For much of the past decade, global press freedom has been in retreat. This may seem counterintuitive in an era marked by the constant development and refinement of new communication technologies. Yet even as the internet, blogs, microblogs, mobile-telephone videos, and other forms of new media are reshaping the information landscape, governments are finding new and more sophisticated ways to control news coverage and manipulate political discourse.
Writing on the revolutions of Central Europe in the New York Review of Books two decades ago, scholar Timothy Garton Ash made the observation that “the crucial medium was television. In Europe, at the end of the twentieth century all revolutions are telerevolutions.”
Today, one could argue that all revolutions, at least in their nascent stages, are social media revolutions. However, this does not mean that television has been tossed onto the ash heap of history. In fact, in settings where the state retains dominance over television, it is in many ways functioning as a counterrevolutionary medium.
In an op-ed published in the New York Times last April, we took a cautiously optimistic view on the possibility of a breakthrough for media freedom in post-Mubarak Egypt. We argued that if state-controlled media, especially television, underwent serious reform, it would tip the balance toward an open information landscape, particularly when combined with the revolution in online social media in the country.
Now, one year since the January 25, 2011, onset of the uprising in Egypt, we are far more cautious than optimistic.
As the waters of Thailand’s monsoon-swollen rivers are finally receding and this year’s unusually devastating floods are declared over across the country, the political landscape is still reeling from the disaster. The months-long crisis and the official response raised a number of questions about the weak points in Thai government institutions. Many reports have assigned blame to individuals or focused on structural factors like corruption and overdevelopment, but the most important issue highlighted by the floods may be the unresolved status of the armed forces. The ambiguity of the military’s constitutional role has enabled its long-standing entanglement in all aspects of political life, including at least 20 coups d’état in the last century.
Perhaps the biggest story to emerge from Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Russia is the central role played by new media. To be sure, the failure of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party to obtain a solid majority in the State Duma, even while cheating, is significant. But the Kremlin-approved parties that profited from the antigovernment protest vote—the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, the Communist Party, and the faux-opposition A Just Russia party—appear unlikely to stimulate reform. The election results thus reflected deep disillusionment with Putin, but utterly failed to provide a road map to future change.
In a recent New York Timesopinion piece entitled “To Save Our Economy, Ditch Taiwan,” Paul V. Kane advanced a scheme that he claimed would, among other things, fix the American economy and lead to a new and mutually beneficial relationship with China. The United States, he proposed, should jettison its support for Taiwan—firmly, absolutely, and forever.