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Putin and the Dawn of the New Authoritarians

How are autocrats from Russia to Pakistan using the media to perpetuate their hold on power?

November 30, 2007

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is the patron saint of the New Authoritarians. While asserting that he supports freedom of expression, control over media is an essential element of his “managed democracy.”

Since coming into office on the eve of the millennium, Putin has systematically attacked the press and dismantled nearly all traces of independent broadcast media. The most significant action under Putin was the attack on the Media-Most empire of Vladimir Gusinsky.

Through the selective application of tax and criminal law, including the invasion of Media-Most premises by hooded and heavily armed tax police, the direct pressure of the Ministry of Press, Radio and Television and boardroom intrigue, Media-Most collapsed.

The impact was devastating: NTV, the leading source of non-state broadcasts, fell into the hands of the government-controlled Gazprom.

Segodnya, the leading opposition newspaper, folded. Itogi, an important weekly, was eviscerated and left as a shell of its former self.

In Pakistan, the military leader-turned-president, Pervez Musharraf, has declared a state of emergency and ordered the closure of private television stations and the removal of several national and international channels from cable television.

He has also imposed rules barring journalists from publishing and broadcasting information “likely to defame government or military officials” or “jeopardize the country’s ideology,” according to AsiaMedia.

In Venezuela, the increasingly autocratic populist Hugo Chavez clamped down on private television stations that he believes are too critical of him. He stripped the license from Radio Caracas Televisión, the leading voice of opposition, and threatened others that broadcast opposition voices.

These developments are representative of the rise of the New Authoritarians. The New Authoritarians represent the antithesis of the revolutionary spirit that swept the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Berlin Wall fell and communism collapsed.

While they pay lip service to democratic values, and assert a rhetorical commitment to freedom of expression in domestic and international forums, these leaders undermine democracy and openness by using administrative resources and the selective application of laws to perpetuate their rule.

Television is their favorite instrument of control. However, rather than taking control over the entire media, as did authoritarians of old, these leaders are more sophisticated.

They recognize that — in today’s world of relatively low-cost international travel, cell phones, instant messaging and the Internet — they cannot, without great cost, seal off their citizens from alternative messages, as did yesterday’s authoritarian leaders.

They even allow some degree of media autonomy and permit some elements of the media, particularly low-circulation print media, to criticize the government. However, this is largely camouflage.

In reality, all they offer is what the journalists’ rights organization Reporters sans Frontières describes as “cardboard imitations” of press freedom.

When issues of importance are at stake, particularly elections, they assert substantial control over the media and use television as a blunt instrument to prop up the regime and discredit its opponents.

To ensure control of television, the New Authoritarians use a variety of legal and regulatory mechanisms to ensure that stations are in the hands of the state or state sympathizers. Broadcast licenses can be revoked, the tax police can be called in and owners can suddenly face criminal proceedings for their business practices.

Television dominance is coupled with other actions designed to limit the activities of journalists. Journalists can find themselves the object of criminal defamation suits, even for relatively minor criticism of the regime. Their access to government officials can be restricted. They can be arrested — or worse.

Media restrictions are often supplemented by other actions that limit public communication. Opposition protests and rallies are banned or limited. Leaders can be detained or beaten. When all else fails, the New Authoritarians will resort to voting fraud.

Why have the New Authoritarians emerged as such a force recently? One answer rests with leaders’ perceptions that elections and rhetorical claims to democracy are necessary sources of political legitimacy, domestically and internationally, in the post-Cold War world.

Even where leaders’ desire to retain power outweighs their commitment to the values they publicly espouse, they still wish to bask in the glow of democratic bona fides.

They would also prefer to use more subtle forms of electoral manipulation that the control of broadcast media can afford them — rather than resorting to outright fraud or violence.

The more proximate cause of the media attacks by the New Authoritarians is the impact of the colored revolutions of the former Soviet Union.

The revolutions that swept Georgia and Ukraine, where television played a critical role in mobilizing the opposition and piercing the carefully crafted messages of the ‘parties in power,’ put other leaders on notice: Ignore the potential power of broadcast media at your own peril.

The New Authoritarians have also been abetted by the U.S.-led Global War on Terror. The Bush Administration’s willingness to cut corners on democratic processes and legal norms at home and abroad, in spite of the rhetorical commitment to the “spread of democracy,” has given cover for a variety of anti-press actions — all in the name of the war on terror.

Whether in Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Pakistan or Russia, it is not unusual for leaders to invoke threats to national security as a part of their general press crackdowns.

One disappointing development is that optimism about the democratizing influence of the Internet is increasingly coming into question. In their report “Dictatorships Get to Grips with Web 2.0,” Reporters sans Frontières concluded that “all authoritarian regimes are now working to censor the Internet.”

In this area, and with the help of a combination of cutting edge technology and old-fashioned authoritarian principles, China has taken the lead — setting an ominous precedent for other anti-democratic regimes. If other countries follow China’s example, the prospects for the New Authoritarians will remain strong.