Free Media in Unfree Societies

By Dine, Thomas | Harvard International Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Free Media in Unfree Societies


Dine, Thomas, Harvard International Review


Eastern Europe in Transition

Government attacks on independent media in the post-communist world are becoming commonplace. Some of these attacks have attracted widespread press coverage from around the world; others have passed by with little notice. Together however, they provide unintended testimony to the power of the free media to undermine those who would keep their societies in what I call an "unfree" state. Recent attacks highlight the extreme fragility of free media in less-than-free societies. They call attention to the fact that the foundation of all freedoms is an unencumbered press, to which the peoples of Eastern Europe have so often been denied. They also point out the continuing, even growing, importance of international broadcasting to these countries.

No one can doubt the power of the free press. At the founding of the United States, Thomas Jefferson pointedly observed that if he had to choose between a free press and a free parliament, he would always choose the former. He was confident that a free press would eventually establish a free parliament, but he was uncertain whether a free parliament would ensure a free press.

The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, also discovered the power of the media. He tried to revamp the Soviet Union by allowing the media a greater range of freedoms under his policy of glasnost. But as he and the world soon discovered, the power of accurate information delivered in a timely fashion to those who needed it soon overwhelmed the barriers he had hoped to maintain. The destruction of communism and of the Soviet empire soon followed.

No one who lived through the last two decades can forget the excitement in Moscow that met the publication of the first truthful revelations about the Soviet past. Nor can anyone forget the even greater excitement people felt when they were able for the first time in their lives to read direct criticism of those still in power, forcing such political leaders to respond to the press. More importantly, the free flow of information empowered individuals to believe that they, and not some self-appointed rulers, should determine how to run their lives and whom to select to govern their countries. As Jefferson pointed out more than two centuries ago, the free press provided the basis For the emergence of all other freedoms.

But because of the obvious and demonstrated power of free media to transform unfree societies, too main people in both the post-Soviet states an in the West came to believe that nothing could prevent the domestic media from playing that role, that democracy was secure, and that the future was one of unalloyed brightness.

Departure from Utopia

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was among the first organizations to experience the consequences of this naive optimism. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. many people in the United States argued that RFE/RL had done its work and that it should take an honorable retirement. In 1994, the US Congress voted to end government funding of its radio stations by December 31, 1999. But RFE/RL is still here and is still very much needed. Government attacks on the media in the post-communist world highlight the extreme fragility of free media in unfree societies.

While the media are powerful, they are also in an extremely precarious position--and nowhere more so than in post-communist countries. To some degree, this is a vestige of historical political authoritarianism, but it also results from specific features of the post-communist transition, as well as from the nature of the media themselves. The resulting political milieu continues to cast a shadow not only on media freedom in these countries but on all the other freedoms on which a civil society is based.

Only now are we beginning to face up to the destructive heritage of communism and the post-communist transition, to the impact it had on the rulers and the ruled, and to the difficulties of escaping from that past. …

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