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Journal of Democracy: Breaking the News: The Role of State-Run Media

Authors: Christopher Walker, and Robert W. Orttung
January 10, 2014


"Aside from outliers such as Cuba, North Korea, and Turkmenistan, today's authoritarian regimes do not seek total domination of all the means of mass communication. What they want instead is what we might call "effective media control"—enough for them to convey their strength and puff up their claims to legitimacy while undermining potential alternatives. Such state dominance—whether exerted through overtly state-run or merely state-pliable media outlets—enables regimes to put progovernment narratives front and center while using the power of editorial omission to limit systematic criticism of official policies and actions."

Despite the rise of new media, and of media environments that generally are far more diverse and competitive than they used to be, authoritarian regimes are finding surprisingly (and alarmingly effective) ways to use media to help themselves stay in power. Media outlets controlled formally or informally by the state have become necessary to the durability of undemocratic governments around the world. The messages that such media pump out—and the public apathy that they promote—help to keep crucial regime elites from defecting and prevent alternative power centers from rising within society.

The media outlets in question may be owned and run by the state, or they may be nominally private but in fact under government control. Most authoritarian regimes—including those in China and Russia, the cutting-edge users of this model—employ both their own state media and private media to do their bidding.

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