11 Jan

A response to Breaking the News: The Role of State-Run Media

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Christopher Walker, the executive director of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Bob Orttung, an associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs have an article in this month’s Journal of Democracy, and an accompanying Washington Post article and upcoming event.

I like both of them a lot, and I wanted to write a blog post response to their article because it really got me thinking. I thought it was a nice piece that summarized the current state of authoritarian run media. I had just a few critiques.

As for the article itself, Christopher and Bob’s aim seems to be to describe how authoritarian state-run media functions today given that state-security apparatus don’t work in the same way and that coercion alone isn’t enough to maintain control. In some ways this is not dissimilar from some of the arguments that William Dobson makes in the Dictator’s Learning Curve. Authoritarian leaders have to be much more wily today than in the past. (They do cite Dobson.) Dobson argues that because the Cold War and Soviet sponsorship ended, the democracy promotion business exists, and the Internet/technology is allowing for new ways for information to spread, that authoritarian regimes are being more creative.

Christopher and Bob argue that authoritarian regimes are finding new ways to use media to stay in power. Specifically, without the strong backbone of something like the Communist Party, the media fills a void – as they say, a mix of consumerism, nationalism, anti-Americanism, and other intellectual currents to keep the regime popular as well as discrete alternatives to the regime to marginalize opposition. Moreover, because opposition groups don’t have access to mainstream media, they have trouble accessing the public anyway.

In a forthcoming article in Demokratizatsiya (coincidentally edited by Bob Orttung), I use Schatz’s “soft authoritarian tool kit” to understand Internet control in Azerbaijan. Schatz’s framework seeks to provide an understanding of the way that the state interacts with its people in order to maintain control. First, an authoritarian regime boasts that it has extensive support. Second, it controls non-supporters through material enticements. Third, those not influenced by material considerations face, blackmail, harassment and coercion. Fourth, the regime carefully controls information flows while allowing the opposition limited access to media that generally reach small audiences. And fifth, the regime employs discursive preemption, staging political drama to undermine opponents’ ability to grow support.

As I read the Journal of Democracy piece, I desperately wanted to use this framework in these cases too, especially the fourth and fifth tools. I think that it is a useful way to think about WHY the authoritarian regimes do certain things. It is easy for those of us that think about authoritarianism every day to assume these things, but I wish that this had been brought into this Journal of Democracy piece more as it would likely be useful for those new to these ideas.

Another point in the piece is that there are four audiences. I really like this framework. 1) The regime’s own elites 2) the populace at large 3) the country’s internet users and 4) opposition and civil society.

This really spoke to me.

1. Wtih the regime’s own elites, this makes a lot of sense. I often read state-media reports and I think to myself, this is for their own people. Specifically, in Azerbaijan, which is a patronage-based political system, Guliyev and Radnitz argue, the biggest threat to the ruling regime comes from within. And using the most recently presidential elections as an example, Guliyev and I argued that the performative or spectacle allows the regime to show their control.

2. The populace at large is an obvious audience of course, as keeping people as “zombies” and out of politics through promoting the good work of the regime and demonizing the opposition. The article points out that rural and poor citizens are both the base of authoritarian support and also those most likely to be reached by state-run media. I often debate people about this, but I think that more research needs to be done on this. We’re assuming a lot.

3. The control of the Internet is, obviously, the topic that I am most interested in. Christopher and Bob rightly note that the Internet needs to be approached differently that mainstream media and that regimes are struggling with figuring out how to best do this. The authors do not come down firmly on the cyberutopian side of the potential of the Internet debate, but they are certainly more on that side of things. I argue that in Azerbaijan, the regime also looks to the Internet as another place to humiliate the opposition (see my forthcoming Demokratizatsiya pieces). This is again a place where I think that Schatz’s framework would have been helpful in their arguments. I do appreciate that Christopher and Bob noted that the Internet isn’t yet large enough to pose a challenge to TV and it is such a cacophony it isn’t a unified opposition platform.

4. Opposition and civil society audience are important too. Certainly we must acknowledge that this is not a single body or mind, but without a doubt authoritarian regimes use media to send messages to these groups. In this article though, the focus is more about denying access and not so much about the actual messaging. Where are the “Hahahaha, opposition. We are going to mess with you.” type news stories that I see regularly?

A key missing point for me, beyond the Schatz’s framework, was, as Egorov, Guriev, and Sonin argue, authoritarian regimes tolerate some opposition press to provides the government with insight into what its citizens are saying and check in on bureaucrats. And I don’t see that within this Journal of Democracy piece. How does that fit in to the control?

ETA: In Azerbaijan the government also does a lot to suppress the opposition printed press. Through libel suits, fines for selling newspapers, pressures on printing presses, etc., the opposition press is really weak. In the last few months, the two opposition print papers have nearly collapsed.

Also a little bit about this publication. The Journal of Democracy is an interesting publication because it is not a traditional academic journal. It is housed within NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, although it is published by Johns Hopkins University Press. But most importantly, articles in the Journal of Democracy are not subject to peer review. As I understand it, many of the articles in this journal are commissioned. All of this makes it quite different from traditional academic journals. (Although according to Google Scholar, it is the 10th top publication in Political Science – but its h5-index is lower than the top four journals in Communication). This is not to say that the articles are not good – they are often thoughtful and interesting and are more frequently from practioners rather than scholars (although certainly scholars do publish in it.) It seems to me that some scholars use this journal as a platform for launching a new big idea. (If you look at the most cited articles, they are quite interesting thoughtpieces from some big names ). Regardless, I think that it is important to understand the context of this publication.