Modern Authoritarianism: Press Freedom | Freedom House

Chapter 2: Press Freedom

Propaganda at Home and Abroad

If the 20th century was defined by the battle for freedom of information and against censorship, the 21st century will be defined by malevolent actors, states or corporations, abusing the right to freedom of information for quite other ends.

– Vasily Gatov, media analyst

Information wars have already become standard practice and the main type of warfare. The bombers are now sent in after the information campaign.

– Dmitry Kiselyov, chief Russian propaganda strategist

The following propositions have all appeared in the Russian media over the past few years:

  • The United States hired Islamic State terrorists to sabotage the Russian commercial airliner that was destroyed after takeoff in the Sinai in 2015.
  • A three-year-old boy was crucified by the U.S.-backed Ukrainian army in Slovyansk in 2014.
  • The United States is planning a major war in Europe to enable Washington to cancel its national debt.
  • The downing of the Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014 was in fact the central ingredient in an elaborate, American-driven plot to place blame on Russia.
  • American policies will lead to a global “homosexual sodomite tsunami.”

This is just a small sample of similar claims or conjectures that have made their way into Russian news coverage, especially in the wake of Moscow’s occupation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. They stand as a reminder that under Vladimir Putin, the Russian media environment has been transformed from one marked by vibrancy and diverse opinions (if not high professional standards) to one dominated by blatant propaganda on the most sensitive international topics of the day.

The basic regime narrative of U.S.-led conspiracy is applied to a broad set of themes: depression in oil prices, downgrading of Russia’s credit ratings, political change in Ukraine, Russia’s Olympics doping scandal. Every problem, Russians are told, is due to American plots and maneuvers.

Press freedom and democracy

A free press ranks among the most critical institutions of liberal democracy. Among the reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in his campaign to modernize the Soviet system, glasnost, or openness, played the most important role in challenging the decades-old system of Soviet totalitarianism. Something similar can be said of press freedom initiatives in other new democracies during the latter part of the 20th century, particularly in postcommunist societies where strict press censorship had prevailed for years. Even if the professionalism and ethical standards of journalism in those countries were not always up to the highest levels, the fact that the press spoke with different voices, different opinions, and even different biases was a huge step toward a world in which democracy was the norm.

Authoritarians push back

It is precisely because of press freedom’s central importance to democracy that the new generation of authoritarian leaders has made its annihilation a top priority. However, modern authoritarians recognize that the methods of the print and analog broadcast era—prepublication censorship and stilted, formulaic propaganda—were no longer viable in the age of digital media and globalization.

At a minimum, governments that sought involvement in the world economy found it advisable to tolerate a measure of openness about budgets, economic data, and those aspects of social life that are critical for international business. Authoritarian leaders thus face the dilemma of retaining domination over the political story while permitting a degree of accurate information about economic affairs.

Furthermore, because the population now has greater access to foreign sources of news and entertainment, regimes must grapple with the complex task of monopolizing the political discourse in ways that are far more convincing and compelling than the robotic pronouncements that played such a crucial part in communism’s loss of credibility.

As is the case with so much of modern authoritarian practice, Russia has taken the lead in developing strategies and methods of media domination. The system built under Vladimir Putin is defined by the following characteristics:

  1. Control over the commanding heights of the media: Among Putin’s first goals as president was securing domination of the most influential media—the national television stations. They had been controlled by various oligarchs, who used the outlets to promote their personal and political interests. While the resulting journalism was hardly objective and independent, Russian television and Russian media generally were notable for their liveliness and diversity during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. All did not sing out of the same hymnal, and most influential outlets reflected a variety of opinions about government policies, including the Kremlin’s conduct of the war in Chechnya.

