After a wave of post–Cold War democratization, political repression is making a comeback. Freedom House reported in January that 2013 marked the eighth consecutive year of decline in the global state of democracy. But today’s dictators aren’t going it alone. Whether across the airwaves, on the internet, or at the polling booth, they are assisted by a range of private actors based in free countries, writes Dean Jackson, a program assistant at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.
For a clear example, look no further than the infamous English-language, Russian-funded news channel, RT. On March 5, an American RT anchor announced her resignation live on the air because she was tired of “whitewashing” the actions of world dictators. Independent observers have called the network “blatantly propagandistic”; others have described how RT recruits young, inexperienced American journalists and uses them to push a pro-Kremlin message to U.S. and other audiences.
RT is not unique, or even uncommon, in its role as an agent for authoritarians abroad, its recruitment of American staff, or its presence on American soil. Other outlets, such as Iran’s rabidly anti-Semitic Press TV, hire Western officials and journalists to lend credibility to their coverage. Others are paid to spread authoritarian propaganda more widely. Ketchum, an American public relations firm, is on retainer with the Russian government to churn out press releases and Twitter posts, maintain a pro-Kremlin website, and assist with the placement of pro-Kremlin op-eds (including Putin’s notorious New York Times piece on Syria).