Mainstream media has been on the forefront of promoting civil society while at the same time speaking against it. The way issues covered are presented to the audience can cause a stir up or resolution. Most of the time, international newsrooms would urge third world countries (especially Africa, Latin America and Middle East) to give room for civil society and allow non-government organizations to operate without interference from the respective governments. Surprisingly, back at home those media houses would speak against their governments promoting civil society by funding. Both the American and the British governments have been under fire from media critics over funding aid programs. The arguments presented in most cases is that parent countries are left half empty while promoting civil society thus threatening the welfare of both American and British citizens respectively.
Russia against civil society
Civil society has been accused of being creations of foreign governments with ill-motives behind public goodwill. The most shocking news that emerged last year in regard to civil society was Russia’s outlawing Non-government organizations (NGOs). In article published by BBC back in late May last year, it was reported that President Vladimir Putin had signed a bill which allowed the his government to ban foreign organizations from operation in Russia. The Guardian went ahead and pointed out that the organizations which receive funding from foreign countries have been labeled as ‘foreign agents. It is illegal to operate espionage organizations in most countries. The media also highlighted that there was lack of transparency in Putin’s government and banning civil society is an effort by the Russian government to thwart democracy.
Human rights movement became illegal in Russia in what Foreign Affairs referred to as “Moscow busy shutting down the operation of foreign organization and cutting the flow of donor funds”. It is reported that most of NGOs have already left Russia. The Guardian revealed that once the Russian government felt threatened by any organization trying to challenge the ‘foundation of its constitution, capabilities to defend the motherland or it its security status’ then such a body becomes labeled as undesirable meaning that it is illegal. This suggests that instead of civil society being promoted, it has been observed as possible challenge to foreign relations. Furthermore all the groups that fell under the category of ‘undesirable’ organizations are handled by the prosecution and the foreign ministry instead of the courts thus suggesting the level of seriousness addressed.
The Guardian also highlighted Russia’s effort to shift from the Soviet period by isolating itself from other countries. For instance, it increasingly formulated isolationist policies in order to set itself apart in terms of relations with the western world due to the fall out following the Ukraine conflict. Russia’s stand in the conflict and lack of foreign support led to isolation which saw many foreign organizations and international NGOS stop operating in the country. Government officials were quoted referring to civil society as ‘destructive organizations’ which could threaten “the founding values of the Russian state” and stir up “color revolutions”. Color revolutions refer to protests for regime change as witnessed in Ukraine. The media fails to positively highlight the plights of the government due to the assumption that people need change. Cultural Revolution in the soviet is as old as cold war but the government has the duty to safeguard state borders as well as interests of the Russian citizens.
An attempt to change Russia’s political scene through civil society would be futile according to Amnesty International. It is not because of the paranoia associated with the behavior of Russians all over the world but its role on the global scene. Russia is among the countries that have veto power in the United Nations Security Council. It is legally allowed to participate in formulation of policies that can change the entire world. Therefore, Russia’s involvement in foreign affairs cannot be questioned. Recently, it has been actively involved in the Syrian crisis by fighting against the Islamic State terrorists. Russia’s preference to using military force rather than diplomatic means in the Levant (previously Afghanistan too) displays it stand on international affairs. Exerting force and not supporting civil society is reflected back in the home country.
Amnesty International outlined that Russian NGOs are not trusted by their own government within state boundaries thus they are treated like enemies of state. In November 2015, The Human Rights Centre “Memorial” was officially identified as ‘undesirable’ by the Ministry of Justice for publishing material that were said to undermine the constitutional order of the Russian Federation on its website. The organization was said to have been calling for change in the political regime by overthrowing the government. The media asserts that such an act marked the beginning of a process that will end up bring about devastating consequences to civil society. Members of the organization were to wait for criminal prosecution, fining as per the Code of Administrative Violations and eventually termination of the group. Amnesty International expressed that closing “The Memorial” would later have a negative impact on the Russian civil society which would suffer the greatest blow. It is also highlighted that freedom of expression has not been up in stitches since Putin’s was elected in 2012. The media held that Putin’s administration has been sabotaging freedom of expression by putting it under siege.
