How autocrats use the media to keep control

A trend of democratic backsliding throughout 2020 escalated in an extreme way in 2021. From Myanmar to Belarus, powerholders have unravelled years of human rights achievements with dramatic arrests of journalists, destroyed infrastructure and regime changes – and people’s access to information and their right to freedom of expression have been among the casualties

When the military took power in Myanmar in the early hours of 1 February, 10 years of democratic progress evaporated in a matter of days. With previous experience ruling the country with an iron fist, the military junta knew that the success of the coup depended on more than just their mere presence in the streets. As stated on page one of the autocrat’s playbook, retaining control of a country depends on control of news and information streams. The playbook covers a spectrum of tactics, from legal manoeuvres to coups, but there is a consistent theme throughout: to suppress resistance, freedom of expression must be quelled.

Taking control of the media

One of the Burmese military’s first actions was to seize control of national TV and radio channels and cut access to the internet, social media and mobile phone networks. This left people in the dark, giving the military the element of surprise to take power and announce their move on national television. Although access to the internet, social media and mobile networks was later restored, the junta has continued to limit and influence people’s access to information.

What has happened in Myanmar is far from unique. Autocrats learn from each other, copying tactics to choke the free press. Their aim is to control the narrative and silence critical voices in order to retain power.

Dictating the narrative

In Afghanistan, independent media has been severely limited since the Taliban’s takeover in August. While nominally operational, media houses are required to get approval from the Taliban to be allowed to publish. As the Taliban does not allow the media to criticise it, outlets must choose between self-censoring and their ability to operate. This, combined with impunity for those who attack journalists, has led to nearly half of media houses closing.

This tight control over language is one way for regimes to direct a narrative in their favour. The Taliban’s prohibition of criticism closely aligns with Myanmar military’s ban on the word “coup” or Russia’s insistence that the invasion of Ukraine must be referred to as a “special military operation”. Criminalising language is just one aspect of criminalising freedom of expression.

Weaponizing the law

“Lawfare” uses laws and legislation to limit the press, whether that means bureaucratic licencing requirements for journalists and media houses or using defamation laws to intimidate critical voices. Defamation laws have manifested as anti-blasphemy laws in Pakistan; national security laws in Hong Kong; and through “fake news” laws with broad phrasing such as those that gained steam under the pretext of Covid-19 safety but have been used to control populations.

Even Nobel laureate Maria Ressa has been the target of multiple cyber libel charges, in addition to the harassment and threats incited towards her. The charges against her under these laws were also used as a threat to prevent her from traveling to Oslo to receive her Nobel peace prize before the courts eventually relented. Similarly, an increasing number of strategic lawsuits against public participation – known as SLAPPS – have been used by powerful figures around the world to intimidate critics who may not be able to withstand the financial or psychological toll of court cases.

Controlling the means

Mass communication relies on complex networks: from the initial report until the audience receives the final story, access to information requires different physical and digital infrastructures.

It comes as no surprise, then, that autocrats would seek to control infrastructure as a way of repressing freedom of expression. It is easy to point to the extreme, physical destruction of infrastructure, such as the Israeli airstrikes hitting multiple Palestinian media houses – including IMS partner Filastinyat – or in 2022 the Russian bombing of the Kyiv TV Tower. But control of infrastructure is often more insidious.

There is a power play between governments and tech companies over who owns and controls our means of communication – and who has access to people’s data. It is not uncommon for telecoms companies to be owned by oligarchs who are friendly towards a regime. Even in cases such as the Norwegian mobile network Telenor, which left Myanmar rather than cooperating with the military, the infrastructure was sold to a company that was willing to cooperate with the military.

Big Tech allows much to happen on its watch. While social media platforms have been used to spark revolution, they have also been sources of hate speech and disinformation, leading to polarisation and violence. A lack of knowledge of the local contexts in which they operate allows mis- and disinformation to spread from government and unofficial sources. Without consistent policies on what they are willing to tolerate, Big Tech seems most motivated by protecting profits, leaving countries with oppressive governments only once they are forced to and not because of ethical considerations for populations.

Autocrats have a variety of tools at their disposal to supress and intimidate critical voices. The above four steps create fear or lead journalists to lose or leave their jobs, or – in extreme cases – costs journalists’ lives.

Subsequently, defending press freedom and freedom of expression cannot be managed by fighting on only one front. This has always been clear, and strongly underlined by events in 2021 (and the beginning of 2022). Interventions must come from legislative angles and from lobbying international tech companies that profit while looking away from undemocratic policies. And the international community needs to hold their focus on the struggles of journalists and populations under autocracies, not just when dramatic events grab the headlines, but in the day-to-day battle for people’s rights.


• The level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021 is down to 1989 levels. The last 30 years of democratic advances have now been eradicated.

• Dictatorships are on the rise and harbour 70 percent of the world population – 5.4 billion people.

• There are signals that the nature of autocratisation is changing; a record of 33 countries are becoming autocratic.

• The two main declining indicators in the period 2011–2021 are civil society repression and government censorship efforts against the media.

Source: Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) 2021 report, representing the largest global dataset on democracy with over 30 million data points for 202 countries.

This piece builds on an op-ed in the Diplomat by Emilie Lehmann-Jacobsen, IMS Programme Development Adviser, Asia, titled, How to control the masses by silencing the press.

This article was published in IMS’ Annual Report 2021