Promoting Free Media: Informing the 1989 Velvet Revolution

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Czechs and Slovaks regained their freedom in November 1989 through non-violent protests in Prague, Bratislava, and other towns of then Czechoslovakia. Their Velvet Revolution climaxed a decade of renewed civic challenges to a repressive Communist regime that began with Charter 77 dissidents including Vaclav Havel and accelerated after 1986. Deprived of objective information about developments in their own country, Czechs and Slovaks turned to the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and other Western broadcasters for information. Only through Western radio did they learn about accelerating challenges to Communist orthodoxy in Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union and about ferment in their own country.

Twenty five years after the Velvet Revolution, Europe today is whole and free, but democracy and prerequisite independent media are on the decline in much of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. RFE/RL, now operating from Prague, VOA, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Network, and Radio Marti, all publicly funded by the U.S. Congress, work to redress the information deficit.

The first panel will review the contribution of Western broadcasting to the successful Velvet Revolution and consider lessons from that experience. A second panel will examine the challenge faced today by the United States in providing objective information to authoritarian countries and in applying principles of successful Cold War broadcasting to communicating with unfree societies.

RFE/RL, the Embassy of the Czech Republic and the Woodrow Wilson Center invite you to a panel discussion on

Promoting Free Media: Informing the 1989 Velvet Revolution and the Challenge Today

Thursday, October 16, 2014 2:00pm – 6:00pm 5th Floor Conference Room Wilson Center Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center One Woodrow Wilson Plaza 1300 Pennsylvania, Ave. NW Washington, D.C. 20004


Panel One – Western Broadcasting to Czechoslovakia 2:00pm-3:30pm A. Ross Johnson Wilson Center Senior Scholar (moderator) Petr Gandalovic Ambassador of the Czech Republic Jiri Pehe Director, New York University Prague Center (via Internet) R. Eugene Parta Former Chair, Conference of International Broadcasters Audience Research and former Director, RFE/RL Audience and Opinion Research Pavel Pechacek Former director, VOA Czechoslovak Service; former director, RFE/RL Czechoslovak and Czech Services Alexandr Vondra Former Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Defense Minister of the Czech Republic; former Czech Ambassador to the U.S. (via Internet)

Panel Two – Promoting Free Media Today 3:30pm-5:00pm Blair A. Ruble  Vice President for Programs; Director, Urban Sustainability Laboratory; and Senior Advisor, Kennan Institute  (moderator) David Kramer President, Freedom House Kevin Klose Professor, Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland; former President, RFE/RL, Inc.; former President, National Public Radio Nenad Pejic Editor in Chief, RFE/RL Tania Chomiak-Salvi Deputy Coordinator for International Information Programs, US Department of State

Reception to follow RSVP HERE

Russia’s international media ‘weaponized’ to poison minds


russia todayAt a time when Russia’s image in Europe and the U.S. has sunk to extreme lows, the Kremlin has announced dramatic new plans to increase spending on foreign propaganda, according to George Washington University’s Robert Orttung and the National Endowment for Democracy’s Christopher Walker. The Russian state budget includes a 41 percent increase for RT, the state-backed television network that broadcasts around the world in a number of languages. Rossiya Segodnya, the successor to the now defunct global news agency RIA Novosti, is set to see a tripling of its budget, they write for the Moscow Times:

The Kremlin is focused on poisoning minds through an insidious mix of information designed to muddy the media waters and disorient international audiences. ….It is telling that the growth in resources devoted to media beyond Russia’s borders is now outstripping those within them. At home, the Kremlin’s censorship and mass media control prevent alternative ideas from entering mainstream discussion and enable the government to dominate crucial narratives.

The Kremlin’s international propaganda applies a similarly cynical and manipulative approach, where it insinuates, for instance, that all societies are thoroughly corrupt and craven, suggesting moral equivalence between autocracies and democracies. RT unloads an endless stream of material seeking to portray the West, especially the U.S., in the most decadent of ways…..

As media analyst Peter Pomerantsev observed, debunking false information is time-consuming and expensive; the Kremlin’s fabrication of information is easy and relatively cheap. While the Kremlin tightens restrictions on the Internet at home, state media takes advantage of opportunities to make deeper inroads online beyond Russia’s borders. RT’s YouTube channel has garnered more than 1.3 billion views. Even accounting for clicks from phony accounts, this is a staggering number. 

