What is censorship? Censorship is a form of prohibition and punishment.
Ever since the 15th century products of the printing press have been subject to censorship and since the 20th century the same has applied to film, radio, television and the Internet. Censorship thus relates to public communication and content in word, image and sound.
Censorship generally focuses on communication and content that is displeasing to secular and religious rulers. It concerns opinions on state and politics, theological and religious issues, issues related to social (in)equality, sex, honour, and norms and values.
We can distinguish between censorship before the fact, or preventive censorship, and censorship after the fact, or repressive censorship. In both cases this entails censorship from above, often backed up by royal, civil or religious laws. In turn, those potentially open to prosecution or persecution find creative ways of anticipating or evading the censorship.
Censorship can also take the form of self-censorship. Authors, printers, publishers, journalists, cartoonists, photographers, cineastes and bloggers try to avert the threat of censorship from above or they submit to pressure from their own ranks. They still have their own thoughts and opinions, but these are not made public.
The rise of movable type printing in the 15th century triggered preventive and repressive censorship from above. In the 17th and 18th century the stream of subversive books, pamphlets, prints and cartoons, newspapers and journals increased and thus also the scope and intensity of the control exerted over these. Control and censorship were never complete, could never be complete, because the government and the church could never fully seal the meshes of the net. During this period the Netherlands, and above all Amsterdam, functioned as a 'safe haven' for forbidden authors and printed matter from the surrounding countries.
In the 19th and 20th centuries the principles of freedom of expression were generally and legally established in democratic states, even though this process was sometimes slow and hesitant. In practice, however, the authorities continued to keep these freedoms in check. Censorship legislation remained in place and was regularly amended.
This trend was fuelled by the rise and growth of emancipatory movements, of political movements advocating mass democracy as well as by the increasing power of the state. As the 20th century progressed, the role of the state as censor was realized more through indirect curbs than through direct censorship, and the instruments of censorship became more refined.