Written by Dima Kortukov, PhD student in Political Science
“Serving the Public and … Autocrats: How Free Media Promote the Survival of Authoritarian Regimes?”: Reflections on Valery Nechay’s lecture
In the last quarter of the 20th century, dictatorial regimes collapsed in numerous states across diverse regions such as Latin America and Eastern Europe. But as the experience of the 21st century shows, the movement away from dictatorial rule often failed to result in liberal and democratic governance. Many of those countries ended up as hybrid regimes, a regime type also known in the scholarly literature as illiberal democracy or electoral authoritarianism. These regimes combine some attributes of democratic political life such as regular elections and independent (albeit limited) civil society, with serious democratic deficits such as a lack of limits on state power, harassment of anti-regime actors, abuse of law by government, and unfair electoral competition. Among the most curious characteristics of this regime type is the ability of the incumbents to use seemingly democratic institutions such as elections, legislatures, and media to strengthen their authoritarian rule.
The uses and abuses of free media by authoritarian leaders was the topic of Valery Nechay’s lecture. Nechay is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Applied Political Science at the Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg; he is also an editor at Echo of Moscow (Эхо Москвы) radio station. In his lecture, Nechay discussed different functions of free media in authoritarian regimes, drawing examples from the experience of contemporary Russia and China. While pro-regime propaganda remains an important tool in the autocratic toolbox, contemporary autocratic regimes often use more subtle tools such as agenda setting and agenda disruption. Agenda setting refers to the ability of the media to influence the relative importance placed on topics of the public agenda. Agenda disruption refers to the ability of the media to ignore sensitive issues by highlighting other items which are less sensitive but more provocative and sensationalist. Russian media’s treatment of the country’s recent pension reform demonstrates this instrument well: the policy measure was highly unpopular among Russia’s population, so in order to serve the regime’s interest, it was given less and less coverage by the media and replaced by other topics.
While the autocrat’s ability to manipulate the media contributes to the survival of the regime in the short term, it may also be detrimental in the long term. Due to their tendency to employ propaganda and censor and control the media, hybrid regimes operate in an information-poor environment. But autocrats themselves need information so that they can monitor the actions of their subordinates and understand the needs of the population. Essentially, some level of media independence is necessary, but too much media freedom can be dangerous. Different non-democratic regimes strive to achieve this balance by different means. Research into this phenomenon is crucial in order to understand how contemporary hybrid regimes are functioning and what are their prospects of democratization.