kingdom’s Internet authority has blocked local access to, the site of which Fein is Webmaster and some ISPs have on their blacklist of SPAM websites. Additionally, this newspaper, as a family publication, is unable to reproduce some of Fein’s images including the Bush graphic rejected by Zazzle.

That said, it should be noted that it was possible to locate Fein’s “Numb & Number” images through local ISP access. Fein’s pictures weren’t pretty and some were very hard hitting, but they were worth a second look. Whether an individual found agreement with Fein’s images or not would of course be a matter of personal interpretation. What is a fact the world over is that even in this Internet Age, freedom of the press is for those who actually own one.

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