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date: 20 January 2020

Authoritarian Societies and Journalism

Summary and Keywords

In spite of journalism’s transnational nature, there is no common history of the subject and thus no common history of journalism in authoritarian societies, a field which can only be studied by bringing together historical facts about journalism in societies that experienced authoritarian regimes at some point in their history. Journalism in authoritarian societies is closely linked with forms of manipulation and censorship. While censorship is older than journalism, it was the rise of journalism as a profession that prompted authoritarian states to develop fully fledged censorship mechanisms and systems.

The first forms of censorship of the printed word were introduced by the Catholic Church shortly after the printing press was invented in the 16th century. But it was from the 17th century on that censorship models aimed at controlling the emergent periodical press were created by absolutist monarchies. Secular institutions gradually took over censorship from the church, developing a more complex control system that would methodically check on the printed information distributed widely to the general public.

While censorship systems were scrapped in most of Europe for a short period during the 19th century, the following century saw the rise of more sophisticated and repressive forms of censorship. They were developed by fascist dictatorships in several European countries and by the Soviet system in Russia. These models, particularly the Soviet propaganda system, influenced a spate of authoritarian regimes in communist nations all over the globe during the Cold War.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s sounded the death knell of a series of authoritarian regimes, heralding an era of press freedom and independent journalism. But many regimes, particularly in the former Soviet Union, soon revived old authoritarian practices to keep their people under control.

In spite of the limitations on journalistic coverage in authoritarian societies, journalists reacted in various ways to all sorts of authoritarian practices, ranging from harsh censorship systems to less intrusive, yet effective, controlling mechanisms. They did so either by seizing opportunities that appeared during more relaxed political times or by developing circumvention tools that allowed them to reach out to their audiences. The rise of the Internet brought about new opportunities for journalism to reach and engage audiences, as governments struggle to push back by designing new forms of control and censorship.

Keywords: authoritarianism, fascism, communism, journalism, censorship, press freedom, media systems, regulation, journalism studies

The Authoritarian Media Model

To understand how journalists work in authoritarian societies, one has to study the history of journalism in specific local contexts and historical periods as well as the history of authoritarian states from the 15th century (when the printing press was invented) onward.

Both the concept and practice of journalism were born in Europe. Establishing the beginning of journalism history depends on how journalism is defined. In the view of those scholars who define it as an “Anglo-American invention” characterized by objectivity and neutrality (Chalaby, 1996), journalism was born in the second half of the 19th century. Other scholars see the birth of journalism in the 18th-century Germany, associating it with the Enlightenment era (Martens, 1974).

However, the first acts of journalism, namely professional processing of news items, can be traced to a much earlier “pre-journalistic” period. In Germany, for example, this period is further divided in sub-periods, first a “genesis” sub-period starting in 1605 and lasting until 1848, and last sub-period ending with the “breakthrough” of modern journalism between 1900 and 1914 (Birkner, 2012). However, such periodization attempts exist only for a few countries, varying significantly from nation to nation. In France, for example, the foundation of modern journalism is set between the years 1880 and 1918 (Delporte, 1999).

The history of journalism is, rather, a collection of individual national histories of media and journalism. The main reason why a common history of journalism does not exist is because, in spite of its transnational nature, journalism was a national phenomenon, developed in national contexts. Therefore, research of journalism history follows a similar national approach, focusing on the history of the press (followed later by history of other media) rather than on the history of journalism as a professional practice.

Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm (1956) developed a normative classification of media systems into four models: libertarian, social responsible, Soviet communist, and authoritarian. Their typology was related to the ideology-based division of the world in the 1950s when they wrote Four Theories of the Press. This typology was based on three types of states: the West or the First World comprising liberal, democratic countries, the Soviet-controlled, communist countries labeled as the Second World, and the authoritarian states known at the time as the Third World (Hardy, 2008).

Siebert et al. (1956) argued that communication systems reflect the structure of the society in which they develop. According to them, the authoritarian model emerged from the absolutist states across most of Europe at the time printing press was introduced. To survive, these states had to centralize their authority and control the media. The authoritarian model was the most common communication system. Of the four models proposed by them, the libertarian and social responsible systems are totally opposite to the authoritarian model, and the Soviet communist model is seen by them as a variation of the authoritarian one.

