The day that Canadian photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur entered a factory farm to take pictures of the pigs inside, she knew the images she took were inherently violent. They were of hour-old piglets bathing in their mother's feces, piles of dead foetuses, and of traumatized sows so large they could not move in their small gestation crates.
What she didn't expect, however, was that after publishing the pictures on Facebook two weeks ago and having them be shared by 8,500 people, the website's administration would advise her that the pictures were under review and risked being removed from the site because they were flagged for "graphic violence" by other users.
There has been much discussion and debate between journalists lately about the ethics of censorship and whether it should be justified in certain cases.
The debate was recently fuelled by the string of beheading videos published on social media sites by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Most media outlets have decided not to show the videos, which they qualify as propaganda films that aim to attract new recruits and to intimidate. Even LiveLeak, who is renowned for aggregating and publishing even the most gruesome of videos has decided to stop publishing ISIS beheading videos.
Then there was the release of the Edward Snowden documentary, Citizenfour. Whether or not it was ethically right for the media to publish Snowden's revelations containing confidential information about U.S. surveillance programs is still a matter of controversy.
Both the ISIS videos and the National Security Agency's classified intelligence are kept private for a variety of reasons, but a major one is that their disclosures could threaten national security. For many, this justifies their censorship. In the case of the factory-farming industry – a legal, multi-billion dollar industry that the vast majority of the population supports daily with their buying power and that deals with the lives of sentient beings − censorship of its practices should never be justified.
"The images I shot at the farm do depict violence," McArthur admits, "but hunting photos and images of animals used in entertainment are allowed on Facebook.
"What this all shows is what sort of violence is socially acceptable and which isn't. If these images are deemed graphically violent, shouldn't images of bacon also be?"
McArthur is the author of We Animals and publishes a blog with the same name. She was also the subject of the 2013 documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine. Throughout her career as a photojournalist who covers animal welfare issues, McArthur says she has faced censorship on a regular basis:
"Art and photo directors have almost unanimously agreed that [my] work is good and important, but what I keep hearing is that editors need to protect their audience and I suspect as well that they can't risk offending industries who spend a lot on ads."
The fact that journalists who cover animal abuse in factory farms are often systematically censored demonstrates that freedom of the press is indeed restricted and that the mainstream media is uncomfortable reporting on unethical farming practices that the majority of their audiences support as consumers. Ultimately, this censorship serves society's power interests, whether it is intentional or not.
"I think we all know that popular media is self-interested, owned by big companies with corporate interests that won't jeopardize losing readers and that it has the ‘freedom' to report as conservatively as it wants," says McArthur. However, she admits that there are a variety of barriers when it comes to publishing issues about animal cruelty. These barriers can be historical, cultural, economic and psychological:
"Images of animal cruelty are confronting because I think we are all compassionate and don't want to see pain inflicted on the innocent. To confront the cruelty is to confront ourselves and our complicity in that cruelty."