In his paper, Reflections on Putin and the Media, Scott Gehlbach describes the political implications of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing medial strategy in Russia. Published in 2010, Gehlbach concludes that while Putin’s popularity and influence have proven remarkably durable, the President might face challenges to his authority without the complete control of Russia’s media. And although Putin has taken the safest way to sway the media without public outcry, he may find himself wishing that he had established a firmer grip on the media when he had the chance.
In the decade since the article’s publishing, the media landscape has dramatically and irreversibly changed. While the Gehlbach article primarily focused on cable and satellite television, it didn’t really mention the rise and popularity of the internet. The brief mention of the internet was to exhibit that additional sources of information were available as resources to those who had the interest and resources to seek them out.
In the past few months, as if eerily following Gehlbach’s advice in the conclusion of his paper, Putin has tried to strengthen his hold on Russian media,and specifically the internet. In mid-March of 2019, Putin tightened his grip on the internet by signing censorship bills into law. The first bill bans “fake news” and the other one punishes those who insult public officials. This new legislation allows the Russian government to have more direct tools to censor online speech. Under these new bills, offenders can face jail time and fines if they publish anything that disrespects the state or spreads fake news online. Additionally, insults against Putin can be fined for almost as high as $5,000. Unlike the media sector, Putin wasn’t able to acquire or reassert state ownership of the internet in Russia. So instead, Putin used the guise of security and safety to establish censorship protocols through legislation.
In Ozan Varol’s Stealth Authoritarianism, he establishes Putin as a “stealth authoritarian.” Putin has continued to exhibit himself as a stealth authoritarian through his ongoing (and successful) efforts to establish direct control over the internet. Most recently, Putin signed a controversial “Internet sovereignty” bill that further strengthens the government’s control over the internet. These tougher internet laws introduced over the last few years collectively delete search results, store users’ personal data to servers, and share encryption keys with security services; all further legitimizing the fear of state initiated censorship in Russia.
Over the past few years, the Russian government has steadily tightened its grip over the internet. Putin’s ongoing campaign to utilize different strategies to centralize control through legal channels is worrisome as it continues to chip away at Russia’s institutions. The internet has long remained a free space for political expression but under these new laws, users now face the fear of prosecution if they display any dissent or opposition to the state. Ultimately, Russia’s ongoing campaign of establishing security online is merely a thinly veiled attempt at further censoring its citizens.
- Gehlbach, Scott. 2010. “Reflections on Putin and the Media.” Post-Soviet Affairs 26(1).
- Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1673-1742. Parts I, II and III.
It is disheartening to see Russian media and communication slide further into the grasp of President Putin in almost exactly the way political scientist Scott Gelbach cautioned. Yet after reading your article, I’m left pondering the question you featured in the title: is media control censorship or security?. If we are to think of Internet/media access as a utility, as in a basic service provided to everyone, then a government should have complete authority to control and secure access within its borders. Although governmental control of information access does present some Orwellian dangers, we already trust governments to control and ethically manage our water, power and gas. An authoritarian-leaning regime like Russia may be more likely to exercise this control in a sweeping manner, but this manner is not significantly removed from how the U.S. Federal Communications Commission regulates U.S. media and Internet. In the U.S, we often ignore how controlled our Internet is in exchange for the sense of security created by a lack of public government censorship. However, this sense of security seems to be eroding as totalitarian communication surveillance and manipulation programs like PRISM and XKeyscore are continually being unveiled. Couple these developments with the increasingly aggressive role social media companies are taking on as content moderators and the freedom of the global Internet looks to be under threat. Section 230 of the U.S Communications Decency Act protects the ability of private companies to moderate Internet content without legal repercussions. As this protection is likely to be revoked in the coming years, I think it’s important for us to consider to what extent we believe governments should have the right to control and secure pathways of information like the Internet and how this control interacts with democratic erosion.