The libertarian model, developed in the United States and Britain and following liberal philosophy writers such as John Milton and J. S. Mill, was based on the idea that truth should arise through the “marketplace of ideas” that the state should not attempt to influence or control. The social responsible model was a rather modified libertarian model, also developed in the United States and Britain. It criticized the libertarian model as it failed to ensure equal access to media. In the social responsible model, deficiencies of libertarianism should be corrected through professional rules, self-regulation, and some limited state intervention. In the Soviet communist model, the state made media part of its state structure, using it as a tool of social transformation. The Nazi media system was similar to the Soviet system in many aspects (Siebert et al., 1956).

In authoritarian societies, the press is subordinated to vested power and authority and does nothing to undermine them (McQuail, 1987). In such societies, censorship is justified to ensure that moral and political values imposed by authorities are embraced by people, and journalists’ criticism of vested power and authority is deemed a criminal offense. The main function of journalism in authoritarian societies is to publicize the ideology and actions of the government. Thus, journalism and media become, in these societies, an integral part of the authority structure (McQuail, 1987).

Journalism in Authoritarian Societies: A Periodization

From the early days of journalism until the first two decades of the 21st century, the analysis and historical review of journalism in authoritarian societies can be divided into three main periods.

The first covers the genesis of journalism and its history under absolutist monarchies in Europe before the 20th century. The second, covering more or less the 20th century (from the First World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s), is characterized by increased sophistication of propaganda techniques and more repressive penalty systems. The end of the Cold War marks the beginning of the third period, which is characterized by the rise of a new generation of technologies, centered on the Internet and digital platforms. During this last period, governments have been and are searching for effective censorship systems and control mechanisms fit for a communication environment that is increasingly difficult to control.

First Censors, First Newsrooms

The history of the press in authoritarian societies is tightly linked with censorship. Although the history of censorship understood as a means of control over communication harks back to classical antiquity, systematic implementation of censorship was first prompted by the invention of the printing press and the rise of mass dissemination through printed texts in the early modern period. Germany, where printing press was invented, became one of the first countries to introduce censorship of printed text. The first decisions on controlling the printed word were adopted soon after Gutenberg invented the printing press. Already in 1486, Berthold von Henneberg, the archbishop-elector of Mainz, established by decree a censorship commission (Wilke, 2013).

The Catholic Church was the first institution to get involved in censorship mainly because religious texts were then the primary source of printed texts (Wilke, 2013). The transition to secular censorship took place in the early modern period under Emperor Charles V (1500–1558). Several Imperial Diets adopted a sheaf of decrees and resolutions aimed at putting paid to pamphlets and polemical texts that were ever more widely circulated in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (Rafetseder, 1988).

Most of these rules and forms of regulation and censorship applied chiefly to books during the early days of printing. By the time periodical press appeared in Germany in the early 17th century, a fully fledged system of censorship was already established. It was later easily adjusted to monitor periodicals. Press censorship soon expanded beyond the territory of the Holy Roman Empire. A system of control was created in England during the reign of the Tudors between 1485 and 1603, to be inherited by the first Stuart kings (Siebert, 1965). In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions brought the censorship system to the Iberian countries (Pelizaeus, 2011).

But as censorship intensified, activism aimed at relaxing the rules on what is printed for public distribution emerged as well. The first forms of activism against censorship in Europe appeared in England (Siebert, 1965). Censorship was first abolished in Britain in the 1640s during the Puritan Revolution. Pre-publication censorship was eventually brought to an end by a parliament vote in 1695 (Astbury, 1978). Before Britain, the British North American colonies for the first time achieved press freedom in the 18th century as the first American Constitution guaranteed a free press (Levy, 1985).

But in continental Europe, absolutist monarchy continued to run a censorship machine aimed at controlling the written text. In France, the royal censorship authority was the central controlling authority performing press censorship in the 18th century (Roche, 1989). Some texts were allowed to circulate in France with the “tacit permission” of the censorship authority, which sometimes gained economic benefits from their sale (Darnton, 1993). This relaxation had political consequences, as the increase of these texts’ circulation helped foment discontent that eventually contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. The French Constitution of 1791 guaranteed freedom of the press, but revolutionaries reintroduced censorship two years later in their attempt to squelch opposition views (Darnton, 1993).

