Mar 7

Putin outlaws journalism — Trump's dream comes true

Authoritarians unite

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Right before traveling to Helsinki in 2018 to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Trump went off on a tirade, declaring much of the U.S. media to be the “enemy of the people.” The timing of the pre-summit attack was jarring considering that phrase gained its notorious association during the purges ordered by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, which killed tens of millions of people. Trump’s “enemies of the people” blast came days before he met with Putin whose reign has included murdered journalists.

Fast forward four years, and Putin is now putting Trump’s deep hatred of the press into practice, signing into law a ban on all independent news reporting about the Ukraine invasion.

For anyone doubting the direct, autocratic line that connects Trump to the Kremlin, Moscow’s move to criminalize journalism should illuminate that disturbing political path. Putin’s sweeping censorship law, designed to eradicate “fake news” about Russia’s immoral incursion, represents Trump’s anti-media fantasy come to life.

“Russian officials claim that journalists writing critically about the war — or calling it a “war” or an “invasion” — are undermining the national interest, even referring to them as traitors,” the New York Times reported. “Besides criminalizing the sharing of “false information,” it makes “discrediting” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calling on other countries to impose sanctions on Russia or protesting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine punishable by fines and years of imprisonment.”

Last week, two of Russia’s best known independent broadcast outlets, the Echo of Moscow radio station and the TV Rain television channel, shut down under pressure from the state.

The draconian law, which passed unanimously through the Russian Parliament, threatens to criminalize the work of foreign correspondents reporting from inside Russia. Consequently, most major news operations, including BBC News, Bloomberg, and CNN, have suspended operations — there are no more TV reports airing from Moscow. The Washington Post is removing bylines from articles that originate inside the country so Kremlin officials do not know who wrote them, and therefore can’t charge the journalists.

Ironic: After years of lavishly praising Putin (“Why shouldn’t I root for Russia?”), and more recently holding him up as a strong leader compared to “weak” Joe Biden, Fox News today cannot report safely from inside Russia.

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Targeting the press and demonizing reporters is a hallmark of authoritarian leaders who are anxious to undermine journalism's crucial oversight role in open societies. Trump, of course, did his best to endanger journalists in the U.S., where media death threats became commonplace during his presidency. Does anyone doubt that if Trump were re-elected he would try to outlaw portions of independent journalism in the U.S.?

Consider the autocratic loop: Russian dictator Putin helped Trump get elected in 2016 by flooding U.S. media with misinformation. Trump unleashed an unprecedented attack on the free press in America, haranguing journalists as “enemies of the people.” (Trump: “"Our Country’s biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools!") Putin then invades Ukraine and using “fake news” propaganda, outlaws all independent journalism in Russia, which further solidifies his power.

In fact, one day after Putin’s “fake news” law was signed, Trump this weekend denounced “fake news” in the U.S. He was mad that outlets accurately portrayed his admiring comments for Putin during the run-up to Russia’s deadly invasion.

At the same time, the Kremlin has announced it will block access to Russian-language media produced outside the country, such as the websites of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the popular Latvian-based news outlet Meduza. Russia’s last major independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, is deleting all content about the war in Ukraine.

For years Trump has been following Putin’s lead on the press. “Trump’s team is finding ways to shrewdly approximate Putin’s capacity to shape narratives and create alternative realities,” noted Vanity Fair in 2017. “Specious narratives, conspiracy theories, and indeed fake news have been part of Russia’s geopolitical playbook for more than half a century.” They soon became hallmarks of the Trump administration.

Government-sponsored propaganda isn’t supposed to thrive in a vibrant democracy where openness flourishes. A free press is positioned to deter and undercut those kinds of heavy-handed attempts. Trump’s style worked  because mainstream news media were timid in calling out the endless deceits, which gave him room to operate. Overly concerned with accusations of bias, the press showed deference to the administration and its radical brand of misinformation.

Trump was able to successfully sow the seeds of a chaos culture, or the “fog of unknowability,” as former Russian TV producer Peter Pomerantsev called it in the Vanity Fair piece:

The Kremlin does this by flooding television and digital media with biased coverage and wanton spin. The Trump administration has discovered something equally effective: lying to reporters and publicly attacking critics are like tossing grenades into the media eco-system. The press is constantly scrambling to respond to a never-ending river of slime, and the system is gradually overwhelmed.”

Trump learned so much from Putin. You can be sure the Republican would love to follow the dictator’s lead and criminalize journalism at home.

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🇷🇺 GOOD STUFF

Speaking of the Kremlin, Eric Alterman had an interesting look at how Putin’s public relations team over the years dealt with the Western press, alternatively trying to sway them to produce soft coverage and then trying to punish them when writers failed to comply.

From Alterman’s Friday piece, “My Adventures With RT”:

RT/Ogilvy flew in a smattering of other journalists from all over the world for the occasion. A reporter who kept an eye on such things during the Trump administration recently emailed me to say that of all the people who had been brought in to the conference, I was perhaps the only one who did not come back and write nice things about Russia and RT.

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