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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Doing Without A Free Media

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 18 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Thomas Jefferson, the author of the American Declaration of Independence, observed two centuries ago that a free press would lead to a free parliament but that a free parliament might not lead to a free press.

Jefferson's point springs to mind as the world watches the Russian government and groups allied with it move against independent media outlets, such as NTV. Indeed, several Moscow observers pointed out this week that Russia now has only one independent domestic media outlet -- the Ekho Moskvy radio station -- capable of reaching the entire country.

Not surprisingly, many Russians and even more Western observers have begun to ask whether Russia can become a democracy if its government cannot tolerate the existence of an independent press. They are also questioning whether the suppression of a free press will in fact lead directly and immediately to the suppression of all other freedoms.

For supporters of democracy, it is an article of faith that without a completely free press, no country can have a genuinely free democracy and even more no country which hopes to become a democracy can do so without that kind of media. There are three obvious reasons for such a belief.

First, in the absence of a vigorous and free press, governments and others with power can do things out of the sight of the people. And they can even structure the opinions of the population about what they are doing through the management of the press. Thus, in Russia today, polls show that most people accept the government's line that the transfer of control over NTV was a question of business and debt rather than one of freedom and democracy.

Second, without such media outlets, political competition is reduced to little more than shadowboxing, with the government rather than the population deciding the issues and the candidates and then presenting the results as being "democratic" when in fact they are simply managed in ways intended to appear that way.

And third, without such a press, the population itself is disempowered, demobilized, and increasingly alienated. Citizens are reduced to consumers of goods and entertainment rather than elevated to the status of people who can make choices for themselves and their society.

Despite these obvious benefits to society as a whole and to the democratic prospect, both rulers and ruled in many countries have often decided that they can dispense with a free press and still maintain a free society. Leaders who resent any criticism have sought to rein in the media. Moreover, people without much experience with democracy may resent the press for what they see as its overly critical attitude about their own government and society.

And because of this, rulers sometimes can count on popular support for or at least popular indifference to their moves against the press. They can act knowing that some members of the elite will object but that such people will be few in number and easily overriden. Indeed, once the rulers control some of the media, they can portray these elite spokesmen as little more than the handmaidens of the enemies of the country.

Thus, in the short term, rulers may actually gain popular support by acting to do without a free press. They may be able to manipulate many of their citizens through the media they control. And they may conclude that they can dispense with a free press.

But both they and especially their own populations will discover what others already have: doing without a free press ultimately will force the rulers and ruled into a blind alley from which the rulers will try to escape by using force and the ruled by withdrawing from society and developing alternative means of communication.

That is what happened in communist and other authoritarian regimes in the past. But that lesson, articulated so well by Jefferson two centuries ago, is one that many people think they can ignore but that they and their fellow citizens can ignore only at their peril.