As Napoleon Bonaparte acceded to power in France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and his rule steadily slid toward authoritarianism, strict regulation of the press was reintroduced in France (in 1810). Germany followed suit as its authorities tried not to displease Napoleon. The closure of a newspaper by the Prussian government and the execution of a book merchant from Nuremberg (an affair in which Napoleon was personally involved) are just a couple of examples of how power was exerted over journalism by Napoleonic rule (Wilke, 2013). The French authorities presented Moniteur, a government mouthpiece, as a paragon of journalism that all other newspapers, even in the occupied German territories, were supposed to imitate.

The defeat of Napoleon in 1813–1815, the last phase of the wars he waged against a clutch of European powers, spurred increased political participation in the German-speaking territories, prompting authorities in these territories to give official guarantees for press freedom (Eisenhardt, 1970). However, it took nearly three decades for censorship to be totally scrapped, following the adoption in 1819 of Carlsbad Decrees, a new set of laws including a press law that allowed press censorship (Huber, 1957), the reinstitution of press laws after the March Revolution of 1848 (which put an end to state censorship in Germany), and the abolition of these laws by the German parliament in 1874 (Naujoks, 1975).

At the end of the 19th century, at least legally, the systems of censorship were more or less blotted out in the whole of Europe.

Censorship significantly influenced the work of journalists during the 17th and 19th centuries as much of the information these writers wanted to convey to the public could not be printed. The relationship between printers and authors was, in fact, key in shaping the behavior and performance of journalists during this period, as the latter’s most common job was to “compile” news for printers to publish. Printers relied on these writers to provide content for their publications (Harris, 1983).

Journalism as an institution began to take root only later on. It was in mid-18th century when newspapers began to regularly employ one or two news gatherers whose task was to collect and feed raw material to them (Høyer, 2003). Generally, journalists during this period were principally writing for money, rather than for a cause or person (Rogers, 1972). Actual specialization among reporters and a sense of journalism as an industry and an established profession began to emerge only in the latter half of the 18th century. In England, it was only in the 19th century that the term “editor” appeared to refer to somebody who was in charge of a newspaper (Smith, 1978). In the London press, newsrooms became common only toward the end of the 19th century (Brown, 1985).

Journalism Within 20th-Century Dictatorships: Censorship and Resistance

The 20th century saw a radical setback in press freedom, mostly because of the rise of totalitarian movements after the Second World War. Some of the most important communication and political events of the century happened in authoritarian societies (Fourie, 2007). Fascism, defined as “the philosophy and practice of the absolute power of the state and the subservience of the individual,” is in many cases rooted in authoritarianism (Fourie, 2007). Fascism expanded rapidly throughout the 1900s in Europe and elsewhere. It was the base of the fascist dictatorships in Germany, Spain, and Italy, of the communist states from Eastern Europe, of the apartheid regime in South Africa between 1948 and 1994, and of a slew of post-independence African nations.

Journalism output was shaped to a great extent by the systems of control and censorship put in place by authoritarian governments.

The first wave of authoritarianism began its rise after the First World War. Already during the war, under the guise of emergency measures, censorship rules were reinstituted by countries on both sides of the warring coalitions. The Constitution adopted in 1919 in Germany (the basis of the Weimar Republic) gave the president quasi-dictatorial power, allowing him, among other things, to rescind fundamental rights guarantees. Trying to keep communists and National Socialists away from the government, the president adopted a series of laws in 1922 and 1930 that allowed authorities to suppress newspapers if so required to maintain the integrity of the republic (Jasper, 1963).

But after the National Socialists seized power in 1933, a system ensuring full control of the media, without precedent in Germany, was created (Abel, 1968). First, the newspapers supportive of communists and social democrats were shut down through emergency decrees. Other liberal newspapers, mostly catering to the middle class, were harassed financially. New legal provisions such as the Editor Law raised barriers to practicing journalism, requiring journalists to become members of a cultural chamber in order to practice (Wilke, 2013). A ministry for propaganda led by Joseph Goebbels, created to influence the public opinion and attitudes of the people, put forward a raft of instructions that media and journalists were required to follow.

