First Person

How ‘democratators’ threaten press freedom

August 31, 2015

As President Obama arrived in Ethiopia in July, his National Security Advisor Susan Rice was asked if she considered the country to be a democracy. “One hundred percent,” she quipped, referring to the tally in favor of the ruling party in national elections in May.

Not everyone was amused. For the activists and journalists who face harassment, imprisonment, and exile, massive state repression in Ethiopia is no laughing matter. Indeed, while the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn released six imprisoned journalists in advance of Obama’s visit, it was able to effectively deflect criticism of Ethiopia’s human rights record, noting bilateral discussions were focused on trade, security, and entrepreneurship. 

Rice’s joke was all the more troubling because it strikes at a larger challenge confronting the Obama administration and its efforts to strengthen civil society and press freedom in Africa. The president’s trip to Kenya and Ethiopia was his fourth to a region where a new generation of autocratic leaders is on the rise. These leaders have earned legitimacy and international support by winning elections. But in office, they govern with contempt for the independent institutions that define a democracy, the media foremost among them.

I call these elected autocrats “democratators,” and their influence is hardly confined to Africa. Globally the leading examples are President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and the late President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. All three won resoundingly at the polls and then used their popular mandate to consolidate control of the institutions that constrain their power. As I’ve shown elsewhere, Putin used punitive tax audits to pave the way for Kremlin-orchestrated takeovers of critical broadcasters; Chávez used his bully pulpit to rally opposition to critical media and vilify individual reporters; and Erdogan used his country’s anti-terror laws to round up and jail dozens of independent journalists, making Turkey the world’s leading jailer of journalists for several years.

These are typical democratator strategies. Democratators—as opposed to traditional dictators—prefer stealth, manipulation and subterfuge to brute force. While exploiting the global demand for formalistic elections, at home they use their popular mandate to justify repressive policies. They argue a strong hand is necessary to ensure security, fight terrorism, or promote economic development, and claim to be acting with the support of the country’s majority. Democratators often cast themselves in opposition to the media, which they point out is “unelected,” and claim represents political factions and elite economic interests.

Democratators span the globe and the ideological spectrum, from socialists like Rafael Correa of Ecuador to nationalists like Viktor Orban of Hungary. They also vary in the amount of repression they employ. In Africa, they run the gamut. On one end of the continuum are Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who subject themselves to periodic elections but are no longer fooling anyone. On the other are Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Jacob Zuma of South Africa, both of whom lead countries with strong (but threatened) independent institutions.

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President Obama’s relationship with Africa is complicated by China’s rise in the region. China is investing billions in infrastructure development in exchange for access to essential raw materials and promises no meddling questions on democracy and human rights. But there is unique value for African countries in a strong US relationship, and Obama must exploit this leverage to gain meaningful commitments on human rights and press freedom.

In fact, I traveled to Kenya the week before Obama arrived to make this point. We released a CPJ report entitled Broken Promises: How Kenya is failing to uphold its commitment to a free press in Nairobi, and received widespread coverage in the domestic and international media. I met with many journalists who described a suffocating climate in which the government fails to investigate violent attacks, publicly vilifies the media, and advocates for restrictive legislation. Stung by the criticism, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i dismissed the CPJ report as a “badly crafted joke” and “unscientific. He was considerably more conciliatory when we met with him the next day at his office, promising to investigate the outstanding killings and study the possible repeal of Kenya’s anachronistic criminal defamation law.

Obama’s Africa trip highlighted the way in which his administration, and indeed the international community, have struggled to confront this new generation of autocrats. The best approach for dealing with the rise of the democratators in Africa and globally is to move firmly away from the reliance on elections as a benchmark of democratic government and develop broader mechanism to measure the strength of independent institutions, including the media. The recognition that some of Africa’s most repressive leaders are elected should force this recalibration; and the fact that Africa’s most democratic societies are seeing an erosion in media freedom highlights the urgency.

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.