Understanding the Modern Dictator’s Playbook
CNN Global Public Square
by Daniel Calingaert
Executive Vice President, Freedom House
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree honoring more than 300 journalists for their “objective coverage” of events in Crimea recognizes the contributions of these foot-soldiers in his propaganda war. Many Americans belittle Russia’s propaganda but miss the bigger picture – Putin and other modern dictators have created an elaborate playbook to probe their opponents’ weak points with a variety of offensive tactics that throw the democratic defense off-guard. Modern dictators use their playbook masterfully, while the world’s democracies hesitate, repeatedly stumble, and let the dictators make their way bit by bit down the field.
Respect for political and civil rights has declined globally for eight consecutive years, due in large part to the growing sophistication of modern authoritarian rulers and their initiatives to tighten control on power amid rising public demands for political change. They write the narrative of what is going on in their country, delete the evidence that contradicts their stories, and close the space online and on the streets for citizens to have their say.
Putin is drawing on the modern dictator’s playbook to solidify support at home and neutralize criticism abroad of his aggression against Ukraine. He uses his dominance of Russian media to propagate his grossly distorted portrait of fascists trying to take over Ukraine and oppressing ethnic Russians (while in fact, two-thirds of ethnic Russians in Ukraine don’t feel threatened or pressured, according to a recent poll). Western journalists repeat his talking points on the Kremlin-backed RT television network in glossy formats, on-air debates, and on-the-scene reports in eastern Ukraine.
As the propaganda about Ukraine saturates the Russian airwaves and seeps into the news coverage outside the country, pro-Russia militia groups have reportedly targeted independent journalists in eastern Ukraine to prevent them from presenting an accurate picture of the situation there and the actions of pro-Russian separatists.
Modern dictators seek to constrain if not wipe out balanced reporting inside their country and to influence news coverage about their country abroad. They increasingly put foreign correspondents under pressure. The current trial against Al Jazeera English journalists in Egypt is just the most glaring example.
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Photo Credit: Vinciane Jacquet
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.