A similar censorship infrastructure was built in two other European authoritarian states: Italy and Spain. In Italy, where a fascist regime under Benito Mussolini raised to power in 1922, a series of laws suppressing press freedom were introduced in the 1920s. In the following decade, institutions overseeing media and tasked to spread propaganda were created (Galasso, 1998). In Spain, a right-wing movement led by General Francisco Franco issued similar laws that helped the Spanish authoritarian regime take control of the information sources in the country.

Russia was the theater of yet another authoritarian project of the early 20th century. In 1917, the Bolshevik-led October Revolution marked the end of the Czarist regime, which already had in place a system of censorship that had been shaped on models imported from absolutist monarchies. Once in power, the Bolsheviks created their own censorship system. A central institution, Glavlit (General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press), was created in 1922 to handle all media-related issues. In line with a set of guidelines issued by the communist leader Vladimir I. Lenin, journalists were required to carry out tasks such as spreading propaganda, and agitating and engaging with audiences (Koschwitz, 1971). Journalists were seen as servants of the regime and treated as employees of the state structure, similar to other authoritarian regimes of the 20th century. In Nazi Germany, for example, journalists worked according to a set of rules and guiding principles issued by the ruling party.

Common in all authoritarian regimes was a system of penalties against those who did not toe the government’s line. Journalists not complying with the rules imposed by authorities risked harsh measures. During the Stalin era in the Soviet Union, from the 1920s until 1953, deviations from official propaganda could lead to execution and labor camps. In the years after Stalin’s death, these punishments were replaced by others, less harsh, such as prison, punitive psychiatry, and denial of work (Conquest, 1990).

Unlike the authoritarian regimes of Italy and Germany, which dissolved their censorship structures after the Second World War, or Spain that repealed its restrictive press laws in 1966, the Soviet authoritarian model survived and influenced many other communist countries until the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed. Some of these regimes and their censorship models survived for decades after the end of the Soviet rule.

The other major communist power during the Cold War, China, had its own system aimed at tightly controlling media between 1949 until the 1980s. An effective propaganda apparatus was built during the Mao Zedong regime that ended in 1976. In Mao’s China, Veronica Ma (2016) wrote, “control of media was so intense that arguably every flow of information in and out of the state’s mainstream news was propagandistic.” Production and censorship of information were closely linked as content producers and censors were practically part of the same institution, a model that was effectively implemented by both Soviet Union and China. Media control in China was relaxed to some degree under the Deng Xiaoping regime from 1982 to 1987. However, the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square led to a new wave of restrictions, relaxed again in the 1990s by the-then president Jiang Zemin.

Cuba, after Fidel Castro seized power following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, was also inspired by the Soviet model. All radio and television stations were put under state control as of 1962. A bureau of broadcasting supervising the sector was created and operated under the leadership of the local Communist Party. Shortly after the Cuban Revolution, upon advice from Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a news agency solely airing the views of the government was created.

Similar censorship models, modeled on the Soviet system, were replicated during the 20th century in several Asian nations, including Vietnam, Kampuchea during its communist regime from 1979 to 1989, North Korea from the foundation of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea in 1948, Indonesia during Suharto’s regime that ended in 1998, and Burma during its prolonged authoritarian rule that included 15 years of military dictatorship.

Latin America was not spared authoritarianism. Two decades after Castro’s regime was established in Cuba, a wave of dictatorships swept through Latin America. Dictatorships such as that of Manuel Noriega in Panama between 1983 and 1989 ushered in a series of authoritarian military regimes in several Latin American countries, including Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay. Historians agree that these authoritarian regimes were unrivaled in brutality and suppression of civil society. Most of them relied not on a powerful leader, but on the army to secure control of society. To describe some of the dictatorships in South America, O’Donnell coined the concept of “bureaucratic authoritarianism,” arguing that they used coercion to fight what they viewed as threats to the capitalist system (O’Donnell, 1999). Lewis argues that Latin America’s authoritarian culture in the 20th century had three roots: the autocratic character of the Spanish and Portuguese societies, the colonial past, and the protractive and destructive character of the independent movement in Spanish America (Lewis, 2005).

The media system was subordinated to the government in most Latin American authoritarian states during the 20th century. However, in some of these nations, the government did not need to issue instructions and rules or force journalists to toe the official line as many big media companies openly supported the regimes. During the Brazilian dictatorship (1964–1985), for example, the most important media groups, Grupo Globo, Grupo Abril, and Grupo Folha, were accomplices of the military regime (Pilagallo, 2012). In Argentina, during the military dictatorship of 1976–1983, the state deployed a socially pervasive censorship system to keep the population under control. This covered all sectors and institutions of the country from education to mass media. However, especially in its early stages, the regime relied not only on terror, but also on social support (Aguila, 2006).

