Tag Archives: freedom of the press

Plurality, Triangulation and the Truth

Anyone in an open society has the advantage of seeing what Putin and his nation cannot. One of the glories of an open society is that information travels easily and mostly unencumbered.

American intelligence reports note that Vladimir Putin has functionally locked himself and his nation behind a media firewall, afraid to let his citizens hear what the world knows. The Russian dictator is notorious for keeping his own council.  But it seems worse this time, with many of his aides apparently willing to be the bearer of bad news. So even though he has initiated the human catastrophe of the Ukraine war, he and many Russians may still know little of the horrors that have been unleashed. As the New York Times’ Tom Friedman recently noted, “Putin, it turns out, [has] no clue what world he was living in, no clue about the frailties of his own system, no clue how much the whole free, democratic world could and would join the fight against him in Ukraine, and no clue, most of all, about how many people would be watching.” Meanwhile, most of the gains Russia achieved in the last 20 years are being rolled back by sanctions imposed by the world’s democracies.

By contrast, ordinary citizens in most of the rest of the developed world could fill him about the aimless marauding of the Russian Army. Most anyone in an open society has the advantage of seeing what Putin and his nation cannot. One of the glories of free societies is that information travels freely and mostly unencumbered. The democracies of the world take access to a multitude of sources doing credible reporting as their birthright. Individual sources may not always be accurate. But without much effort, citizens can “triangulate” between multiple sources to find truths that seem to be reasonably solid. If a conservative-leaning source confirms the same conclusion as a more liberal outlet, we can judge that the news is probably accurate.  If one outlet plays favorites, a thoughtful reader–and their are too few–will cross check with other sources before reaching a conclusion.

Now, imagine living in a prison where the only loudspeaker ever heard is controlled by the guards. Welcome to North Korea or Russia, trying to impose the medieval values of top-down control on their citizens.

In no particular order, here are some easily accessible news-gathering outlets, available mostly for free to Americans via their ubiquitous computers, and key websites like YouTube. All outlets on this partial list are doing original reporting in English from Ukraine and Eastern Europe:

  France 24

  BBC  (U.K.)

 Agence France-Presse (AFP)

  Associated Press

  MSNBC/NBC

  CNN

  New York Times

  NHK (Japan)

Washington Post

Reuters

The New Yorker

  Deutsche Welle (Germany)

  The Guardian

And there are so many more:  NPR, CBC (Canada), PBS, Fox News, Sky News, ABC, CBS, ABC News (Australia), The Atlantic, Channel 4 News (UK), ITV, and others.

Free access to the press is a good reminder of why we protect our freedoms. The media firewall denying Russian citizens the same kind of access is as good an indicator as any of a failed state.

Russia as North Korea

Can real news reporting be shut down in Russia as completely as it has been in North Korea?

Many of us studying modern communications patterns have confidently affirmed what seems like the obvious point that digital media have made political boundaries much more permeable. In a word, national borders mean far less than they used to. The follow up is that most frontiers are now pierced by social media, internet access, and personal media in the form of phones and digital files. The files in phones and other devices are an interesting case. Some are so small you can lose track of their tiny memory chips within them.  A person can travel with an encrypted SD card or thumb drive that will probably not be detected by border security.

It was easier for totalitarian regimes at the height of the cold war to jam short wave broadcasts or confiscate the magazines and newspapers of travelers. Yet, even with these older media forms bled their content into Soviet-controlled East Berlin. Residents there couldn’t help but notice the relative freedom and prosperity of their neighbors on the other side of the wall.

True, the additional example of North Korea is a special case. It sits under a total blackout as dense as the concrete and steel sarcophagus that contains the radioactivity of Chernobyl’s power plant. But the North has had a lot of time to lock down its tightly closed society.  And yet K-pop and some news from the south still gets in. For its efforts at isolation, North Korea has paid the high price of a mostly impoverished population.

Russia is different. After the disintegration of the Soviet state, Russians got a taste of western affluence and a semblance of diversity in some of its news media. For a time, Vladimir Putin seemed to be following the path of Mikhail Gorbachev in warming to European neighbors to the West.

But in recent years Putin’s persistent belief of post-Soviet humiliation has changed everything. Using the thinnest of pretexts to invade Ukraine, his current march backwards into the deep-freeze of the Cold War is a play to a persistently quiescent Russia for an expanded national identity that is decades out of date. The fairy tale of a “special military operation” requires that residents never call it the bloody “war” that it is; instead, the rest of the world has to witness what they cannot be shown.  And so a new Iron Curtain has descended, testing the permeability thesis many of us so confidently made.

In the new media clampdown reminiscent of China’s “Great Firewall,” millions this week have been blocked from online access to Facebook, Instagram and other platforms. Instagram alone had 60 million users in Russia. But with threats of years in prison for even carrying an antiwar sign, most Russians may well succumb to what has become another turn in the cycle of exchanging personal freedom for the dubious comforts of living under a strong leader.

Current threats of punishment and jail time for simply describing what is going on in Ukraine have also required the partial closures of the not-easily-intimidated foreign press. Among others, CNN and The New York Times concluded that their reporters would be jailed if they remained.

It’s hard to get a clear picture of how tight the embargo of information from western news sources is. It seems to change by the day, but it is clear that many Russians have far less exposure to honest reporting about the atrocities carried out in their name. And at least for now, too many are cowed into believing the phony news promoted by government “news” sources.

I’m still convinced that, in the longer run, this wall of censorship will be pierced via internet VPNs, routine phone use, and through media that travels, as it used to in Soviet times, from person to person. Remember eastern bloc samizdat in the 1980s?  This kind of self-published news was passed around to voracious Russian readers. Samizdat was one reason the old Soviet bloc feared copy machines in businesses. Users were required to notify an official “hammer man” when it had reached the end of its life.  He would be sure it would not become a printing press.

In the meantime, travel in and out of Russia may take communications back to an earlier definition: the transportation of information from place to place. That will happen at least until the devolving situation makes even more citizens realize that they have again become prisoners in their own borders.