The authoritarians examined in this study are pursuing a comprehensive set of illiberal policies that are contesting democracy in practical terms, as well as in the broader battle of ideas. Increasingly sophisticated and backed by considerable resources, these efforts are challenging assumptions about the inevitability of democratic development.
State control over news content and its delivery mechanisms has long been a key feature of authoritarian systems. Recognizing that a genuine competition of ideas and a well-informed public spell trouble for regime security, authoritarian rulers devote extensive resources to managing and manipulating the news. Among the 21st-century variations of this strategy is the emergence of state television broadcasts aimed at overseas audiences. These initiatives—including Russia Today, Iran’s Press TV, and Venezuela’s Telesur—are part of a broader effort by leading authoritarian states to project their influence beyond national borders. China, meanwhile, has embarked on its own ambitious plan to shape international views.
Russia Today: The television channel Russia Today is a Kremlin initiative that broadcasts to North America, Europe, and Asia. It is overseen by the state-controlled RIA Novosti news agency, and at the time of its global launch in 2005, it reportedly had a staff of over 300 and $30 million in start-up capital.1 As of May 2008, the Russian government was believed to have invested some $100 million in the project.2 Iran’s Press TV: Iran launched the 24-hour, English-language satellite station Press TV in 2007, with a reported worldwide staff of 400 people.
Venezuela’s Telesur: Launched in 2005, Venezuela’s Telesur is a multimillion-dollar, 24-hour cable news network designed to advance “a new international communications order,” according to Venezuela’s minister of information.
China’s Growing International Media Ambitions: China’s state-controlled news organizations anticipate spending billions of dollars on expanding overseas media operations in a bid to improve the country’s image abroad. The plans include opening more overseas bureaus, publishing more content in English and other languages, and hiring English-speaking Chinese and foreign media specialists. The Chinese government in January 2009 announced plans to launch an international, 24-hour news channel with correspondents around the globe.3 According to reports in early 2009, the government had reportedly set aside between $6 billion and $10 billion for this and other media expansion efforts.4 China Central Television (CCTV), which currently holds a monopoly on television coverage of significant news in China, will multiply its channels from the present 13 to more than 200, all of them digital.5