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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Liberals Reap What They've Sown

Together with its blocks of commercials, NTV has for some time been screening a dramatic picture of a masked man forcing the company's familiar symbols out of the way. The purpose of the scene is clear: Freedom of speech may soon be taken from us. Still more significant is that the heads of NTV clearly identify freedom of speech with their own enterprise. So long as there is NTV, there is freedom. When there is no NTV, there will be no freedom either.

Indeed, the Russian authorities cannot be described as ardent supporters of free speech or of human rights in general. The problem, however, does not lie here. The tragedy is that the journalists defending themselves against Kremlin attacks are simply not consistent or principled adherents of freedom.

Quite the reverse; throughout the 1990s they showed they did not care at all for anyone else's freedom or rights.

Is it any surprise that despite all the plaints of the liberal intelligentsia, society as a whole is not showing any great interest in the fate of the disgraced television company? For decades, the journalistic elite did not conceal its contempt for the "riff-raff," that is to say, for perhaps 80 per cent of the country's population.

Society has paid the journalists back in the same coin.

Liberal journalism summoned the specter of "enlightened" authoritarianism to haunt our country. Liberal commentators praised Pinochet to the skies, and explained to the public that dictators who shoot communists cannot be placed on the same level with the vile communists, even if these communists have never shot anyone themselves.

The authoritarianism for which the media called was "enlightened" in the sense that it would know how to distinguish its own people from the rest. It would defend market reforms from the "stupid" mass of the population, which had the obstinate habit of constantly voting for the wrong candidates.

Throughout the 1990s, the liberal mass media systematically denied the right of expression to anyone who diverged, even a little, from the norms accepted in this milieu. In 1989, a wall that had seemed unbreachable collapsed before people's eyes.

But with the appearance of a free and independent editor in place of the censor, it was as though the wall of ideological control rose up anew. Worse, the liberal editors, unlike the Soviet censors of the late 1980s, really believed in what they were propagandizing.

During the first Chechnya war, independent television took an anti-militarist position, which enhanced its authority in society. The sincerity of this position came into question, however, when the same journalists took a diametrically opposite stance regarding the second Chechnya war.

In the second Chechen war, "free" television not only failed to transmit reports that contradicted the official communiques, but without comment or irony they broadcast any absurdity coming from the army command or Kremlin functionaries.

Attempts to justify this by referring to "changed moods in society" are ridiculous, since no such changes have occurred.

All that has changed has been the flow of information about these moods. During the first war, a group of 10 anti-war picketers was swamped by journalists, while in 1999-2000, even quite large public demonstrations went unreported.

In this respect, "independent" television did not differ in the slightest from the official system. What to report and how has been a question of political expediency. This is the principle that triumphed then and that is triumphing today. The tactical calculations from which the media bosses proceed mean more to them than our right to know the truth.

The purpose of the propaganda media structures has never been to inform the population, but to hide from them what is really happening. The truth about ideas and opinions that are inconvenient for the elite has been concealed even more painstakingly than news of unpleasant events.

An event, after all, can be interpreted in different ways.

If you have a monopoly on interpretation, you needn't fear events.

From the beginning, the media have identified freedom with private property, democracy with capitalism and the market, and the market in turn with universal privatization and social irresponsibility. As a result, they have effectively eliminated democratic discussion.

Anyone who understands democracy a little differently has simply been deprived of the right to express their views.

The media have been prepared (on their own terms, of course) to allow nationalists, fascists, Stalinists — in short, everyone who hates freedom on principle — to be heard. But under no circumstances have they allowed even a hint of the fact that a different democratic ideology, a different understanding of freedom, might be possible.

Throughout the 1990s, a large part of society supported the ideals of democratization, but to one degree or another rejected the social and economic program of liberal reform. This program could only be imposed according to the logic of the Soviet "loaded trade-off."

If you want political freedom, then you'll have to take "free capitalism" as well. A large section of the intelligentsia sincerely believed that this connection was indissoluble, but from the point of view of democracy and freedom of speech it is not important what your opinion is. What is important is the degree to which this opinion triumphs in free and equal contention with other opinions.

The criticism coming from the nationalists has been obviously ineffective, and hence admissible. The criticism from socialists, environmentalists and left democrats has potentially been far more subversive, since it places in doubt the main thesis that the media have impressed on the public every day: that the Chubais reforms represent the only road to democracy. For some reason, liberals are now surprised that the nation's disappointment with capitalism is turning into indifference toward democracy.

In Poland in the early 1980s, when the Solidarity trade union led millions into the streets, one of the slogans ran, "The mass media should not shape public opinion, but reflect it!" It is highly significant that Russia's liberals never even set themselves such a goal.

The result has been a comprehensive propaganda whose effectiveness has exceeded Orwell's worst nightmare. The ruling ideology penetrates every pore of the social organism, now in the guise of a commercial advertisement, now hidden beneath the name — incomprehensible to most Russians — of public relations, now appearing as journalism.

Having forged a mighty propaganda weapon, liberal journalists are now surprised that the state wants to appropriate it. For the state to do so, however, is at least logical. A private propaganda channel is just as much a threat as a private army.

If a state monopoly is imposed on propaganda, this will not necessarily represent a triumph for the authorities. The information wars of the past two years have carried on to the point where society's psychological resources are totally exhausted. We have grown tired of propaganda.

By imposing its control on the mass media, the Kremlin is also concentrating on itself society's mistrust, irritation and protest. If a lie is unified, that does not make it more like the truth. Instead, the gap between propaganda and reality becomes more obvious.

Liberal journalism is losing, but the Kremlin is probably not winning anything. The liberals laid the basis for a regime that is now quite seriously inclined to devour them.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.