News by and for the Authorities

When Russian tax and law enforcement authorities recently raided the Moscow offices of Human Rights Watch, they invited a television crew from one of the country’s key state-controlled broadcast networks, NTV, to film the proceedings. State news television cameras similarly tagged along when government inspectors staged raids of other NGOs, including Amnesty International and the human rights group Memorial.

While President Vladimir Putin has described these raids as “routine measures linked to the desire of the law enforcement agencies to bring the activities of organizations in line with the law,” the question must be asked: Why the need to film and then feature in prime time news broadcasts if these measures are simply “routine”?

The answer lies in state media’s crucial role in shaping its audiences’ perception of the world. The selective use of tax audits and safety inspections, as well as arbitrarily applied laws and regulations, are burdensome and deeply disruptive to NGO activities. State media’s place in the authoritarian arsenal is of a different order because its attacks are designed to discredit — and delegitimize — civil society.

Unlike independent publicly owned media in democratic states, authoritarian state media’s chief functions are to block and attack. Blocking ensures that consistent criticism of the leadership does not affect the public that consumes its news primarily over the airwaves. Attacking, by use of smears and mass media disinformation, is designed to tarnish anyone who is perceived to pose a threat to the authorities’ power. For civil society, it is this attack function that is most destructive.

If this formula for civil society repression were isolated to Russia, it would be one matter. This devastating one-two punch of state media subversion with regulatory coercion is, however, a pattern visible in many authoritarian countries.

The former Soviet Union is well represented on the list. The government of Azerbaijan, for instance, has been cracking down harshly on civil society and state media are routinely used to smear NGOs and individual activists. During a recent interview given to a national audience on state television, Ramiz Mehdiev, President Ilham Aliev’s influential chief of staff, claimed that “fake NGOs” (read Western-supported, independent) were a threat to national security and should be shut down to prevent their further interference in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs. The governments in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan work from a similar playbook.

The story line is similar in a diverse number of authoritarian states. Zimbabwe’s state media are used as an instrument of demonization, going so far as to label foreign-funded NGOs “civil society mercenaries.” Saudi Arabia and other states in the Middle East must compete with Arabic language transnational satellite programming but nevertheless rely on state media as a weapon against civil society.

For its part, Russia’s state television, particularly NTV, has repeatedly broadcast to a national audience sensationalistic programs that suggest human rights activists and other reformers are working for outside interests, or are otherwise seeking to harm the Russian state. These groups, in fact, do the essential work of protecting Russian citizens’ rights, encouraging transparency in public policy and safeguarding freedom of expression. State media attacks impugn their work and motives, making it terribly difficult for these groups to gain ordinary citizens’ trust.

Having marginalized political opposition, co-opted key business interests and effectively cleansed the landscape of alternative voices, Putin now views civil society as the main threat to his rule. In response to the massive street protests sparked by fraudulent parliamentary elections in December 2011, NTV (which ironically means “independent television”) broadcast a two-part diatribe entitled “Anatomy of a Protest.” This harsh pseudo-documentary was rife with innuendo and emblematic of the state media programming served to viewers by an increasingly anxious Russian government.

Given the rapid rise of the Internet and other communications technologies, it is tempting to assume that state media are already a relic of a bygone era. But with their vast and often uncontested reach and influence over populations beyond urban centers, which as a rule have less access to independent sources of information, state television is the medium that shapes the views of audiences that typically represent the authoritarians’ core base of support. In Russia, as in virtually all of the other authoritarian states, state controlled television remains the dominant source of news and information.

Despite its persistent influence, the role of state media receives precious little attention from outsiders. But overlooking the harmful impact of this corrosive media control is done at great risk. As the experience in Russia and other authoritarian states vividly shows, state media’s role is integral to the subversion of civil society.

Community-based organizations, advocacy groups and other associations that form civil society are critical for bringing innovative practices to the public space. Such NGOs work to improve public policy and to encourage social and economic development, among other benefits. The attacks on civil society are therefore undercutting these countries’ development prospects in a fundamental way. In this sense, state media are undermining the very state that they supposedly serve.

Christopher Walker is executive director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies. Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies of the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

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