McGill stressed that Russia was fighting to silence any kind of criticism against the government. ‘Memorial’ had published articles which criticized Russia’s role in the conflict that took place in Eastern Ukraine. Its actions were described as aggressive and the organization denounced criminal prosecution of protestors who participated in an opposition rally in Bolotnaya Square. The Russian media had portrayed both the ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘color revolutions’ as subversive movements that were funded by foreigners. It led to the formulation of the ‘foreign agents law’ which required civil society organizations to register as carrying out duties of a foreign agent as long as they received foreign funding. A significant characteristic of civil society is independence from business (market) and the government (state). However, once an organization acknowledged receiving of foreign funding it was required to participate in ‘political activities’ as well as publicize that it was carrying out roles of foreign agents.
The Guardian published an article which ran the title “National Endowment for Democracy is first ‘undesirable’ NGO banned in Russia. Democracy being a western idea does not seem to be preferable to everyone else. As portrayed by the media, Russia is heading to elections and there is doubt created by labeling civil society illegal or ‘undesirable’. The Guardian emphasized that civil society seeks to promote democracy and called for governments to support civil society organizations. Grant pointed out that Russia’s support for democracy in the Eurasia region has been impeded by its efforts of trying to create a sphere of influence exclusively over former constituents of the Soviet Union. The Maidan Revolution of Ukraine brought down a government that was corrupt yet Russia’s president took it as an external threat to their international influence and dominance in power back home. Grant expressed that since 2014, Russia has been trying gain advantage in order to strengthen authoritarianism in the Eurasian region.
Russia’s actions have had an impact to the neighboring countries which have taken advantage of the situation to launch their own attacks against civil society. President Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan carried out a crackdown on NGOs by closing them down and putting critics behind bars in the heat of the moment. Lawyers, human rights activists and journalists have been racked up and imprisoned. Kyrgyzstan followed suite and just like Russia introduced repressive laws against civil society in order to stigmatize such organizations. Steps to fight democracy in the region have been escalated by the Customs Union which has been expanded and used for promoting Russia’s authoritarian policies.
Democratic ambitions in Armenia have come to a standstill after its decision to join the Eurasian Customs Union. Civic activists became increasingly active due to the upcoming local elections as well as social concerns. Environmental conservation and military control of civic activities has been under pressure from civil society. A civil society organization known as The Endowment came up with a number of programs in Armenia so as to support democratic initiatives. Ecological Rights was on the forefront focusing on bringing accountability to development projects while the Journalist Club Asparez started the Army in Reality initiative to speak against military control of civic activities.
Russia’s influence spilled over to Central Asia where the conditions grew worse for civil society. The Tajikistani president took pride from support from both China and Russia. He attempted to balance their demands in order to maintain power. China invested heavily in infrastructure while Russia’s influence was dominant in the language used by the media. In the November 2013 Tajikistan conducted elections that were not free and fair and thus saw Rakhmon win the fourth term. When civil society spoke out against the elections, the government intensified its efforts to suppress independent media, civil society and other political parties.
The way BBC covered the piece on Putin’s actions had an influence on the audience’s perception. The media focused on highlighting Russia’s prior actions against democracy in order to create a picture of its position. The media focuses on promoting civil society rather than speaking against it since its actions are meant to generate positive results. Media supports democracy and thus recognizes the role of civil society in the democratization process of authoritarian states. As the media points out, speaking out against civil society is same as fighting against democracy. Therefore, the media shapes reality in the minds of the audience and helps people to see issues just as they should be seen. In other circumstances, most other people would have thought that Russia’s actions are genuine and are meant for the greater good of the state. The media helps us to see the bad side of those actions.
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