Putin moved quickly to change these conditions. He reorganized and exerted tighter political control over state-owned television stations, brought others under indirect state control, and ensured that most of the remainder fell into the hands of loyal businessmen. Likewise, a number of the country’s leading newspapers and journals were bought by cronies of the leadership. The era of media diversity came to an abrupt end.1

  1. Distortion of coverage on sensitive topics: Unlike in communist times, the media do provide independent coverage of topics that the Kremlin considers less politically relevant. However, some normally apolitical topics can take on a highly political meaning. For example, coverage of the penalties meted out to Russian Olympic athletes for systematic doping reflected the leadership’s position that the scandal was a product of American machinations.2
  2. Shrinking gap between offline and online media: For much of Putin’s tenure, the internet remained lightly regulated in comparison with the Kremlin’s tight control over television and other mass media. However, Freedom House has noted growing restrictions over the past several years, with a series of new laws, prosecutions, and ownership changes that have reduced the Russian internet’s freedom and diversity in practice.3
  3. A small stable of independent outlets: A token number of media outlets are allowed to remain independent at the sufferance of the Kremlin. These include the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the indirectly state-owned radio station Ekho Moskvy, and a handful of internet-based news services, some of which are forced to operate from neighboring countries. Coerced ownership changes and other forms of pressure have gradually reduced the already tiny independent media sector in recent years. And the remaining independent outlets have little reach, small audiences, and at best modest impact on domestic politics.
  4. The ‘weaponization’ of information: While Putin has used the press as a propaganda instrument throughout his political career, it was after his third term as president began in 2012 that the media were given a special, central role in demonizing Putin’s critics, preparing the Russian people for armed conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere, depicting Europe as morally corrupt, and attributing Russia’s problems and setbacks to the United States.4 With the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the world awakened to the return of propaganda as an instrument of warfare. This is not just normal political spin or public diplomacy, but sheer, raw propaganda that deliberately crosses the line between interpretation of facts and outright mendacity. The aim is both to stir up belligerence at home and to isolate, confuse, and demoralize the enemy.5
  5. The centralization of information policy: The creation in 2013 of Rossiya Segodnya, an umbrella organization for Moscow’s foreign news services, signaled the leadership’s intention to use information in a more strategic way to advance the country’s international objectives. Dmitry Kiselyov, a controversial television presenter, was named to head the new entity.6 He actually embraces his identity as the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, arguing that “Western” concepts of journalistic neutrality are fraudulent and self-serving. There is, he contends, no difference between his role and the role of a chief editor of Reuters or the Associated Press. In one interview, Kiselyov equated those two news services with Rossiya Segodnya: “Both are propaganda agencies—they shape the dominant narrative and tell their audiences what and how to think.” He continued: “In today’s world, information—how it is gathered, analyzed, interpreted and processed … pushes a value system, certain views on good and evil, and shapes attitudes to different events.”7
  6. The irrelevance of truth: “For the Soviets, the idea of truth was important—even when they were lying,” Peter Pomerantsev has written. “Soviet propaganda went to great lengths to ‘prove’ that the Kremlin’s theories or bits of information were fact.” By contrast, in today’s Russia the idea of truth is seen as irrelevant and “the borders between fact and fiction have become utterly blurred.” Pomerantsev quotes Russia’s deputy minister of communications as admonishing journalism students at Moscow State University to forget about high ideals. “We should give students a clear understanding: They are going to work for The Man, and The Man will tell them what to write, what not to write, and how this or that thing should be written.”8 Russian propaganda outlets, especially RT, derive their influence from a clever blend of act and faction, mixing reports on genuine events with exaggerations, biased coverage, and outright lies. And this mixture of fact and fiction is presented with modern production techniques that mimic credible outlets like the BBC.

Propaganda works

The idea that governments can influence events through propaganda once seemed far-fetched in the internet age. Developments in Ukraine, however, have spurred a reassessment of propaganda’s role in setting the stage for intervention abroad and repression at home.

