Russian President Putin's assault on the independent media in his country has been an undeniable triumph. And it took only five years. In fact, the Russian leader's success represents just part of a worldwide trend to convert the media into a tool of the state or of special interests.
Putin's Subjugation of a Free Media
In the US, people might complain in exasperation about the media, its negligence, and incompetence and its willingness to cozy up to Corporate America.
The fact that Donald Trump has been allowed to get this far without any serious examination of the man's character- indeed, his sanity- is an indication that it's not imaginary.
There are legitimate reasons to complain about the sorry state of journalism. True or not, such carping also requires us to put a few things into proper perspective.
Compared to other countries like China and Russia, (and even one of our NATO allies) the freedom of America's media is still something a lot of countries can only dream of.
In those countries, Facebook comments are routinely monitored, tweets are selectively censored and woe to you, if your humble Instagram remark should attract the attention of an over-zealous government prosecutor.
Journalism, as concerns collecting information, differs little if at all from intelligence work. In my judgment, a journalist's job is very interesting.
It's a very enlightening quote if you think about it. In making the comparison, Putin ignores one of the main principles of a free press, and its most important feature, its independence from the state.
Intelligence work is very different than journalism in that it does not work for the state. Unlike intelligence work, the information that journalists find becomes a public resource, freely available to citizens who care about discriminating the true from the false.
In that respect, Putin revealed, in a very succinct way, his own mentality about the value of journalism. It is, as far as Putin is concerned, little more than a tool of the ruling class.
That Putin should feel this way shouldn't surprise anybody. After all, he has put those ideas into practice.
Medvedev's Trojan Horse
It was, Gatov reminds us, a very different story back in 2011. That was when the then-President Dmitry Medvedev invited the leading representatives of Russia's online media community — digital entrepreneurs, executives, scholars, authors and some opposition-minded bloggers for a chat. In appearance, the gathering suggested a U.S. town hall meeting, and yet, it turned out to be much more like a PR stunt.
The participants addressed matters of the future, they spoke about innovation and openness, competitiveness and globalization. Of course, they talked about the problems: about free speech, media development and excessive state participation. But the assumption was that government was open for discussion. After all, Medvedev had promised an innovation economy.
That was five years ago. A relatively short time.
Yet, today Russian media has been unrecognizably transformed into Putin's consensus-making tool. A short list of changes includes
- expelling foreign capital from media business.
- the removal of undesirable journalists and editors from news outlets, and
- the replacement of editorial independence and freedom of expression with "censorship, loyalty, manipulative propaganda and agenda-setting.
Between 2012 and 2016, the Kremlin masterfully used every tool in its arsenal to convert the Russian media in an instrument for mass social manipulation.
There was, Gatov says, a deliberate transition from the relatively pluralistic and open media to something radically different.
Today Russian media channels a "besieged fortress" mind-set, and represents a jingoistic and socially conservative tribe that negates any kind of "foreign values." The demand for neutral journalism has all but disappeared.
It was an interesting point. The public was conditioned to accept the government control over the media without noticeable outrage.
Over the last five years, not only did the media change but the public attitudes to the role of the media, through reframing and priming the audience, were transformed as well.
This transformation could not have happened without pressure from above. But it has also taken on an energy of its own. In order to "satisfy" the demand for a conservative mind-set, major Russian news outlets have became even more nationalistic, anti-Western and conservative than required.
At least for the time being, the Russian public appears to have accepted that free journalism was a dangerous Western invention, aimed at the destroying traditional values and undermining the authority of the government.
According to that view, free media (and all of the doubt and instability that comes with it) is just too a heavy price to pay for knowing the truth.
It's better not to know.
By any measure, the program to control the Russian media has been depressingly victorious.
Putin's five-year plan to conquer the media and free speech is celebrating an undoubted success across all traditional, broadcast and digital media. The commercial press, whether pro-government, oppositional or neutral, has been forced to adopt his agenda. It is an agenda that considers Russia to be more important then Russians, the state to be superior to citizens and power to be better than freedom.
What now survives, according to the article, is not independent in any Western sense. And the article also notes that, even for those who retain the hope that independent journalism is not dead but merely in hibernation, the question remains whether Russian society will even respect or desire its return.
The story of the decline of independent media in Russia is not at all unique. If nothing else, Putin has provided an excellent playbook for the leaders of other nations who see oversight by the press as a threat to their own supremacy.
The Global Threats
The organization, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently released its 2016 World Press Freedom Index . The report observed that there had been a “deep and disturbing” decline in freedom of information in many places. like Turkey, Poland, Tajikistan, and Egypt.
At the bottom of its annual ranking of press freedom around the world were China, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea.
Comparing the US and Russia, the United States was ranked 41st, up from 49th last year, while Russia’s placement rose from 152nd in 2015 to 148th this year.
(Given the fact that freedom of the press was one of our nation's core principles from its inception, the ranking of 41st is hardly anything to be particularly patriotic about.)
The threats of prosecution under vaguely written laws, especially anti-terrorism laws have rendered the work of independent journalists a criminal offense.
In Turkey, for example, laws prohibiting "insulting the president" or members of his administration have been used to prosecute journalists. That's in addition to laws against supporting terrorist organizations and revealing state's secrets. In fact, the mere threat of prosecution is usually enough to intimidate journalists into self-imposed silence.
Often, the control of the media is much less subtle. The report also noted a 16 percent rise in governments physically impeding access to media between 2013 and 2016. The destruction of press infrastructure includes blocking Internet access and destroying broadcast equipment and printing presses.
That's not the only threat to independent journalism around the world, say the RSF. Media is also increasingly at risk from “religious ideologies” ( à la Iran) as well as “large-scale propaganda machines” ( à la Putin).
The Paris-based group said that globally, ‘oligarchs’ are buying up media outlets and are "exercising pressure that compounds the pressure already coming from governments."
With more and more of the media in fewer and fewer hands, that's a threat that Americans should be very concerned about. Especially when Congress is made up of millionaires and the nominee of the Republican Party is a proudly greedy billionaire.
When it comes to abolishing the independence of media and re-servicing it for his own purposes, Putin's is not unique and his efforts are therefore not very original.
The only thing noteworthy was how quickly he was able to deconstruct the Russian mind and turn it against its only source of information outside the ruling party.
With the proper preparation, the public-approved suppression of independent journalism can happen almost overnight. That the most important thing to take away from Putin's success story.
The question is how many years would it take President Trump?