South Africa during apartheid, from 1948 until early 1990s, experienced a unique form of censorship implemented through a large and complex state apparatus. As in the Soviet Union, the South African censors were tasked with protecting the apartheid order by preventing the appearance in print media (and film) of representations that the government found seditious. At the same time, these censors were the regime’s “literature police,” implementing the authorities’ censorship strategy. McDonald argues that the South African case was closer to pre-revolutionary Russia than to the Soviet Union when it came to censorship practices and characteristics. Similar to the Czarist regime, the apartheid censorship system in South Africa was operated “under a semblance of legality, not through a series of secret strictures and directives” and relied mostly on interventions after publication (McDonald, 2010, p. 12).

In other African countries turned authoritarian after winning their independence, the press enjoyed relative autonomy from the government and the political parties in power. But as soon as the media became too critical, authoritarian tendencies to create censorship systems and eliminate dissent appeared.

In Zimbabwe, for example, after 1980 when the country gained independence, authorities stated their commitment to media freedom as part of the general reconciliation efforts at the time, but also with the aim of attracting donor funding (Chuma, 2005). In time, however, the government of Robert Mugabe (in power for 30 years since he became president in 1987) gradually began to see the private press as an enemy because these newspapers were giving a voice to dissenters who were unhappy with the worsening economic situation. Through a series of restrictive laws, the government shut down several newspapers. They also banned foreign media houses from operating in the country, arguing that they were “writing falsehoods to tarnish its image at home and abroad” (Mano, 2005, p. 62). The Zimbabwean media during the authoritarian regime of Mugabe epitomizes the tight relationship between politics and the media in Africa that was clearly dominated by state media (Hayes, 2010).

The evolution of censorship methods used by authoritarian states cannot be understood without the dramatic changes in journalism during the 20th century that were triggered by technology. The discovery of electromagnetic waves that made radio possible in the 1920s and the rise after the Second World War of television significantly transformed the journalistic profession. The expansion of these then new technologies helped journalism increase its impact, but also prompted authoritarian regimes that understood early on the power of these technologies to embed these new channels in their communication strategies.

In all European countries, until the 1980s, radio and television broadcasting were affiliated with the state. Many authoritarian regimes of the 20th century largely used these new communication channels for propaganda purposes. While, in Western European countries, radio and television broadcasting was aligned with state (or, in the case of Britain, built as a public service), in the former Soviet Union and all other communist countries of Eastern Europe broadcasting was fully under state control and operated as part of the state administration. Some authoritarian regimes in the Middle Eastern region also used newly emerging technologies to strengthen their political positions. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who became President of Egypt in 1954, extensively used radio as a political tool. He knew that most Egyptians were illiterate (and thus preferred to listen to radio), which is why he used radio broadcasting as the main tool to publicly spread his ideas.

A characteristic of journalism in many countries in Latin America, Africa, and Middle East that experienced authoritarianism is the existence of a press tradition before the authoritarian regimes were established. In Egypt, the printing press was introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte during his campaign in the region at the end of the 18th century (Cole, 2007). The first privately owned newspapers were published in South Africa in the 1820s. Cuba was one of the first countries in the Americas that introduced radio broadcasting. The first radio station in the country started to operate in 1922 thanks to an agreement with an American telegraph company.

The censorship and propaganda systems in which media outlets operated in the authoritarian societies of the 20th century were the main factor that shaped the work of journalists. Most of the journalists were part of state structures, some grudgingly accepting this role, others enthusiastically embracing it.

However, forms of resistance existed in most of these authoritarian societies during the 20th century. Although extremely limited in what they could write, Soviet journalists in the late Soviet period (1970s and 1980s) were increasingly trying to “defend the trust of their audiences,” seeing a “moral obligation” in that. Many of them “meticulously” gathered data and information to ensure accuracy in their coverage (Roudakova, 2017, pp. 51–97). But news had been a priority for journalists in the Soviet Union many decades before. After 1953, reform of news became a priority for journalists, with professional discussions increasingly focusing on excellence in news coverage at a time characterized by Cold War-fueled competition with Western media. However, the political crisis in the former Czechoslovakia in 1968 marked the end of these emulating debates as the Communist Party reintroduced fresh restrictions on news coverage (Huxtable, 2018).

