Each year at this time, Freedom House, a Washington-based institute that specializes in research on global democracy, issues a report on the condition of press freedom around the world. The report's findings for the past year make for disturbing reading. The number of countries that experienced a significant decline in media freedom outstripped the number that registered improvements. Even worse, trends for the past decade indicate a steady erosion in the ability of media to cover the most critical civic and political issues. The report's most chilling conclusion: Only one in six people worldwide live in societies with a genuinely free press, the lowest percentage in over a decade.
To some degree, the global trends reflect a rejection by some political leaders of the ideals that are critical to democracy: openness, transparency, the right to independent thought.
But they also point to the sophistication of modern authoritarianism. In country after country, the leadership has developed shrewd strategies to control the politically relevant information and, more to the point, the interpretation of that information. That the practitioners of 21st-century despotism have succeeded in monopolizing the commanding heights of the media in the internet age is especially worrisome.
Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has emerged as a laboratory for the development of methods to suppress media freedom in the post-totalitarian era. Outright censorship has been eliminated, and outlets are left relatively free to pursue commercial success with entertainment programming, sports coverage, and news content on non-sensitive subjects. While their reach is limited, a few niche publications with more critical material have been allowed to survive. But to ensure that his message on key political matters would crowd out all others, Putin, in the earliest days of his presidency, moved to eliminate the independence of the country's most influential source of news, the major television networks. The national stations were either placed directly under state control or in the hands of cronies. Within a few years, what had been a vibrant and critical, albeit flawed, television landscape had been tamed.
In fact, under Putin, the news operations of major television networks have been turned into aggressive Kremlin propaganda instruments. Not content with ignoring regime critics, Russian television stations carry out relentless campaigns to humiliate and marginalize leading opposition figures. Those like Aleksey Navalny, the blogger and activist now on trial on dubious corruption charges, are depicted in pseudo-documentaries as extremists, criminals, and traitors, paid by shadowy foreign interests to undermine Russia.
The Russian system of media control is typical of the approach taken by other authoritarian-minded leaders, such as the late Hugo Chávez, who dominated mass media with his daily presence and left opposition outlets to wither under regulatory and financial pressure. The Russian method has been particularly influential with the country's Eurasian neighbors. According to Freedom House, the post-Soviet sphere has the most dismal press freedom record of any global region, with three Eurasian countries-Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan-registering scores that are among the world's worst.
The state of global press freedom is not as uniformly bleak. Even in the Middle East, while Egypt suffered serious backsliding in 2012 and Gulf monarchies cracked down on dissent, Tunisia and Libya retained most of the gains they registered in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and Algeria and Morocco experienced modest improvements.
In practically every region, however, press freedom has been under significant pressure over the past several years. This may seem counterintuitive given the parallel growth in internet access, but in most countries, traditional media, which increasingly means television, remain the dominant source of news. Moreover, in the wake of the Arab Spring, authoritarian leaders worldwide have intensified their efforts to limit the potential of new media as an instrument of political change. In Russia, for example, a new law adopted in 2012 strengthened the state's ability to shut down websites, supposedly to protect minors from harmful content. Putin's allies have called for even more restrictive measures, and there can be little doubt that the leadership will take whatever steps it deems necessary to eliminate threats to its power.
The techniques of media control that predominate today are in many ways more subtle and insidious than old-fashioned censorship and propaganda, but authoritarian leaders have also demonstrated their willingness to use blunt tools like incarceration and violence to silence their most persistent critics. It is increasingly clear that these rulers will not sit idly by and let the tides of the information age sweep them away. Indeed, the current trend of declining media freedom will continue until those who cherish the values of an open society step forward to defend their beleaguered allies around the world, and confront the efforts of their opponents with a vigor that is equal to the task.