Politics

How Minecraft is being used as a tool to fight press censorship

The Uncensored Library. Source: Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

By Maisie Marston

Last week, Turkey charged 20 suspects over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and critic of the Saudi Arabian government killed in Istanbul in October 2018. Khashoggi was a well-known Saudi journalist who covered a number of major stories for the country’s news organisations, for decades he was close to the Saudi royal family and had also served as an advisor to the government.

Khashoggi faced censorship throughout his journalistic career and was fired twice as a newspaper editor for coverage which offended the royal family. However, in 2015, Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power coincided with Khashoggi’s appointment as head of a new TV station in Bahrain. On the first day, after an interview with a government critic was broadcast, the station was shut down. Before this, he had been an influential journalist in the Saudi media, but as the new Crown Prince came to power, Khashoggi found himself silenced.

He fled Saudi Arabia in September 2017 to go into self-imposed exile, but on October 2 2018, during a trip to collect documents he needed to marry his fiancé, he was murdered by a Saudi hit squad. Khashoggi is one of the journalists whose work is contained in the books of press freedom in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) ‘The Uncensored Library’, a project to make censored information accessible to all. 

Uniquely, Minecraft offers a platform for unlimited freedom, even in countries such as Saudi Arabia where the press is restricted. Whilst websites, blogs and the press face censorship, Minecraft goes undetected by government surveillance technology. This loophole prompted RSF to create a virtual library out of Minecraft blocks, complete with a classical architecture facade and grand halls with messages such as ‘No Freedom Without Press Freedom’ on the floors and walls. Over three months, the project was built collaboratively with BlockWorks, a design studio and consultancy which works with Minecraft. It is made up of 12.5 million blocks and took 24 builders over 250 hours to design and create, at any given time the server can hold 100 players. The doors to the library were officially opened on March 12, on World Day Against Cyber Censorship.

With over 145 million active players from all over the globe every month, RSF are hoping to reach the youth of some of the countries with the most press censorship. These include Egypt which was ranked 163rd of 180 in the RSF’s 2019 Press Freedoms Index, Mexico which is 144th, Russia which is 149th, Saudi Arabia which is 172nd, and Vietnam which is 176th. For some perspective, the UK sits in 33rd position. 

In many countries, the internet is under the control of oppressive governments and leaders and many have no access to a free press. Inside the library, users can read digital ‘books’ which contain the articles of journalists who have been banned, exiled, and in some cases killed by the countries they originate from. Alongside Khashoggi, featured journalists include Yulia Berezovskaia from Russia, Nguyen Van Dai from Vietnam, Javier Valdez from Mexico, and work from the Egyptian news portal Mada Masr which was blocked by the Egyptian government in May 2017.

The articles can be read in either English or the original language the article was written in, and there is also information on the status of press freedom in 180 countries around the world. At present, the library contains over 200 books, but RSF has said that the library is growing, and more and more books are being added.

This isn’t the first attempt by RSF to release censored information in a way which is accessible to those in countries where the press is heavily controlled. In 2018, ‘The Uncensored Playlist’ was released which featured censored information in songs to try and evade government restrictions, including banned journalism from Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Egypt and China. 

The hashtag being used to spread the word about RSF latest project is ‘#TruthFindsAWay’ and, according to a BBC article published a day after its release, it attracted 3,889 players from 75 different countries, with a total of over 7,000 downloads.

We have reached out to Minecraft for a response.

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