Unlike in many other Eastern European dictatorships during the 20th century where dissent was harshly punished, discouraging any forms of resistance from within the journalistic profession, journalists in communist Poland were an important factor in the battles between Solidarity, the only trade union in the region not controlled by the Communist Party, and the Polish government (Curry, 1990). Some of them used their profession to gain roles in government or Solidarity. However, what united them all were their common professional demands (Curry, 1990).

Authoritarian Regimes in the Digital Era

The main factors that have influenced journalism during the period after the collapse of the Soviet rule through the first decades of the 21st century are globalization and the rapid advance of digital technologies.

In 2010s, more than 40 states in the world were frequently referred to as “authoritarian” regimes by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), freedom of expression activists, media freedom groups, journalists, and academics. Former Soviet Union republics, including Central Asian countries (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan), Belarus, and Azerbaijan, as well as Russia, are top of this list, an indicator of the strong influence of the Soviet censorship model, particularly on countries that were under Moscow’s sphere of influence during the Cold War.

Some of the former republics of the Soviet Union, after breaking away with Russia in the early 1990s, embraced media systems that copied the Soviet model to a tee. State authorities in Central Asian nations tried from the 1990s on to isolate their national media systems from foreign influence (that includes Russian, Western, and Islamic interference) for nation-building purposes, namely to make sure that news and media are a part of a process that galvanizes national identity. Brief experiments with Western-style media were abandoned as governments feared that Western values filtering down from media elites could ultimately have a corrosive impact on their power base (Rollberg & Laruelle, 2015).

In China, journalists stay away from topics banned by authorities, such as separatist claims or pro-democracy movements (Repnikova, 2017). As a result, investigative journalism in particular remains in a precarious state as media outlets haves to stave off pressures on their editorial output coming from both the Communist Party and advertisers. Therefore, some media outlets, particularly television chains, but also newspapers, eventually halt investigations altogether. The few that still undertake investigative reporting take a very cautious approach, trying to minimize as much as possible the negative consequences, either political or economic, with which they would have to deal (Tong & Sparks, 2009).

The impact of the Chinese government’s intervention in the media is also detectable in the quality of foreign coverage. A 2018 study found that nearly 80% of the foreign correspondents based in China in 2015–2016 had no incentive or will to criticize the system or were simply not interested in the country (Zeng, 2018). Journalists in the former group, known as Sinophiles, are keenly interested in staying in China and very committed to the idea of Chineseness, but have very weak motivation to challenge the system and usually use journalism as a springboard to other, better-paid and less controversial, jobs. Journalists in the second group, known as Sporadics, come to China only for a temporary assignment, which explains their lack of interest in the local culture and the perfunctory coverage they generally deliver, based mostly on local press reviews or legwork done by local assistants able to speak the language and knowledgeable about the environment (Zeng, 2018).

But the legacy of authoritarian practices in the media also survived in places that jettisoned authoritarianism. A 2017 study of eight post-authoritarian countries (Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Czech Republic, Indonesia, Latvia, South Africa, and Tanzania) found that journalists were still grappling with centralization of information or bans on reporting on sensitive issues, which were common practices during the authoritarian regimes (Tejkalová et al., 2017). The survival of these practices and the overall influence of political systems in journalism have badly eroded journalists’ relations with the authorities, their trust in institutions plumbing new depths in many post-authoritarian societies (Tejkalová et al., 2017). Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt—a country which is viewed by some experts as an authoritarian state (Brown & Bentivoglio, 2014)—not only was a big part of the restrictive press legislation enacted decades before by the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak conserved, but even harsher legal provisions that criminalized reporting were added (Elmeshad, 2015).