According to numerous accounts in the international media, many Russians believe that the Ukrainian government is responsible for massive war crimes, including the crucifixion of small children and the downing of the Malaysian Airlines passenger jet.9 Many of the wildest assertions have been reinforced by altered or repurposed images that allegedly depict Ukrainian atrocities but actually show events in Mexico, Syria, Iraq, or other zones of civil conflict. Ordinary Russians and many Ukrainian consumers of Russian media have told foreign journalists of fears that “fascism” has come to power in Ukraine.10

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the Ministry of Truth advanced what today would be called a regime narrative, with accounts of never-ending conflict abroad and treasonous enemies within. In similar fashion, though with considerably more finesse and sophistication than was described in Orwell’s masterpiece, Russian media today preach a strident message of external encirclement by Russophobes in Ukraine, the Baltics, Georgia, and elsewhere, and internal fifth-columnists among bloggers, civil society organizations, and advocates of gay rights.

The media in democracies, especially in Europe, proved unprepared for the deluge of Russian propaganda during and after the seizure of Crimea. Putin was thus able to drum home the portrayal of Ukraine as a “divided state” or an “artificial state,” labels that could be attached to many sovereign nations, Russia included.11 Few were ready to mount a challenge to the Russian proposition that Ukraine’s status was unique, and was a legitimate cause for Russia’s concern and even a justification for war. The Russian propaganda machine also zeroed in on Ukraine’s supposed lack of respect for minority rights, a problem that Moscow had not raised during the administrations of Viktor Yanukovych or Leonid Kuchma. Neither Ukrainians nor informed observers in the outside world believed that Ukraine was faced with a civil war. This was entirely a creation of Moscow’s propaganda and active intervention.12

Russia’s government is not alone in its use of propaganda to further its interests. But it is uniquely aggressive in pressing the dominant theme of the moment and the most effective in mimicking the idioms of modern commercial media while doing so. Furthermore, as the country faces serious decay in economic and other material terms,13 the Kremlin sees success in the war of information as critical to Russia’s identity as a great power. Other authoritarian regimes will take note of Russia’s successes, and act accordingly.

In past eras, dictators’ instrument of choice was censorship. However, people understood that they were being cheated when the authorities banned books and prosecuted those who possessed “unauthorized literature.” Under a modern propaganda regime, alternative perspectives are permitted on a carefully rationed basis. But dissenting opinions are invariably subjected to relentless attack and ridicule, and the dissidents themselves face a form of character assassination in which their views are twisted to make them appear foolish, extreme, unpatriotic, or immoral.

Christopher Walker, a vice president at the National Endowment for Democracy who has written extensively on modern authoritarianism, believes that control of information is the most important achievement of today’s generation of autocrats:

I think modern authoritarians have been adept at adjusting to the new environment. They recognize that trying to control the wealth of information out there is impossible, and therefore they don’t try. There are a number of countries which have found effective ways to incorporate entertainment and culture into their media offerings while keeping domination over the political sphere. They have thus defied the assumptions we held 20 years ago when the internet was emerging. The conventional wisdom then was that the internet guaranteed media diversity, and there is no way regimes could keep the genie in the bottle. In fact, in many countries authoritarians have kept the genie in the bottle through managing the political narrative and denying people access to key information.14

Walker’s comments certainly apply to conditions in Russia. During the communist period, Soviet propaganda was meant to justify both state socialism and Russia’s isolation from the global economic system and Western culture. In Russia, China, and elsewhere, it is now possible for citizens to enjoy the latest international music, fashion, and entertainment while hating the liberal values that are systematically disparaged in the media.

What is tragic about all this is that Russians already came through a decades-long period of propaganda in which reality was twisted and lies circulated as a conscious matter of national policy. Orwell and other foes of totalitarian rule sought to describe the danger that propaganda and censorship posed to knowledge, reality, and independent thought. But instead of things getting better after the demise of totalitarianism, a newer and in some ways more insidious form of information control has emerged, one which does not so much try to persuade people that the government line is the only correct line, but that facts do not exist as such and nothing can be believed.

China: 21st-Century Censorship

The Chinese model of information control differs in crucial ways from the propaganda methods favored by Russia. Especially in its policies towards the internet, China focuses its energies on preventing access to information or news on a wide and perpetually evolving range of subjects that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regards as sensitive.

