A recently published report by Freedom House describes an overall decline in political rights and civil liberties around the world in 2014, concluding that democratic ideals are under the greatest threat in 25 years. The most explicit rejection of democratic standards occurred in the areas of freedom of expression, civil society, and rule of law. However, as Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung point out in their recent paper, “aside from outliers such as Cuba, North Korea, and Turkmenistan, today’s authoritarian regimes do not seek total domination of all means of mass communication. What they want instead is what we might call ‘effective media control’—enough for them to convey their strength and puff up their claims to legitimacy while undermining potential alternatives.”

Take Russia, for example. Although according to Freedom House its civil liberties rating declined from 5 to 6 and reached China’s level due to expanded media controls, a dramatically increased level of propaganda on state-controlled television, and new restrictions on the ability of some citizens to travel abroad, multiple freedoms remain. Internet is still relatively free and several independent media outlets and social venues continue propagating viewpoints alternative to the Kremlin’s own. Opponents of the current political system enjoy relative freedom of expression even while the authorities continue to tighten the screws, claiming victims in seemingly haphazard fashion.

Is there logic to this selective censorship? In his prominent article “Anaconda in the Chandelier” Perry Link explains that China pioneered such selective repression decades ago. Since then it has actively shared its experience with other authoritarian regimes, such as Belarus, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and, potentially, Russia, if one is to judge by the similarity of its methods. Instead of borrowing the Soviet practices of maintaining long lists of prohibited sentences and bureaucrats to enforce them, China switched to what was essentially psychological control implemented through a system of self-censorship. The Chinese regime deliberately chose the path of “strategic uncertainty” through selective media censorship. If, for example, two publications run articles exposing the same corrupt officials, the Chinese authorities might ban one publication but not the other. This form of erratic recrimination creates uncertainty in the minds of journalists. It prompts them to censor their own activities and to minimize potential damage by refraining from criticizing the system. The stakes are high: a miscalculation could lead to dismissal, imprisonment or even death.

One such case concerns U.S. sociologists Gao Zhan and Li Shaomin, who were arrested on charges of espionage in 2002 during a research trip to China. The exact nature of the charges for which they were imprisoned and the documents they had allegedly collected—aside from some sold in ordinary Chinese bookstores—remained undisclosed. This story calls to mind the recent case of Svetlana Davydova, who was initially imprisoned on charges of high treason for informing the Ukrainian Embassy that the troops in her hometown Viazma might be deployed to Ukraine. In this case, the charges looked fragile: Davydova overheard a Russian soldier speaking loudly on his telephone in a public bus. If the actual goal had been to enforce justice, the authorities would have probably punished the soldier for revealing such a secret. However, if the goal was to intimidate the public into turning a blind eye to troop and heavy equipment movements, bringing a case against Davydova made sense.

Such a system of selective repression has a clear advantage over traditional mass repression—it’s very inexpensive: the arbitrary jailing of a single person makes hundreds of thousands of others scared and eager to control their words and actions. This lack of transparency effectively creates an atmosphere of self-censorship.

The Chinese media are controlled by the Central Propaganda Department and its multiple regional offices, which arbitrarily choose which newspapers to shut down, which chief editors to fire or jail. The decision is typically made post-factum (after a certain article has been published), making it all the more unpredictable. As a result, the Chinese media only criticize the authorities over inconsequential matters and avoid expressing criticism on important issues. The same is true of academic scholars, since intellectuals can similarly end up jobless or in jail if they are deemed overly critical of the authorities. The unpredictability and randomness of the punishment creates universal incentives to comply with unwritten rules.

The Russian regime seems to be actively borrowing from the Chinese. A number of prohibitive laws adopted by the Duma in recent years possess deliberately vague wording, which allows for multiple interpretations and gives the authorities freedom to inflict punishment at their discretion. For example, Svetlana Davydova was charged with state treason on the basis of November 2012 amendments to the Criminal Code that broadened the definition of “high treason” to include the “provision of financial, material, advisory and other assistance” to a foreign state or international or foreign organization. But under such a definition even a mundane newspaper interview may constitute “high treason.” Other similarly vague pieces of legislation include recently adopted laws on extremism, inciting hatred, religious feelings, and distorting the results of World War II. While systematic enforcement of such laws is unlikely, their selective application enables the authorities to apply severe and discretionary punishments to opponents of the system.

By this logic it makes sense for the Russian authorities not to jail Alexei Navalny while putting other, less prominent regime opponents behind the bars. Likewise it makes sense to randomly ban certain independent media outlets, while permitting others to continue operating. While complete elimination of any critical viewpoints would be both overly costly and dangerous for the regime (as a boiling pot may explode without a hole to vent off steam), control over the population is maintained through psychological repression and selective punishment of opponents. The repression mechanism therefore operates from inside of people’s minds. The promoters of democracy have yet to figure out ways to respond to such a challenge.

Maria Snegovaya, a former visiting fellow at Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, is currently a doctoral candidate in Columbia’s Department of Political Science and a columnist at Vedomosti business daily.

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  • Maria Snegovaya