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Gongos And Zombie Monitors: New Book Warns of 'Authoritarian Surge' Around World

Christopher Walker, co-editor of Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- A new book is warning of an authoritarian surge around the world led by China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, who are using sophisticated methods to silence dissent and manipulate domestic media.

The book, released April 14 by the National Endowment for Democracy and written by a number of prominent scholars, said the so-called "Big Five" are also increasingly trying project influence beyond their borders through media outlets such as Russia’s RT, China’s CCTV and Iran’s English-language Press TV.

"Each [country] enjoys a global reach and projects messages that seek to undermine Western and U.S. prestige while shaping attitudes toward democracy," said the book, titled Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy.

"These regimes and their surrogates are increasingly seeking to insinuate themselves into the democratic political space with the goal of influencing – whether openly or furtively – the political dynamics of countries in one world region after another," the book said.

Christopher Walker, a co-editor and author of one of its chapters, told RFE/RL said the trend has been on the rise since the mid-2000s, fueled by a "lack of confidence" among democracies and "emboldened" regimes.

Walker, who is the endowment's vice president for studies and analysis, said democracies need to refresh their own approaches to counter the trend, which has also included the use of "gongos," or government-organized non-governmental organizations.

"These countries are developing very significant media outlets. They’re developing surrogates who operate as organizations… around the [world], and so the democracies need to think about this challenge in a much clearer way as a way to defend their own values," Walker said.

"This would include more meaningful support for civil society, for independent media, certainly investigative journalism, and for the defense of values that are so critical in the many of the rules-based organizations that also have come under extraordinary pressure," he added.

NGOs Targeted

At the April 14 news conference to launch the book, co-editor Marc Plattner, who is the founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, said that the "Big Five" have been united by "a desire to contain the global advance of democracy."

"They're also countries that are big enough and rich enough to be able realistically to pursue influence on the global stage," Plattner said.

William Dobson, chief international editor at the U.S. radio and media organization NPR and the author of The Dictator's Learning Curve, listed some of the measures used to crackdown on civil society groups.

For example, he said more than 120 laws targeting independent nongovernment organizations have been proposed or enacted in more than 60 countries since 2012.

"Some of the most pernicious and effective have been those that have been looking to target the connection between domestic NGOs and international funding," Dobson said.

It’s an effort, he said, "to pull up the drawbridge that connects democracies and dictatorships in an effort to isolate, marginalize and in some cases eliminate those NGOs."

The book also pointed to the growing use of "zombie" election monitors as a means to consolidate power, where nominally independent observers of other nations' elections are in fact being controlled by a central government.

The National Endowment for Democracy is an independent Washington-based NGO that itself receives funding from the U.S. government as well as grants from private foundations.