The Internet, however, has been a game-changer, allowing journalists to react to authoritarian practices more effectively than ever before. In China, for example, the Internet has posed numerous challenges of an economic, political, and professional nature to journalism, but it has also created numerous opportunities for journalists (Hassid & Repnikova, 2015). It has created a more direct relation between journalists and their public and also generated more space for journalists to publish content, particularly stories about sensitive issues that mainstream media would not pursue. That has a major impact on how the wider society becomes informed. Once a story is online it is likely that it will appear also in mainstream media, regardless of how sensitive its topic (Hassid & Repnikova, 2015). Citizen journalism has played an equally important part in the media ecosystem as it opened an alternative channel for the distribution of politically sensitive information (Xin, 2010).

The Internet has empowered media and journalists to play a critical oversight role, a function that is typical of liberal democracies rather than of authoritarian systems. In China, this supervisory responsibility that media took upon itself was, in fact, quietly endorsed by the government as a way to obtain feedback from the people. The Communist Party, however, is in full control of its relationship with journalism. It “consistently and uncompromisingly sets the tune” (Repnikova, 2017, p. 207). That is why journalists are cautious, defining their work as an instrument aimed at helping the government. For example, journalists usually criticize local officials instead of head honchos holding top positions in the national government, and try to frame their critical stories in constructive ways (Repnikova, 2017).

Nevertheless, journalists are still creative in finding ways to challenge censorship and cover sensitive topics, particularly a few small “pockets of political journalism” such as Pengpai (The paper) and Jiemian (212) (Repnikova, 2017). However, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, which began in 2013, the Communist Party has gradually given a wide berth to journalists, increasingly seeing in their critical stories a threat to its hold on power. The “line of political sensitivity” was clearly redrawn, which led to a shrinking of the space for critical journalism (Repnikova, 2017).

Faced with the infinite possibilities for communication brought about by the Internet, authoritarian and former authoritarian regimes began to react. In Kazakhstan, for example, television and radio, largely in the government’s hands and insulated from foreign influence, remain the most consumed forms of media in the country. But with the rise of social media, state authorities felt that their control was somewhat less secure and began to expand online as well (Lewis, 2016). In the same manner, to squash dissent, the Azeri government attempted to make the country’s online space a largely apolitical realm, a goal primarily accomplished through a strategy called “networked authoritarianism” (Anceschi, 2015, pp. 277–295). The Azeri state is known to be successful in using social media to its own advantage, extensively employing it as a tool to harass opposition politicians, human rights activists, and the little that remains of independent media (Anceschi, 2015).

Circumvention tools, which have been largely used by journalists to react to governments’ restrictions in the cyberspace, become vulnerable in their own right as authorities started to improve their own capacity to spot users of circumvention tools by using increasingly sophisticated online monitoring and tracking techniques (Al-Saqaf, 2016).

Researching Journalism in Authoritarian Societies

Research on journalism in authoritarian societies has considerably grown between the 1990s and 2000s. However, four areas still present gaps.

First, there is abundant research on the big authoritarian projects of the 20th century (Nazi Germany, military dictatorship in Spain, fascist Italy, and the Soviet model), but more in-depth research on the media systems in other authoritarian regimes of the 20th century is needed, including a comparative analysis of journalism in authoritarian societies aimed at identifying the models that regimes used to inspire each other and at describing the main tools used to control journalism.

Second, more research on links between media systems and authoritarian practices is needed. Research of journalism in authoritarian societies is closely linked with scholarship advances in defining and categorizing media systems. The seminal Four Theories of the Press of Siebert et al. (1956) continues to be used in research focused on studying journalism in various political and economic development contexts. But the book came under critical scrutiny in the first decades of the 21st century, primarily for its limited empirical analysis. The models proposed in Four Theories of the Press, critics say, could only be applied to the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union (Hallin, 2016).

In the 2000s, research on media systems picked up. Curran and Park (2000) proposed a typology identifying democratic, non-democratic, neoliberal, and regulated media systems. A major contribution on the topic was produced by Hallin and Mancini (2004). They identified three models or patterns in Western media systems based on research of 18 liberal democracies in Western Europe and North America. A substantial amount of research was then carried out by other researchers to develop tools for systematic analysis of media systems through revisions of Hallin’s and Mancini’s typology.

Efforts to create typologies of media systems using examples from outside the Western world are also needed. In the 2010s, some of these research gaps started to be filled. Responding to scholars of Eastern European media who compare media systems in the region to the polarized pluralist model of Hallin and Mancini (Dobeck-Ostrowska, 2012; Perusko, 2013), a number of researchers have tried to build typologies that would distinguish models among the former communist states. Mungiu-Pippidi (2013) built a model used to further categorize Eastern European systems based on three factors: development of independent media and open competition, media capture by political and economic players interested in using media as tools to promote their own interests, and trends to return to state censorship.