Russia and authoritarian regimes claim that their media outlets are just like Deutsche Welle, BBC or Agence France-Presse, Orttung and Walker observe:

But RT operates under the direction of unchecked authoritarian political power and is therefore an entirely different enterprise. Accordingly, it should not be understood as a news outlet, but instead seen for what it is: a weaponized media instrument.

While it denies any meaningful space at home for independent voices, beyond its borders the Kremlin is flooding the media space with half-truths and outright lies with the aim of polluting audiences’ understanding of the world.

Given the serious stakes involved, the democracies must devise a far more thoughtful response  to meet the dual challenge of Russia’s intensifying censorship and modern propaganda, they conclude.  

Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.



Putin planned to replace Russia’s democracy with kleptocracy ‘from the get-go’

President Vladimir Putin has signed a law banning public demonstrations at night, tightening controls over dissent after more than a decade in charge of Russia, Bloomberg reports:

Legislation on public protests has been modified to outlaw events starting before 7 a.m. or ending after 10 p.m., except for some memorial and cultural events, according to a government statement. Russian law already prohibits unauthorized protests.

The growing curbs on the right to dissent are one reason why former oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky (right) has re-launched Open Russia, an NGO promoting civil society.

KHODOKOVSKYUnlike many oligarchs, Khodorkovsky made the mistake of putting his head above the parapet and challenging the Kremlin, AP reports.

“Putin came to view me as someone who was gaining more influence than he was prepared to grant anyone who was not fully devoted to him,” he says. “He knew I had ambitions to become prime minister and that I’d had positive discussions with members of the pro-Kremlin party to encourage constitutional reform in favor of turning Russia into a parliamentary democracy.”

“He saw me as a threat because he had chosen the path to authoritarianism. That’s why he personally disliked me.”

At a meeting in the Kremlin in 2003, Khodorkovsky confronted Putin over corruption among state officials. Putin retorted by reminding him of the dubious ways in which Yukos had gained its assets and mentioned problems Khodorkovsky’s company had had with the tax authorities.

“I thought then that he hadn’t yet made up his mind about whether to go for a more open and transparent form of government or for authoritarian rule,” he says.

“Turns out that when I brought up the issue of state corruption, he’d already chosen to become more authoritarian. He’d basically made a deal with the state bureaucracy; you can steal as much as you want as long as you are loyal to me. So he took my words as … an attack on him.”

putins-kleptocracyKhodorkovsky’s suspicions are confirmed by a new book, “Putin’s Kleptocracy – Who Owns Russia?” in which Karen Dawisha argues (above) that analysts are wrong to “approach the Putin era as a democracy in the process of failing,” Epoch Times reports:

That assumes that the autocracy that Russia has become is the result of historical accidents or and bureaucratic incompetence. Not so, she said. It is not by chance that we have the current system. She argues that Putin and his clique sought from the beginning to establish an authoritarian regime in Russia. They were not motivated to build a democracy “that would inevitably force them to surrender power at some point,” she states.

“Within weeks of Putin’s coming to power, the Kremlin began to take away the basic individual freedoms guaranteed under the 1993 Russian Constitution.” She cites a document “never before published outside Russia,” which details plans laid out in late 1999 and early 2000 to reshape the government to deny “citizens the rights of a free press, assembly, and speech.”

Regime fragility

The recent arrest of oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov “is an indication of the fragility at the heart of Russia’s highly personalized system of power,” says one analyst.

“Western sanctions are having a rapid impact because they are reinforcing broader economic weaknesses that the current Russian system is unable to counter. It cannot reconcile its survival instincts with the need for long overdue structural reforms, argues John Lough, an associate fellow with Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program.

As a result, Putin’s social contract over the past 15 years, which delivered improved living standards in return for popular acceptance of limitations on civic freedoms, has been turned on its head, he writes for the Moscow Times:

To compensate, Putin can now only offer the population a defiant reassertion of Russia’s influence in Ukraine but at the price of much harsher restrictions on civil society and confrontation with the West.

In these circumstances, it is logical for Putin to fear dissent among the business elite and the formation of interest groups that could unite to challenge his course in Ukraine. By showing that a loyal figure such as Yevtushenkov is not invulnerable, Russia’s business leaders have been put on notice that the slightest sign of protest could lead straight to a prison cell.

“Putin created a typical, corrupt, over-centralized, inefficient police state,” Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister turned Kremlin opponent, tells the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s based on the export of raw materials, and that’s an economic dead end. As for the political system, there is no mechanism to change power without revolution. That is the real danger facing us.”

