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The Back-Handed Compliment

Sina Odugbemi's picture

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 37 journalists have been killed so far in 2010, killed by those who want to silence them. 838 have been killed since 1992. The media are being hounded by authoritarian regimes in many countries still, including some of the most prominent countries in the world today.  And as my colleague, Tony Lambino, pointed out only last week, even the internet - once hoped to be the ultimate domain of free speech - is increasingly being mastered by illiberal regimes. They are finding the technological means to muzzle free speech even here. Some are employing thousands of police men and women dedicated to the task.

Journalists, activist intellectuals and others are at the receiving end of severe pummeling. And it is depressing to note that all this is still going on now at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Things were supposed to have become very different by now. This is why all men and women of good will need to get engaged in efforts to strengthen media systems around the world, and secure and protect free speech by citizens.

Which brings me to my main point. When authoritarian regimes suppress the media, and attack journalists and intellectual activists and others, what are they really, really afraid of? As Pippa Norris and I argue in the opening chapter of Public Sentinel: News Media and Governance Reform, the news media have three classic roles:

  1. Watchdogs: they are supposed to guard the public interest and hold the powerful accountable;
  2. Agenda setters: it is their job to  raise awareness of pervasive social and political problems, and focus attention on them; and 
  3. Gate-keepers/public forum: it is their responsibility to maximize the diversity of views and arguments heard in public deliberation, thus enriching the public sphere.


Authoritarian regimes do not want these roles performed. Why not? Because they are afraid of informed public opinion; in fact, they are terrified of it. Their strenuous efforts to muzzle the press are really a back-handed compliment to the power of informed public opinion.

Think about it. If you have a regime that is of the view that if the citizens of the country it governs are fully apprised of the facts around public affairs, and can freely debate and discuss them, it will not be able to survive, then it will do its best to prevent that from happening. Its attitude will be that informed consent is for wimps. And since the news media - when they do their jobs well - tend to create informed public opinion, authoritarian regimes go after them with jack boots. 

The question that remains, however, is this: how stable really is government when it is not based on informed consent?


Photo Credit: Flickr user alex-s

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