For Latin America, Guerrero and Márquez-Ramírez (2014) proposed a grid that they called the “captured liberal” model as a basis for media systems analysis, focused on identifying the control patterns of mostly private and commercial media through groups that combine political and economic power. Chakravartty and Roy (2013) identify, through their analysis of media systems at the subnational level in India, three models based on how they relate to political party systems and media ownership patterns.

Voltmer (2013) proposed a media system typology, applicable to any geography, based on analysis of authoritarianism and the type of relations between media and the state. Voltmer’s typology includes military dictatorship, communist one-party rule, one-party rule in the context of statism, and personalized one-party rule in the context of weak state institutions. Another model that could be applied in any geographical context is Dragomir’s media capture matrix that can be used to measure the level of control of the media by governments and affiliated groups (usually oligarchs) (Dragomir, 2019).

Third, given the political shifts in the 21st century and journalists’ increased opportunities for reaction in any given society, research of journalism in authoritarian societies needs a more nuanced approach. Much of how journalists operate and perform in a specific environment depends on the context (Vos, 2017). Mellado et al. (2017, p. 19) argue that hybridization of journalistic cultures (“the ‘hybrid’ performance of roles across a variety of countries”) does not permit categorization of countries by geographical, political, or ideal media system criteria as hybridization characterizes all kinds of countries—advanced, transitional, and non-democratic. The concept of “insecure democracy” further helps to identify more precisely the key differences between journalists working in different political contexts (Hughes et al., 2017).

Fourth, the study of journalism in authoritarian societies has unearthed a number of changes in how journalists in authoritarian regimes versus those in democratic regimes that still conserve authoritarian practices see themselves and their role in society. For example, a study of six emerging democracies from three continents (Bulgaria and Poland in Eastern Europe, South Africa and Namibia in Southern Africa, and Taiwan and South Korea in Asia) shows that, on the one hand, journalists tend to embrace a universally shared understanding of press freedom enforced by Western media theory, mostly because that makes them feel part of a global journalistic community.

On the other hand, professional practices are “domesticated” following a process of reinterpretation of the press freedom concept that is shaped by specific views on culture and history, an approach that seems to prevail, leading to the emergence of new patterns of journalistic practices that are often in contradiction with Western-propagated views of press freedom (Voltmer & Wasserman, 2014). The three major models of African journalism that have emerged since the 1990s (journalism for social change, communal journalism, and journalism based on oral discourse) also appear to collectively challenge journalism frameworks inspired by Western libertarianism (Skjerdal, 2012). These types of shifts in thinking merit more in-depth research.


Due to the volatile political and economic situation and the massive unpredictable changes that technologies still inflict on societies, it is hard to forecast how journalism will evolve in authoritarian states in the 21st century.

Even the nature of authoritarianism is hard to predict as politics and economy are greatly transformed by technologies. What scholars and activists seem to agree on is that technology and its regulation will be key in shaping the relationship between governments and journalism for much of this century, in both authoritarian and non-authoritarian societies.

The role and control of technologies are also likely to influence the relationship between governments and journalists, but also further change journalistic practices, particularly ways to defend this field and circumvent control and censorship attempts.

Systems where technology companies are independently operated and fairly regulated, and governments withdrawn as much as possible from content regulation, are likely to see more independent reporting, a healthier information environment, and less space for authoritarian outbursts. In contrast, systems where technology is captured by governments or improperly regulated and content distribution is tightly controlled are likely to see less space for independent journalism, providing instead fertile ground for authoritarian practices.

Further Reading

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McDonald, P. D. (2010). The literature police: Apartheid censorship and its cultural consequences. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Repnikova, M. (2017). Media politics in China: Improvising power under authoritarianism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Roche, D. (1989). Censorship and the publishing industry. In R. Darnton & D. Roche (Eds.), Revolution in print: The press in France 1775–1800 (pp. 3–26). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Roudakova, N. (2017). Losing Pravda: Ethics and the press in post-truth Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Voltmer, K. (2013). The media in transitional democracies. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.Find this resource:

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