In autocracies, a little media freedom can go a long way – PRIO Blogs

Mobilization in autocracies is inherently difficult. Potential dissidents face several obstacles, even when grievances are widespread and a regime is unpopular.

Participating in dissent is dangerous and puts individuals at risk of repression by state security forces. Safety in numbers is possible if others also step up, but in autocracies people often lack information about what others are thinking and what they are going to do.

An editor interrupts a Russian state-controlled broadcast. Photo: Just click with a camera / Flickr

In a recent article, we show how even partial media freedom can make a major difference to nonviolent mobilization in autocracies. It is often assumed that media freedom is limited to democracies and that autocratic regimes completely control the media and suppress independent reporting.

But many autocracies enjoy some degree of media freedom, and many news sources are not fully controlled by the authorities (see figure).

The editor of the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, for example, received the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to promote freedom of expression. Additionally, the number of non-democracies with partially free mass media has increased dramatically since the end of the Cold War.

Partial media freedom in non-democracies, 1950-2010.
Source: Global Media Freedom Dataset and Varieties of Democracy Project.

On the one hand, independent media can provide information about the nature of a regime and major policy failures, helping to mobilize mass public opinion against a regime. Even partial media freedom can provide significant help to dissidents, as independent media can help convey information that facilitates mobilization.

This can make others aware of what others think and help calibrate expectations about the likelihood that dissent will attract broad support and active participation.

This can facilitate the coordination of an action plan if, for example, protest strategies can be announced and widely publicized.

A free media can also help provide dissidents with important information about the regime’s opponent. Coverage can help illuminate the specific bases of support for the regime that are more or less likely to be influenced by protest and opposition, which can, in turn, help movements assess the types of strategies to employ. .

It’s not just guesswork. Our research shows that there are many more uprisings in autocracies with partial media freedom. Moreover, anti-government protests in one country tend to encourage mobilization in others, especially when the other countries have partial media freedom.

Although dictators may allow some media freedom because it can help them better understand the opposition and potentially better adapt to challenges, our results show that media freedom is a double-edged sword, since even Partially free media can facilitate the nonviolent mobilization of dissidents, which itself can promote democratization.

What type of media has the greatest impact? Although much of the recent interest in technology and political mobilization has focused on the internet and social media, journalists and traditional media often have greater reach, especially when internet penetration is weak. And by presenting a more cohesive framing of events, they can have greater influence than individual one-off pieces on social media.

During the Georgian Rose Revolution, for example, the Rustavi-2 television channel helped disseminate information about corruption within the Shevardanze regime and mobilized support for the opposition by highlighting the leaders of the opposition, using camera angles that exaggerated support for the opposition movement (which encouraged greater participation), and showing how opposition groups were coming together to start a common movement.

Similarly, in Algeria, journalists covered the February 2019 protest in a way that helped encourage mobilization, even releasing a checklist of how nonviolent resistance could be used to topple the regime.

In many cases, journalists and newspapers are moving beyond their traditional role as independent observers to become active opposition actors. In Algeria, for example, when the regime tried to clamp down on the media and imposed censorship, journalists came out to protest the restrictions. (This raises important questions about whether journalists can or should be activists.)

Sanctions and other responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine are motivated in part by the hope that the consequences – in the case of sanctions, hardship and suffering on the part of Russians and citizens of democracies – will help mobilize popular opposition to the war and against Putin’s leadership.

But despite protests in Russia against the conflict, the strong repression of anti-war dissent will make any participation dangerous and difficult to measure the extent of popular discontent.

If tactics of concentrating large numbers of people in public places are too dangerous, tactics of scattered dissent – many events in many different places – may be more effective. Coordinating tactics and strategies requires dissemination and awareness.

Television is the most important source of information for most Russians, dominated by state-controlled channels, and authorities have blocked access to the last independent television channels. Despite this, independent newspapers such as Novata Gazeta continue to report on the consequences of the war in Ukraine in Russia.

A popular uprising in Russia to overthrow Putin will be difficult for many reasons, but these independent sources of information help preserve the possibility of an effective opposition in very difficult circumstances.


  • Martín Macías-Medellín is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Michigan.
  • Mauricio Rivera is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO).
  • Kristian Skrede Gleditsch is Regius Professor of Political Science at the University of Essex and Research Associate at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

This post was first published by Political violence at a glance March 16, 2022.

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