When censorship backfires

MARCELO CRIVELLA: Called for the photo of two men kissing to be banned.
MARCELO CRIVELLA: Called for the photo of two men kissing to be banned.

BACK in 2003, American entertainer Barbra Streisand made a huge blunder when she tried to suppress the publication of an aerial photo of her mansion in Malibu.

It was not a paparazzi pic, but was simply taken for the California Coastal Records Project. Streisand, who claimed invasion of privacy, sued the project and photographer Kenneth Adelman for $50 million dollars – and lost.

Until she launched the lawsuit, the photo had been downloaded from Adelman’s website just six times. After she sued, in a single month people downloaded it more than 420,000 times!


Streisand’s lawsuit was dismissed, and she was ordered to pay Adelman’s costs of over $155,000.

Two years later, a weird website established to showcase urinals around the world was operating in relative obscurity. That is, until it featured a shot of one at a US holiday resort, which took umbrage at being named on Urinal.net.

It immediately issued a take down notice. This hugely boosted the number of visitors to the website, and prompted one commentator, Mike Masnick, to ask ‘how long is it going to take before lawyers realise that the simple act of trying to repress something they don’t like will be seen by many more people? Let’s call it the Streisand Effect.’

Although decades were to pass before Masnick gave Streisand’s name to this law of unintended consequences, I became aware of the phenomenon way back in the 1960s when I discovered I could actually generate the Streisand Effect by making public – as an investigative reporter – decisions taken by the South African censors.

These imbeciles had draconian powers and banned thousands of books, films, t-shirts, records and the like. But unless one had access to a semi-secret government publication called ‘Jacobsen’s Index of Objectionable Literature,’ one had no idea what South Africans were being deprived of in terms of literature and entertainment.

On discovering ‘Jacobsen’s,’ I hit on the bright idea of running a monthly column in Johannesburg’s Star newspaper detailing some of the more bizarre decisions made by the censors. For example, when I revealed that a poster bearing the words ‘Black is Beautiful’ had been declared objectionable, an enterprising local t-shirt outlet began printing the slogan, and the proprietor could barely keep up with the demand.

I was reminded of that era this month when the sales of a comic book in Brazil went into the stratosphere after the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical Christian, called for it to be banned.

Why? Because the cover featured two guys kissing. The Streisand Effect served not only promote the book, but turned Crivella into an international figure of fun, surpassing – albeit briefly – British Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

The comic, ‘Avengers: The Children’s Crusade,’ had been around for years without anyone having to reach for the smelling salts, but thanks to Crivella’s intervention – and the fact that the ‘offensive’ cover made the front page of a national newspaper – people who never entertained the idea of two men kissing now have the image branded on their brains, and are probably in need of years of counselling.



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