Under Xi Jinping, who took power in late 2012, the government has been much more open in arguing for the right of the political leadership to censor internet content. He has, in fact, launched a campaign designed to radically redraw the global rules on internet freedom so as to enshrine the concept of “internet sovereignty,” according to which individual countries would “independently choose their own path of cyber development” and “model of cyber regulation.”15

In late 2015, Xi also made the baffling statement, “Freedom is what order is meant for, and order is the guarantee of freedom.”16 Over the next several months, regulators moved to enforce the president’s vision for tighter CCP control over all news media and imposed rules that further restricted the production of independent news content by online outlets.17

Perhaps most important have been the threats to the livelihood and personal liberty of bloggers and online commentators. In recent years, the state has pursued a campaign of arrest, prosecution, and public humiliation directed against well-known microbloggers and other media personalities, including a series of televised “confessions.” The machinery of repression was directed against those who had used their platforms to criticize the leadership or its policies, and to a disturbing extent, the effort has been successful in silencing such criticism.

Among other recent developments in the CCP’s censorship drive:

  • The authorities have punished journalists for publishing news about the economy that highlighted negative trends, and issued media directives aimed at shaping coverage of economy-related topics. The economy was the second most censored topic in China in 2015, a year that featured a dramatic stock-market crash and slowing economic growth.18
  • Chinese censors sent out guidelines listing subjects that should not be covered or not covered in a negative way during parliamentary sessions in 2016. Included on the list were the wealth of parliamentary delegates, military budgets, compliance with international human rights conventions, air pollution, church demolitions, and jokes about parliamentarians’ proposals.19
  • Censorship officials quashed coverage of the “Panama Papers,” the trove of documents leaked in 2016 that listed the offshore holdings of the global elite, including the relatives of top Chinese officials.20
  • China added Time and the Economist to the list of blocked media websites in 2016, apparently in retaliation for articles that were critical of Xi Jinping’s accumulation of power.21
  • In February 2016 visits to China Central Television (CCTV), the Xinhua news agency, and the People’s Daily newspaper—the flagships of the party and state media—Xi admonished the assembled journalists to give absolute support to the party leadership and later declared that all media should “have the party as their family name.”22

While critical voices can still be found on the internet, the authorities have been highly successful in suppressing material that might lead to any broad form of online protest or collective action. In addition to intrusive laws and regulations, the regime deploys armies of paid and volunteer commentators to flood social media with progovernment remarks, influence online discussions, report or attack those who make antigovernment comments, or sow confusion about particular incidents that might reflect poorly on the leadership.23

The overall goal of this strategy is to weaken the internet’s potential as a mobilizing force for critics or reformers. Indeed, after years of intense pressure, the medium is drawing closer to Xi Jinping’s ideal of an internet that is “clear and bright.”24

Global reach

Both Russia and China have launched ambitious and expensive projects to expand the reach of propaganda and censorship beyond their borders. Russia’s project is better known due to RT, a global television network that is available to foreign audiences in a number of languages and through many cable packages. Russia has also launched Sputnik, an international news service, in multiple languages. These outlets tend to be more effective than China’s at imitating the production styles and intentionally contentious formats now employed by many major outlets in democratic countries.

The degree to which RT and other arms of the Russian global media apparatus actually influence the debate about Russia is unclear. RT makes grandiose claims of high viewership, but some analysts believe that its audience in the United States and elsewhere is much lower than asserted, and that its sizeable audience on YouTube may be inflated by enticing video clips with little political relevance.25

When it was launched in 2005, RT’s programming stressed the achievements of Russia and the strong leadership of Vladimir Putin. Subsequently, the focus changed to negative messages about the West, especially the United States. Programs have chronicled American poverty, inequality, political hypocrisy, racial injustice, and other real or perceived flaws. The network often promotes conspiracy theories about everything from the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center in 2001 to America’s alleged role as puppet master behind the Ukrainian protest movement of 2013–14.26

Superficially, China’s overseas propaganda efforts seem less aggressive. While Beijing has greatly expanded the capacity of CCTV’s international broadcasts and opened media offices around the globe, the news content is less polemical and therefore less interesting than that of RT.

