Reporters Without Borders’ Uncensored Library Uses Minecraft To Provide Access to Censored Work

The press freedom nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF, after its French title, Reporters Sans Frontières) has created a way for readers everywhere to access and read documents that have been banned or censored in the countries where they were published—through The Uncensored Library, a collection of articles and books housed in the virtual world of Minecraft.

aerial view of uncensored library on island with title superimposed THE UNCENSORED LIBRARYThe press freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Reporters Without Borders (RSF, after its French title, Reporters Sans Frontières) has created a way for readers everywhere to access and read documents that have been banned or censored in the countries where they were published—through The Uncensored Library, a collection of articles and books housed in the virtual world of Minecraft.

Articles, blogs, and other forms of independent media are censored and silenced in a number of countries through surveillance and repressive laws, the imprisonment of writers, and restricted internet and social media access. Readers in those countries, particularly young people, often have no access to the independent journalism being produced there, and are particularly vulnerable to mis- and disinformation—nor can interested readers from elsewhere access such material.

However, even where access to information is repressed, Minecraft is accessible to anyone with an internet connection, for the most part—Russia has blocked access since its invasion of Ukraine. Documents can be uploaded and stored as virtual books within the game, hidden from government surveillance technology. RSF used this loophole to build The Uncensored Library as part of its #TruthFindsAWay campaign.

The Uncensored Library houses information on 180 countries and their rankings in RSF’s Press Freedom Index, a wing for RSF, and special exhibition halls highlighting work from countries notorious for their press censorship—Russia, Vietnam, Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Belarus, Eritrea, and Brazil. An additional room was recently added to cover issues of press repression about COVID-19 containing documents on 10 countries (Brazil, China, Egypt, Hungary, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia, Thailand, and Turkmenistan) that examine how reporting on the pandemic in each country has been affected.

 

SUBVERTING CENSORSHIP BRICK BY BRICK

exterior front of uncensored library with sculpture of pen in fistFounded by four journalists in Montpellier, France, in 1985, the nonprofit RSF is the world’s largest NGO specializing in the defense of media freedom. The organization is currently based in Paris, with bureaus in 10 cities worldwide and a network of correspondents in 130 countries, and works in consultation with the United Nations, UNESCO, the Council of Europe, and the International Organization of the Francophonie. Among other work, RSF supported protests in China during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, established the only independent radio station broadcasting to Eritreans in 2009, created a media support center in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake, and has provided training to Syrian journalists and bloggers.

RSF wanted to raise awareness for press censorship with a younger audience, and approached its longtime collaborator, the creative agency DDB Germany, with the problem. “Press freedom is such an abstract, and also a bit of a dry, topic,” noted DDB Senior Art Director Sandro Heierli, “especially if you need to talk to children or young adults.”

After looking at various platforms, the partners hit on Minecraft, one of the world’s most successful video games, which engages more than 145 million active players of all ages every month. Often described as “digital LEGO,” Minecraft lets players form and join communities to build virtual worlds out of blocks, and digital text files can be written and shared with other players.

RSF and DDB Germany joined forces with Minecraft design studio BlockWorks UK and production company MediaMonks to build the library. Twenty-four builders from 16 countries, led by BlockWorks Head Architect James Delaney, collaborated over seven months to create the project; the structure itself, which required more than 12.5 million Minecraft blocks, took three months alone to fabricate. Da House Music composed the campaign song and in-game soundtrack. All partners worked on the project pro bono; any donations go to RSF directly to be used where funding is most needed, such as its newest project, “The Truth Wins,” which uses nations’ winning lottery numbers—announced publicly on television, radio, and online, as lotteries are run by local governments—to serve as codes to access censored or repressed information on servers run by RSF. (For this project, all donations will be used to support the IT specialists, servers, and bandwidth required to mirror censored websites to new servers.)

 

INSIDE THE LIBRARY

large book lined Minecraft room with pagoda at one end approached by a maze
The Uncensored Library's Vietnam room

The striking neoclassical building—one of the biggest structures in the Minecraft world—echoes the design of many libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions around the world. “This is very much how you would imagine your dream library,” said Heierli, one of the project’s lead designers. Inside, each hall is designed with a sculpture or art relevant to the country whose works it holds. One wall in Mexico’s wing, for example, features portraits of journalists who have been killed; in Brazil’s central hall a giant hammer is suspended from the ceiling over a small book, in reference to its repressive press laws.

Upon entry, visitors are presented with a book explaining the library’s purpose and organizational scheme. There is no catalog or other retrieval system—rather, users click on the country they want to visit and are teleported to one of the library’s rooms or the central RSF area. “It’s more of a browsing experience,” Heierli explained. “Because every room looks different, it invites you to explore a bit.”

Flags for every country circle the upper atrium; behind each is information on its World Press Freedom Index ranking and an article on its current levels of censorship. Each wing offers an introductory overview book on the country or subject as well.

Documents are selected by RSF, with the permission of the writers (or their estates), and then transcribed into Minecraft format either by the media outlets where they originated or by RSF. Each volume is offered in its original language and English. Arabic-language articles, however, are presented as audio files, as Arabic script is dependent on the ligatures connecting letters and cannot be used with Minecraft’s Unicode. While they are depicted as books within the game, most documents are article-length—Minecraft pages hold about 50 characters in 12-point type, so an entire book would be unwieldy to transcribe and read.

The library currently holds more than 240 “books” by journalists including Nguyen Van Dai from Vietnam, Mada Masr from Egypt, Javier Valdez from Mexico, Alexander Skobov from Russia, and the late Jamal Khashoggi from Saudi Arabia. RSF takes care to ensure that writers are not directly put in danger through participation s, although Heierli pointed out that most are currently in exile from their home countries, and are not under direct threat. “They also publish a lot of other articles on social media and on their blogs all over the world,” he added.

The Uncensored Library opened its virtual doors on March 12, 2020, the World Day Against Cyber Censorship, on an open server for Minecraft players worldwide. It quickly went viral, and has hosted more than 25 million Minecraft players from all over the world—particularly from the countries featured. Two years later, the library sees at least 50 visitors a week, and RSF receives three or four emails weekly inquiring about the project. Instructors from middle school through higher ed—Heierli estimates between 20 and 30 universities—have used The Uncensored Library in their classes.

Minecraft also includes an in-game chat function, and the activity around the library is consistently lively. “It was amazing to see how conversations evolved around certain topics,” Heierli told LJ. “They were discussing press freedom—what does freedom of speech mean?—they were discussing Brexit, social Darwinism, the opioid crisis in the United States. And also things like whether vaping should be forbidden or not. There were a lot of conversations sparked through this library, and it became a platform for young people to talk about issues in their countries.”

“By creating a digital library in the computer game Minecraft, we were able to simultaneously find a loophole to circumvent censorship as well as inspire the youth worldwide about the issue of press freedom,” RSF Media and Public Relations Officer Kristin Bässe told LJ. “Information is the first step towards change—which is why access to free and independent information is essential in a democracy. Where the media cannot report on injustices, there is no public control, no free formation of opinion. And that is exactly what authoritarian governments try to prevent. Freedom of information is a human right and the library is a symbol of this human right.”

Author Image
Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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