Ecuador ‘following Russia’s lead’ – USAID forced out

USAIDUnder pressure from Ecuador’s left-wing government, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is shutting down its operations in the South American nation after 53 years, John Otis reports for NBC News:

In a telephone interview with GlobalPost, Adam Namm, the US ambassador to Ecuador, called the decision “very disappointing.” But it was no surprise. The government in Quito had refused to allow Washington’s aid agency to renew its programs or start any new activity in the country.

President Rafael Correa is a fierce US critic who has already pulled the plug on US counter-narcotics operations at a Pacific coast base and expelled Namm’s predecessor as well as 14 US military advisers, whom he claimed were infiltrating Ecuador’s security forces.

The agency had worked in Ecuador for 53 years and spent more than $800 million in development projects, AFP adds:

The US embassy has said it tried for two years to reach a deal that would allow USAID to keep working in the South American country.

“Officials can now essentially decide what groups may say or do, seriously undermining their role as a check on the government,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said after Correa signed Decree 16.

Vivanco added: “Instead of adopting reasonable measures to facilitate the work of NGOs, the Correa administration is following the lead of countries such as Russia, Bahrain, Uganda, and Venezuela, which have imposed unjustified restrictions that violate fundamental rights and limit spaces that are critical to democratic society.”

Since Decree 16 went into effect, several other Ecuadorean NGOs have closed their doors, NBC adds:

So has Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which runs civic education programs in more than 100 countries and is affiliated with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union political party.

The foundation said the group was shutting its Ecuador office Sept. 1 due to the government’s “increasing control” over NGO work. Quito’s international cooperation department “reserved the right to see and ultimately modify [independent organizations'] plans,” Konrad Adenauer Foundation director Winfried Weck told Germany’s Deutsche Welle…..

About 10 percent of USAID’s $12 million annual budget for Ecuador was earmarked for “democracy and governance” programs. For example, the Quito-based free expression group Fundamedios received about $280,000 from USAID in 2011…..

“The attacks against NGOs have been fierce,” said Cesar Ricaurte, the director of Fundamedios. “The government tries to paint us as destabilizing the country.”


Freedom’s uneasy condition

FREEDOM FHIn recent commentaries on the bleak state of global freedom, analysts have used a series of labels to describe the trajectory of democracy: “stagnation,” “erosion,” “recession,” and even “decline” for those who view the trends with alarm, notes Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research at Freedom House. One label that has not been applied to current conditions is “reversal.”

This is worth noting. In his influential study of the democracy revolution of the late 20th century, The Third Wave, Samuel Huntington devoted considerable space to the reversals in political freedom that came on the heels of the first and second waves of democratization, he writes for the Freedom at Issue blog.

The sense of backsliding is increasingly palpable, leading many to ask, like the Economist, what’s gone wrong with democracy? A complete list of disheartening phenomena over the past several years would be a long one, but here are a few:

  • The lack of major breakthroughs: Aside from Tunisia, the Arab Spring has met with a grim fate across the Middle East, with antidemocratic forces dragging the region even deeper into repression and violence. Other persistent blocs of Not Free countries, covering much of Eurasia, Africa, and Southeast Asia, remain overwhelmingly authoritarian, despite significant ferment on their margins.
  • Worsening conditions in major authoritarian states: In 2000, many anticipated change for the better in China. Instead, political freedom remains a remote prospect, and civil liberties have been further curtailed. Russia was ranked as Partly Free in 2000; it is now firmly in the Not Free category. Nor have things improved in Iran, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, and the situation has gone from bad to worse in Venezuela.
  • Strutting dictators: Where previously a country’s democracy deficit would elicit apologies and pledges to institute reforms, today’s autocratic leaders, led by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, categorically reject democratic values and speak with disdain of Euro-American gridlock and decadence.
  • The economic factor: The democratic sphere’s clear superiority in growth, prosperity, and technological modernization played a huge role in discrediting both communism and military dictatorship during the late 20th century. While developed democracies remain atop the roster of prosperous countries, the economic crisis that began in 2008 has shaken their peoples’ confidence and—coupled with a continued boom in China—changed the calculation in many developing societies.

The current situation can be viewed in two ways. It is not as bad as it may seem, in the sense that the great gains of previous decades have not in fact been erased. But it could be a sign of things to come, the cusp of a major reversal. To prevent a negative outcome in matters of such consequence, it is always best to prepare for the worst.