But the CCP’s ultimate objectives may actually be far more ambitious. Rather than engaging, like Russia, in what amount to guerrilla-style attacks on mainstream news and information abroad, the Chinese regime is using its superior economic muscle to steadily gain control over how China is depicted in news coverage and popular culture in the rest of the world, and to establish something of a consensus on the idea of a “sovereign internet.”

Its various tactics include state pressure on foreign correspondents tasked with informing the world about developments in China: Those who are too critical or too aggressive in conducting investigations into sensitive matters may find their visas revoked, their outlet’s website blocked, and their employers placed in a sort of political purgatory.27

The CCP has also asserted control over news outlets in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Chinese diaspora communities around the world.28 Beijing has used pressure tactics and exerted influence through intermediaries to change editors or owners of critical outlets in Hong Kong.29 Wealthy progovernment forces from the mainland have begun to buy up media outlets in Hong Kong and elsewhere.30 And there have been instances in which businessmen with economic interests in China have attempted to expand their media holdings in Taiwan.31

Perhaps more disturbing is China’s effort to purchase influence in global culture through its state-affiliated and nominally private companies. For example, Visual China Group, a mainland company, has purchased the image and licensing division of Corbis, a company that controls a huge archive of historically important photographs. The trove includes iconic photographs of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which CCP censors have worked hard to keep out of the Chinese media. Those involved in the sale offered assurances that the new owners would not hinder the global circulation of politically sensitive images, but there is little to prevent them from casting aside such pledges at some future date.32

Another Chinese company, Dalian Wanda Group, has raised concerns with its rapid incursions into the U.S. film industry. Already the world’s largest owner of cinemas, including the second-largest U.S. theater chain, Wanda purchased Legendary Entertainment, a production company, in 2016 and is said to be interested in gaining control of a major Hollywood studio. American lawmakers were sufficiently disturbed by Wanda’s initiatives to request a Justice Department investigation. There is concern that China’s companies, with state encouragement, are pursuing influence in Hollywood to ensure a favorable depiction of China and its CCP regime in major films.33 Even with studios under U.S. ownership, the international media have repeatedly uncovered cases in which U.S. filmmakers altered elements of their work to address or anticipate the objections of Chinese censors, who serve as gatekeepers to the country’s lucrative domestic market.34

Exploiting democratic culture for authoritarian ends

Ironically, some products of democratic culture have facilitated the work of modern authoritarian propagandists. The notion that there is no such thing as objective truth and that history is nothing more than a contest of competing narratives owes its popularity to radical theorists who have gained a strong foothold in academia and even among some who call themselves journalists, such as Glenn Greenwald.

While accusations that the press is biased or publishes lies are common in American political campaigns, the hysterical charges hurled by Donald Trump against the media during the 2016 presidential campaign served to reinforce the Kremlin’s model of a world in which the truth is determined by power rather than impartial investigation.

Moscow especially makes shrewd use of an unfortunate journalistic habit in which evenhandedness—a worthy goal when presenting two sides in a genuine debate—is improperly applied, so that patently false assertions are treated as symmetrical with legitimate views or facts.

Many outside Russia would not disagree with Kiselyov’s dismissive views on the concept of impartial reporting. In meeting the challenge of authoritarian propaganda, a good place to start would be a reaffirmation of the central role occupied by high-quality, traditional journalism in democratic societies.


