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The Fresh Spring of Ignorance

Long after the fall of both the Nazi and communist regimes, today's new authoritarians have come up with creative ways to wash away inconvenient knowledge.

by Peter Gross 10 January 2019

Years before burning books became a fun night out in Hitler’s Germany, Soviet Red Army general Mikhail Tukhachevsky had already identified book burning as an advantageous idea – “so that we can bathe in the fresh spring of ignorance,” he said – creating chaos, and reducing civilization to ruin.


Today's would-be dictators have learned to out-Machiavelli good old Niccolo, by using the democratic lexicon to impose illiberal policies, and to manipulate and control civil society, the media, and open market systems – even within societies that continue to be labeled “democratic.”  


Take, for instance, Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila’s call, in early December 2018, to penalize journalists – particularly investigative ones who violate her version of the right to privacy and use of personal data. This counterfeit concern for Romanians’ privacy – common among her Social Democratic Party’s leadership – camouflages her real goal of subverting freedom of the press. Specifically, any journalism targeting her party’s leading members, whose success in perpetrating a rich constellation of illegalities involving nepotism, acquisition of personal wealth, and myriad other political shenanigans, would garner them perfect scores of 10 if corruption were an Olympic discipline like gymnastics or ice dancing!  


The remarkably similar feigned unease – felt by illiberal leaders about news media’s “disrespect” for citizens' privacy – saturates the political class in most of the former communist nations. Yet this is nothing more than a ploy to eliminate the watchdog role of journalism.


More than 4,000 kilometers away from Romania, Dancila’s political mindset finds an echo in Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev. In December 2017, he signed off on a series of media law amendments, which barred dissemination of information that could be categorized as “being of a personal, family, medical, banking, or commercial nature.”


It would be shocking to suggest that these crookedly ambitious political leaders – in Kazakhstan, or in Romania, Poland, Hungary, and many other countries in the region – would try to hide illegal business and political dealings, or less-than-decent personal lives. How dare anyone doubt these elected leaders' sense of responsibility toward their citizens, their devotion to the principles of democracy, and the liberal values necessary for its progress!


Altogether, 2018 was a good year for the Dancila and Nazarbaev-type paragons of (not-so) democratic values, who now bravely define the path to “progress” in their respective societies. These leaders did not have it all their own way over the year, but they responded to any challenges with cascades of hypocritically righteous rhetoric.


Such was the case in April 2018, when Reporters Without Borders, Agence France-Presse, the European Broadcasting Union, and the Global Editors Network launched the Journalism Trust Initiative. Focused on outlining indicators for evaluating transparency in media ownership, editorial independence, implementation of journalistic techniques, and respect for ethics, the initiative will pro-actively request that digital platforms, advertisers, and others “provide concrete advantages to media outlets that meet these standards.”


Imagine that – whitelisting according to transparency, independence, and respect for ethics.


Well, we can’t have any of that, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who declared, “In general, we follow with alarm a number of initiatives that are – not covertly, but publicly – being implemented in the West … to develop certain journalism trust indicators, whitelists, and so on.”


The foreign minister was equally alarmed by the so-called “Anti-Fake News Law” adopted by France in summer 2018, allowing French authorities to close media outlets that “they believe to be under foreign influence, four months before any election ... under the pretext that [they] could influence the outcome of the vote,” according to an RT report about the law.  


Lavrov's fanciful anxiety about journalistic standards and ethics masks alarm about France – as well as other countries – closing down the operations of RT and the news agency Sputnik, both specialists in a unique kind of “journalism” of the type not taught in journalism schools.


Whether burning books or distorting and restricting media freedoms, censorship creates a “fresh spring of ignorance,” washing clean the slate on which authoritarians can rewrite history, and pretend there is progress in the present, and a bright “democratic” future.


In the words of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was herself washed away – shot dead in 2006 – this is a kind of backward rush into a communist-era “information vacuum, that spells death from our own ignorance.”

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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