The unbridled propaganda war waged around the Ukrainian crisis once again raises the question of independence of the media. According to journalist Alexander Podrabinek, the purging of information space could be avoided if the international community promptly and decisively reacted to the first signs of suppression of freedom of speech in Russia.
With the collapse of the international communist empire at the end of the 20th century, many countries took steps to rid themselves of totalitarianism. Some of them managed well, while others were partially or completely unsuccessful. I wouldn’t be saying anything new if I reminded you that the collapse of totalitarianism, if it was not for military reasons, always began with the assertion of freedom of speech. Free speech is what digs the grave for despotism, while suppression of free speech is the trademark of dictatorship.
That is why the first priority for all totalitarian regimes was to impose restrictions on freedom of speech. In 1917, the Russian Bolsheviks moved to limit freedom of speech the very day after the October coup-d’état. They adopted the "Decree on the Press," which shut down any newspapers "sowing discord by libelous distortion of facts." Lenin wrote that "to tolerate the existence of these newspapers means to cease to be a socialist." Similarly, only a few months after coming to power in 1933, German National Socialists started to burn books, and the Ministry of Propaganda introduced strict censorship.
Modern dictators and leaders of totalitarian states have also learned all too well that freedom of speech is their worst enemy that eventually precipitates collapse of despotic regimes. Today the bottom rankings in press freedom ratings are occupied by such communist countries as China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, as well as ideologically divergent, but equally harsh despotic regimes, such as Turkmenistan, Belarus, Iran, Syria, Sudan, and others.
States that lean towards totalitarian methods of governance need to create a strong propaganda machine designed to replace reliable information, policy analysis and a free exchange of views. Intrusive government propaganda is able to create an image of an external or internal enemy, drastically distort the real picture of the world and the course of current events, awaken feelings of xenophobia and racial or national exclusiveness, and manipulate people’s minds.
Russia began to slip back to totalitarianism in mid-90s, when a short period of democratic reforms was over and the first signs of restoration began to appear. I recall that in 1996, Russia received an advance invitation to join the Council of Europe, on the condition that it would meet all the requirements that had to be met in order to participate in this organization. But back then the post-communist elite had neither the desire nor the energy to fulfill its obligations. That was a turning point in Russian history. Most of the requirements of the Council of Europe have never been met. Suffice it to say that Russia has not yet ratified the Protocol №6 on the abolition of death penalty in peacetime (and it had four years from the date it was adopted to do it), and pre-trial detention facilities are still under the Directorate of State Security.
Unfortunately, in Russia and other similar countries only a very limited circle of journalists and human rights advocates are concerned with freedom of speech. Politicians realize the scale of the problem only when human rights violations escalate into a military aggression.
In the mid-90s Russia still had independent media that had a huge impact on the society. The authorities, burdened by their commitment to follow the path of democracy, could not afford to go against public opinion outright. But by the early 2000s, the political elite realized that in order for them to exist comfortably, freedom of speech must be curtailed and replaced by state propaganda. This is exactly what ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin turned to once he came to power. In the first year of his presidency, Putin signed the Information Security Doctrine of Russia, where information issues were equated to those of national security. The Doctrine emphasized an increasing role of the information sphere and the need to use the information "in the interests of social development and consolidation of Russian society, spiritual rebirth" of the people. In order to support public policy, the doctrine prescribed to strengthen public media. The first meaningful attack on the media began in 2001 with the crackdown on the independent NTV channel.
Let's look at the four military conflicts Russia has been involved in over the past 20 years. In 1994, the first Chechen war was extremely unpopular in Russian society. At first the Kremlin tried to ignore the recommendations of the Council of Europe on a political settlement of the conflict. However, public opinion shaped by independent media was so strong that in the end, the authorities had to come to the negotiating table and put and end to the conflict by signing what became known as Khasavyurt Agreements in 1996.
The second war in Chechnya, which began in late 1999, was launched against a background of a weakening press and the understanding that a president who came from the KGB would not become a champion of liberalism. The war was brutal, with war crimes committed by the military, and was met with a depressed silence by most media and the society.
Aggression against Georgia in August 2008 took place against the background of already thoroughly cleaned-up information space. Public opinion was being shaped up by state-controlled media, and as such the majority perception of the Kremlin’s policies was either neutral or positive.
Finally, in 2014 the majority of Russians almost sincerely welcomed both the annexation of the Crimea and the Russian military intervention in the south-east of Ukraine. Propaganda, especially on TV, has taken grotesque forms and enormous scale. By now, the independent media outlets in Russia are few enough to be counted Novaya Gazeta, The New Times, Grani.ru, Daily Journal, Radio Liberty and several more daring outlets in Russian provinces.
Unfortunately, in Russia and other similar countries only a very limited circle of journalists and human rights advocates are concerned with freedom of speech. Politicians realize the scale of the problem only when human rights violations escalate into a military aggression. Regimes that build a totalitarian system take advantage of slow international response. Sanctions that the West has now applied against Russia in connection with the situation in Ukraine, would have been relevant and effective in the early 2000s.
It would be great to drastically change the current approach to global security. It’s never too late to take a step in the right direction, not even now, when much has been lost. Create a barrier to the revival of totalitarianism just in time – what could be better for the overall safety and support of the Russian society that with great difficulty is trying to confront the restoration of totalitarianism?