1 See for example “Russia,” in Freedom of the Press 2004 (New York: Freedom House, 2004),

2 Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung, “Russia’s Media Autarky Strengthens Its Grip,” Real Clear World, November 30, 2014,

3 “Russia,” in Freedom on the Net 2016 (New York: Freedom House, 2016),

4 Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss, The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money (New York: Institute of Modern Russia, 2014),

5 Ibid.

6 “From Burning Hearts to Civil Unions: The Unlikely Evolution of Dmitry Kiselyov,” Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, June 30, 2015,; Joshua Yaffa, “Dmitry Kiselev Is Redefining the Art of Russian Propaganda,” New Republic, July 1, 2014,

7 “Dmitry Kiselev: ‘Western Behavior Borders on Schizophrenia,’” Sputnik, April 5, 2014,

8 Peter Pomerantsev, “Russia and the Menace of Unreality,” Atlantic, September 9, 2014,

9 Editorial Board, “Putin’s Propaganda Keeps Russians in the Dark about Ukraine and More,” Washington Post, August 31, 2014,

10 Janina Semenova, “Behind Russia’s TV Propaganda Machine,” Deutsche Welle, February 9, 2015,

11 Alexander Motyl, “Is Russia Artificial?” World Affairs, November 7, 2014,

12 Halya Coynash, “Russia Continues Its False Narrative as Defender of Oppressed Minorities in Ukraine,” Human Rights in Ukraine, March 29, 2014,


14 Interview with author.

15 “China Touts Its Great Firewall in Push for Internet Control,” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2015,

16 Tom Phillips, “China’s Xi Jinping Says Internet Users Must Be Free to Speak Their Minds,” Guardian, December 16, 2015,

17 “Xi Jinping Visits Flagship State Media, Lays Out Vision for Party Control,” China Media Bulletin no. 113 (March 2016),; “New Rules Clamp Down on Online News,” China Media Bulletin no. 116 (September 2016),

18 “China’s Most Censored News Topics in 2015,” China Media Bulletin no. 111 (January 2016),

19 Didi K. Tatlow, “What Chinese Media Mustn’t Cover at the ‘2 Sessions,’” New York Times, March 9, 2016,

20 Michael Forsythe and Austin Ramzy, “China Censors Mentions of ‘Panama Papers’ Leaks,” New York Times, April 5, 2016,

21 Emily Feng, “China Blocks Economist and Time Websites, Apparently over Xi Jinping Articles,” New York Times, April 8, 2016,

22 Edward Wong, “Xi Jinping’s News Alert: Chinese Media Must Serve the Party,” New York Times, February 22, 2016,

23 “China,” in Freedom on the Net 2016 (New York: Freedom House, 2016),

24 David Bandurski, “How Xi Jinping Sees the Internet,” China Media Project, December 9, 2015,

25 Katie Zevadski, “Putin’s Propaganda TV Lies About Its Popularity,” Daily Beast, September 17, 2015,

26 Neil MacFarquhar, “A Powerful Russian Weapon: The Spread of False Stories,” New York Times, August 28, 2016,

27 PEN America, “New PEN America Report Shows Growing Pressure on Foreign Correspondents to Bias Coverage in China,” news release, September 22, 2016,

28 Sarah Cook, The Long Shadow of Chinese Censorship: How the Communist Party’s Media Restrictions Affect News Outlets around the World (Washington: Center for International Media Assistance, 2013),

29 Michael Forsythe and Alan Wong, “Timing of Editor’s Firing Has Hong Kong Worried about Press Freedom,” New York Times, April 20, 2016,

30 David Barboza, “Alibaba Buying South China Morning Post, Aiming to Influence Media,” New York Times, December 11, 2015,

31 Ben Goren, “China’s Influence on Taiwan’s Media,” Chinet, June 23, 2014,

32 Mike McPhate, “With Corbis Sale, Tiananmen Protest Images Go to Chinese Media Company,” New York Times, January 27, 2016,

33 Michael Forsythe, “Justice Dept. Is Asked to Review Chinese Company’s Hollywood Purchases,” New York Times, October 7, 2016,

34 Clare Baldwin and Kristina Cooke, “How Sony Sanitized the New Adam Sandler Movie to Please Chinese Censors,” Reuters, July 24, 2015,