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Press Freedom and the New Whataboutism

One of the more entertaining adornments to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to return Russia to some form of imperial influence has been his routine indulging in “whataboutism,” the practice of attempting to highlight the West’s hypocrisy when criticizing Moscow. In the Soviet era, it had a distinct purpose: because the Soviets wanted to spread worldwide ideological revolution, they felt obligated to challenge any assertion or evidence that freedom was better than totalitarianism.

Nowadays, because Putin believes in nothing but wealth and power, Russian whataboutism has lost some of its edge. China, too, has dabbled in its own whataboutism in recent years, encouraging the mention of Western freedom of the press to be qualified with a snide “so-called” preceding it. The two occasionally converge, however, with a helping hand from the West. Such is the case with this ominous-sounding media column from the New York Times’s David Carr. Headlined “Where Freedom of the Press Is Muffled,” Carr wants to talk about the plight of journalists in China–and the Anglosphere:

In China on Thursday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke plainly about the role of a free press in a democratic society. …

He was speaking against the backdrop of China’s restrictive policies on reporting by foreign news organizations; the Chinese government has so far declined to renew the visas of nearly two dozen reporters from The New York Times and Bloomberg News as a consequence of their coverage, raising the possibility that they could be forced to leave China at the end of the year.

It was the first time a high-ranking United States official had spoken publicly about the professional plight of journalists seeking to fully report on China.

While it was heartening to see the White House at the forefront of the effort to ensure an unfettered press, government officials in Britain, a supposedly advanced democracy and the United States’ closest ally, might do well to consider Mr. Biden’s words. (Some of his colleagues in the Justice Department, which has ferociously prosecuted leakers, might take heed as well, but that’s a matter for a different day.)

In one fell swoop, Carr seemed to be engaged in an ever-escalating bout of whataboutism against himself. The Chinese are restricting freedom of the press, Carr says. Well what about Britain, responds Carr. Don’t forget the United States, retorts Carr. (The game ends there; in whataboutism, American hypocrisy is always the winning hand.)

But it’s not as though Carr wasn’t onto something. Britain and the Obama administration have both recently behaved in ways inimical to true press freedom, and it is indeed more offensive for this to happen in America, which has the First Amendment, notwithstanding Carr’s disdainful swipe at Britain being a “supposedly advanced democracy.”

Nonetheless, the treatment of journalists, even Western journalists, in China is of course far worse than in the West. And it may be heading to a crisis point. Isaac Stone Fish has a comprehensive write-up of the ongoing saga at Foreign Policy, detailing the increased attempts at censoring the more active foreign bureaus of the Times and Bloomberg. The latter is even embroiled in its own scandal amid accusations of self-censorship to keep the Chinese government happy. The whole article is worth reading, but the upshot is that it’s not out of the question that China would expel the bureaus:

If Beijing actually does plan to expel both bureaus it would constitute the government’s biggest move against foreign reporters at least since the upheaval following the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Evan Osnos, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a long-time China correspondent, called this recent move “the Chinese government’s most dramatic attempt to insulate itself from scrutiny in the thirty-five years since China began opening to the world.” Paul Mooney, a longtime China-based chronicler of that country’s human rights abuses, had his visa rejected in early November, in another sign of tightening for foreign correspondents in China. Reuters, Bloomberg, and the New York Times “don’t have the ability to influence the Chinese government,” said Mooney. “I think we really need to have some kind of action. Maybe against media executives in China, or officials — to give the message that this is not acceptable.”

What authoritarian regimes are finding out is that in the age of a democratized Web, which creates far more competition for stories among the press, and social media, which enables the citizens in many cases to turn the surveillance state against itself, the traditional avenues of influencing public opinion are subject to diminishing returns. All this means that state-run media are increasingly ineffective.

How to better control the conversation, in that environment? The Chinese response has been to elbow out the foreign press, if they don’t bow to bullying. The Russian response was somewhat novel. Putin dissolved the state news agency in favor of the creation of what is essentially a public-relations firm, dropping the pretense entirely. Putin has always been obsessed with image, but even this is a bit much–though more honest, I suppose, in its own twisted way.

Yet neither should be brushed off lightly. Authoritarian regimes that act like they have even more to hide probably do–or will in the near future.


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