“Political Will” as a Scarce Resource: Media Reform in Authoritarian Settings

Media act as conduits for politically consequential ideas; as such, their political significance is highly relevant. Advances in mass media—first in print, then over broadcast, and most recently on the Internet—have only magnified their reach, influence, and importance. It is therefore no wonder that political elites seek to harness and exert control over media. As the Center for International Media Assistance’s (CIMA’s) Paul Rothman notes in a new report, “control over the [media] sector holds immense value for elites who aim to further their own political or economic interests.”

Rothman writes that despite media’s fundamentally political nature, media development in the decades following communism’s collapse largely focused on “technical projects, training, and capacity building but paid little attention to broader national-level political contexts:”; as a result, much of it failed to engender a thriving independent media. In light of this, he observes, development approaches began to focus on “identifying political will and local processes of change.”

One of the CIMA report’s most valuable contributions is the way it breaks down the term “political will,” which is frequently used as a way of saying “politicians have no interest in this.” Too often, the analysis stops there. This is because “political will” is a resource that cannot be bought in a shop or mined from the earth; its sources are more obscure. Rothman’s paper encourages media development practitioners to conduct a more fine-grained analysis of the incentive structures that generate political will and the development bottlenecks caused by its scarcity.

Rothman’s suggestions for uncovering and leveraging will to reform–including domestic coalition-building, the creation of parliamentary networks, and empowerment of local actors–are best suited for relatively open or hybrid political settings. Under authoritarian governments, however, such tactics are likely to encounter firm resistance from the state. It is often these countries where “political will” for reform is most rare. But does that mean there is no way to find and leverage it?

Another report, published by the International Forum for Democratic Studies and titled “Stifling the Public Sphere: Media and Civil Society in Egypt, Russia, and Vietnam,” describes the climate for media freedom under these three repressive governments. The report’s introduction dissects the dilemma faced by modern authoritarian regimes: they are unable to unlock economic growth and curb pervasive corruption without a healthy, independent media sector; at the same time, they are unwilling to relinquish the media controls that serve as key pillars of their rule.

So far, in each of these cases the government has opted for greater media repression. In Egypt, Sherif Mansour explains that continuing instability and economic malaise following the Arab uprisings highlight the desperate need for change despite the Sisi regime’s continuing crackdown. In Russia, Maria Snegovaya writes that the Putin regime is increasingly relying on xenophobic domestic propaganda as it strangles independent media; now, it has turned its gaze outward and uses its sizable international media apparatus to subvert narratives in foreign settings. In Vietnam, Zachary Abuza describes how a series of arrests and political decrees aimed at curtailing the activities of bloggers and journalists has led to declining online freedom despite skyrocketing rates of Internet access.

Of the three cases, Vietnam has perhaps the best prospects for political reform. Abuza writes that:

In the longer term, the [Vietnamese Communist Party] will have to deal with a fundamental contradiction in its core interests: The one-party system cannot survive if corruption remains unchecked, but graft cannot be rooted out without the exposure provided by a free press, which—once unleashed—could itself present a threat to one-party rule… Similarly, economic growth is a mainstay of the government’s legitimacy, but further progress will be hampered in the absence of transparency and the free flow of information.

Fearful of economic stagnation and anxious about the growing assertiveness of neighboring China, Vietnam’s leadership faces a growing challenge of squaring a circle when it comes to meaningful reform of its media sector and liberalizing the country’s politics, more generally. This challenge speaks to the dilemma of achieving reform in authoritarian settings where political will for reform is in short supply.

How might reform advocates pursue change in these settings? In one-party states like Vietnam, parliamentary coalition-building is probably a non-starter. But there are other constituencies with which engagement may pay dividends: for instance, institutions such as chambers of commerce, bar associations, and local journalists associations sometimes have leeway to advocate for reform and may be supported by elites who recognize reform’s necessity. Such organizations may be able to preserve or, with time, even expand the space for free media. Human-rights conscious policymakers in foreign governments also possess broad but powerful tools—including carrots, such as trade and defense agreements, and sticks, such as sanctions or diplomatic condemnations—through which they can, with great patience, influence the strategic environment in which authoritarian elites weigh the tradeoff between crackdown and reform.

But in authoritarian settings where political will is a scarce resource, reformers will likely find their path to be long, uncertain, and beset by resistance from the state.

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