Play #4 in the Dictator’s Playbook: Discredit the Press

Any Dictator worth his salt knows that he has to make sure he is in control of how the public views his government.  Otherwise, the public might start thinking there are better options!  Therefore, a Free Press cannot exist.  Since the Free Press is a core institution of modern democracy, and is intended to keep governments honest, a would-be Dictator has to find a way to discredit it in the minds of the public so he can justify imposing severe restrictions.  There are many examples of how to do this, from the fascist dictatorships of the 1930s through today.  A current example of this is the currently evolving Dictatorship in Venezuela under Nicolás Maduro.

Nicolas Maduro came to power in Venezuela after the death of Hugo Chavez, who, though he was no fan of democracy, had not fully dragged Venezuela into a Dictatorship (it was more of a kleptocracy inching ever so slowly toward autocracy).  It looks like Maduro has completed that transformation, since he got five lower courts to block a legal recall vote.  One of the most marked characteristics of Maduro’s rise has been his verbal attacks on the press.  As Chavez was dying, Maduro asserted through the minister of communication that the Press was waging “psychological warfare”on the public .  During the presidential election following Chavez’s death, he also accused Televen, a media outlet, of being responsible for an outbreak of political violence because it covered an opposition candidate.  Maduro has said mainstream media outlets are used as “weapons against the people, fomenting lies and aiding economic groups.”  Subsequently, he used this narrative that the press was attacking the people to create the “Joint Chiefs of Communications” to “counteract the ‘twisted’ information” distributed by the news media. (All of the above taken from the 2013 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, p. 337).  By 2015, over 25 media organizations had changed hands and were owned by individuals or companies with a direct relationship with local or national government.(Linked to Wikipedia for English language description of Spanish language content.)  By discrediting the Press, and blaming it for the country’s problems, Maduro could follow a path cleared by Chavez toward ending Press freedom in Venezuela.

Discrediting the Press is essential to ending a democracy.  As long as there is one credible press outlet saying something contrary to the government’s narrative, there is an opposition to the regime.  This play does not always end in Dictatorship.  God knows Richard Nixon tried his best to discredit the Press during the Watergate scandal. However, he did not declare the entire news media to be the enemy of the American People.  He just picked on the Washington Post.  When the Press is successfully discredited, Dictators tend to move on to censoring content and murdering journalists.  So the real mark of a would-be Dictator is not just hostility to the press, it is a concerted campaign to pit the Press against the people, so he can dispose of it as he sees fit.