The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ukraine shows the press is the enemy of tyrants, not the people

A selection of British national newspapers on March 10. (Alastair Grant/AP)
5 min

Global press freedom has been under assault from authoritarians and right-wing populist movements for years, as Freedom House has documented. Rarely has this been as clear as it is in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin felt so threatened by independent reporting that he cut off his country’s access to Twitter and Facebook and imposed a 15-year prison sentence for anyone who spreads information that runs counter to the government’s narrative of the war. The New York Times reports that, according to data from Amnesty International, “150 journalists had fled the country to avoid the new law, which Marie Struthers, the group’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, called ‘a scorched-earth strategy that has turned Russia’s media landscape into a wasteland.’ ”

Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, tells me, “Putin’s extraordinary effort to block ordinary Russians from receiving accurate information about the invasion of Ukraine, including lengthy prison sentences for those who describe a war as a war, illustrates how freedom of the media is a foundational element of democracy.” He adds: “Right now in Ukraine, and in other repressive regimes, journalists, from household names to freelancers, are risking their lives to share stories that make the world understand and care, not just about Ukrainians, but about the danger we all face when authoritarianism goes unchecked.”

In the past few days, three journalists have been killed in Ukraine. American freelance journalist Brent Renaud was shot on Sunday, and Fox News’s Pierre Zakrzewski and his Ukrainian colleague, Oleksandra Kuvshynova, were killed outside Kiev on Monday. White House press secretary Jen Psaki could not confirm whether the journalists were specifically targeted, but their deaths are consistent with Russia’s deliberate targeting of civilians and its effort to control what information reaches Russians and the rest of the world.

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Dissidents understand all too well the necessity of breaking through autocrats’ chokehold on the media. Marina Ovsyannikova, a producer at a Russian state-controlled TV station, courageously burst onto the set of Channel One during a live news telecast on Monday chanting “stop the war" and denouncing government “propaganda.” She also recorded a video message: “What is going on in Ukraine is a crime,” she declared. “Unfortunately, I have been working at Channel One during recent years, working on Kremlin propaganda. And now I am very ashamed.” She reiterated, “I am ashamed that I’ve allowed the lies to be said on the TV screens. I am ashamed that I let the Russian people be zombified.”

Human rights groups feared the worst after Ovsyannikova disappeared for hours. She reappeared, having been fined. Russian authorities may well take more severe action to reassert their domination of information. Breaking through state-sponsored lies in such a dramatic way makes her as powerful a threat to Putin as Western sanctions or Ukrainian antitank weapons.

The vivid images and on-the-scene reporting from Western journalists have galvanized public opinion to an extent few expected. The coverage has resulted in radical changes in German energy and national security policy, a new solidarity among NATO allies, waves of economic sanctions and a 180-degree shift in attitudes toward Russia among many Republican politicians and pundits. Without direct reports from Ukrainian cities and towns, it is conceivable that Western leaders would not have reacted as rapidly and vehemently as they have.

This provides stark lessons about freedom, right-wing populism and democracy. Above all, we see how the media has become the enemy of authoritarians who seek to control the truth or make it unknowable.

As Jonathan Rauch, the author of “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth,” explained: “There are forces out there — there always have been since day one, since Galileo was in prison — that have said it’s inconvenient to have to follow all these rules to decide what’s true. ‘I know what’s true. I should be able to impose that. I should be able to censor or silence the people who disagree with me.” As Rauch explains, a demagogue’s mind-set is: “I want to say I won the election. It’s inconvenient that other people say I lost it.’ ”

Democracies cannot survive if truth and independent sources of information are strangled. They depend on the free interchange of ideas, voters’ ability to hold leaders accountable (which necessitates knowing what they are up to) and consensus about election outcomes. For that reason, the “big lie” of a stolen election, Rauch argues, was “the most massive and successful disinformation campaign that’s ever been run in the U.S. and it’s being run by Americans against other Americans.” It’s no coincidence that the most significant threat to democracy in our lifetimes originated with authoritarian bullies who attempted to decide what is true — and to discredit those who doubt them.

As the West re-embraces democracy, we should keep in mind the institutions and values that allow it to survive. When news outlets become merely propaganda outlets for the powerful and truth becomes whatever a leader says it is, democracy is in peril. There should be no doubt: When a politician attacks a free press, he is the enemy of democracy, not the voice of the “people.”