Reporters Without Borders has followed up its brave 'Uncensored Playlist' campaign by hiding vital news away from the prying eyes of autocratic governments in a vast library constructed within the massively popular video game Minecraft.
The press freedom NGO took to the virtual realm to protest real-world censorship by hiding ‘The Uncensored Library’ in Minecraft - which still boasts 145 million global active players.
In doing so, it again marked World Day Against Cyber Censorship (12 March) after the Uncensored Playlist transformed illicit articles into songs and uploaded them to music services like Spotify in 2018.
This latest campaign takes aim at Egypt, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, publishing the articles these nations don't want their populace to read, all in the name of press freedom. These regimes have taken measures to clamp down on freedom of press, however, recreational games like Minecraft remain freely accessible, hidden away from government surveillance.
DDB Germany and Dutch MediaMonks helped deliver the campaign which has the support of Hatice Cengiz, fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi and internationally acclaimed journalists like Nguyen Van Dai and Yulia Berezovskaia.
Patrik Lenhart, creative director at DDB Berlin, said: "We always wanted to push for creative solutions that really make a difference. #Truthfindsaway is more than a hashtag.
"Minecraft is one of the biggest online games ever - so our creatives Tobias Natterer and Sandro Heierli figured the chances that it is accessible in places with limited freedom is quite high. Also - it is a game about creative freedom, Even in places where there is almost no freedom of information. Young teenagers will be kids - no matter where they are, play it."
He said it was the perfect tool to bring an important topic closer to the next generation.
"Those who grow up in systems without free press can access this information in a playful and inspiring way. The library is easy to adapt, the creative gaming community can help grow it."
Minecraft design studio BlockWorks built the library over a period of three months, using some 12.5 million blocks. 24 builders from 16 countries put more than 250 hours into building the anti-censorship temple.
James Delaney, managing director BlockWorks, architect of the Uncensored Library, said: "The design of the library is a neoclassical architectural style. Derived from the traditions of ancient Roman and Greek architecture. [We designed] a building that represents freedom of knowledge and the power that truth has over oppressive government authorities and regimes."
The launch of the server is accompanied by the uncensoredlibrary.com microsite which features a 360° walkthrough experience of the library including books, a making-of film and the full map download of the library so it can be experienced offline.
In 2018 and 2019, the ‘Uncensored Playlist’ swept award shows and showed how powerful marketing can make a difference in the world.
Speaking to The Drum, Sylvie Ahrens-Urbanek, head of comms at Reporters Without Borders Germany, said the group benefited from great ideas, all pro-bono from agencies like DDB.
Originally it sought out five censored journalists (Basma Abdelaziz (Egypt), Chang Ping (China), Bui Thanh Huey (Vietnam), Prachatai (Thailand) and Galima Bukharbaeva (Uzbekistan)) to put themselves in the spotlight and allow the republishing of their stories. Most were exiles from their nations. Their journalism was transformed into lyrics and uploaded as pop songs, free to listen to, without the scrutiny of the state to censor the work.
Ahrens-Urbanek said: “Campaigns like these are extremely powerful. They draw attention to the work of journalists and the threats they face. When being part of a campaign the popularity can become a shield for those journalists. Dictators and autocrats do not dare anymore to just let them disappear without a trace.”
He spoke about how such a campaign could make a vital difference: “Governments fear negative media coverage. Those who are under the worst-ranked countries in RSF’s annual Index of press freedom often ask what they could do to improve their negative perception in the world.”
Back in 2018, the creatives stumbled across an ingenious loophole in international censorship. The world’s leading audio services like Spotify and Deezer weren’t being actively policed by authoritarian governments for censorship.
DDB's Lenhart helped develop the campaigns. From the off, it felt different from other briefs. “It felt more like a life hack or an action, rather than an awareness campaign. This NGO was literally trying to change things. So that then became the job of the creative as well.”
Lenhart and co initially consider visual mediums like Instagram to get the word out. Visual gave way to audio and the potential role of music playlists. Even in tightly-censored nations, music services were largely unhindered.
Lenhart said: “If pop music streaming is allowed even where there is no freedom of the press - then journalists simply have to become musicians,” he said. It wasn’t much later the ‘Uncensored Playlist’ had found life.
“Something like this had never been done before. It was different from the shooting of a television commercial. This was new land to conquer.”
Musician Lucas Mayer and his partner director Iris Fuzaro, helped the team create a fake label and navigate the tricky world of music. “He lifted a big weight off us. Lucas and Iriz travelled to these countries to really make these songs work.
“When he sent the first songs and they were actually beautiful pop songs, we were really touched.”
The teams were unsure of what would happen next. How actively the governments would curtail the content – or even if the sites hosting them would buckle. “We did not inform the streaming services upfront. If they were scared and said no – they would monitor the uploads and our chances of making it would be small.
Next we had to prove the loophole in the system exists – which could be a real inspiration for people to fight for new ways to put forth truth.” Now, Minecraft opens up another exploit for free speech in these nations, however, for many the campaign doesn’t exist to drive Minecraft traffic, as inventive as the library is. As long as it exists, there’s evidence that the word can get out.
Lenhart expanded: “We have the most-connected world ever. So sharing information should be the easiest thing. Yet, as freedom grows – so does oppression. It is incredible what ways regimes find to oppress people. They are incredible creative in finding ways to fight free journalism. So, the free minds in this world have to fight back. We have to be more creative. When they close a digital door, we have to open a new window. The only way to show truth is the answer is to show it cannot be silenced. It finds a way. Whether you like it or not.”
Vote for this campaign in The Drum's Creative works here.