Populism as a new form of dictatorship? When media is called the state enemy number one

*This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration series


By Nina Benkotic

Almost three decades have passed since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the transformation of the Eastern European countries into democracies, where totalitarian communist governments liked to create enemies – internal and external ones – in order to keep the masses under control.

Media in the dictatorships were not free because they were owned by the state, i.e. by the ruler who was controlling very closely what they reported about. The same is the case today in countries with autocratic governments. In order to be effective, the authoritarian media are not allowed to have competition, which is one of the points by Tom Pepinksi[1] from Cornell University in his studies of two authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia.


Recently we have observed developments which show that some practices typical for that time are recurring in Europe but also in other countries, such as the USA. The term we use for these contemporary practices is populism. “In Mudde’s (2004: 543) influential approach, populism rests upon three core concepts: the “good people”, the “bad elite” and the “general will” (…). They (populists) strive to make an ideological divide in society, a distinction between two unrealistically homogenised groups: “us” – the good and the righteous “people” (which includes the populist actor), and “them” – the bad and corrupted “elite”.”[2]

Similarly this was a very common practice in the country where I grew up, the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, which was ruled by Tito. I remember the always repeated notion – “we have to fight the inner and the outer enemy”. It had never been clearly defined who that was, but it was used as a tactic to keep the population alert and to build support for the tactics of the government.

But while dictatorships and authoritarian governments control and own the media, the populists in democracies now have a problem of fighting the free media and proclaiming them the enemy rather than an ally because they do not (always) have the media on their side.

US President Donald Trump, who took office in January 2017 has already successfully fulfilled the populist practice of creating the “enemy” in immigrants. This has been a tactic in his election campaign and it continues to be an issue which has a priority in his government’s politics.[3] When media are concerned, since the very beginning it has been clear that Trump won’t be friends with them because he cannot control what they report.

Therefore the newest enemy created by Trump are the media. On the one hand his famous accusation of media spreading the “fake news” proves his frustration with them, but also shows that he wants to discredit the free press. On the other hand he is the part of the problem because it seems he himself creates fake news all the time (not to mention his use of Twitter, because that is a phenomenon on its own): he hears something on TV in a news channel, does not check the information, blindly uses it in a speech or at a press conference, from where media pick it up and quote it as a statement, which then finally gets picked up by Trump again and he claims he heard it in the news.

So while Trump is fighting the free media in the US, the European Union is trying to fight the populists in the European countries. “The rise of populism has had important consequences for the state of liberal democracy in Europe. Although populism is not necessarily antidemocratic, it is essentially illiberal, especially in its disregard for minority rights, pluralism, and the rule of law.”[4]

In France, Austria or Holland the right wing populists have also gotten the masses on their side by using the same tactic of creating an “enemy” – the immigrant. After the wave of refugees from Middle East in 2015 the common enemy across Europe was denominated by populists and is being used to create fear. Luckily no country in Europe is yet governed by the populists, although they are getting more powerful.

The media in Europe are not under fire as the US media, but the journalists report deterioration of their working conditions and their safety, as the results of a research within the Media Governance Lab have shown, with the rise of populism. And this although nowadays the politicians do not even need the media to spread their messages and influence the public because they serve themselves with the social media. Even more so, the strong populist personalities tend to do that even better than the rest.

“Many scholars contend that European populism is an episodic phenomenon – that it creates moments rather than eras – and that although populists can succeed in opposition, they inevitably fail once in power. That is wishful thinking, and those who engage in it generally put too much stock in a few high-profile populist implosions.”[5] Mudde, who is an expert on populism and who sees it as an ideology, claims it is a result of “deep structural changes in European societies”, who are not going to fade soon.

So in the times when European democracies are at stake it is more important than ever to ensure that free and independent media sustain their role as the fourth estate. But also the European media have to get ready for the turbulences that are coming its way and protect itself by doing what it was created for – objective, researched and unbiased reporting.

[1] https://tompepinsky.com/2017/01/23/dictators-use-the-media-differently-than-narcissists-and-bullies/

[2] Derado, Augustin: Dergic, Vanja: Medjugorac, Vanja; Croatian Youth and Populism: A Mixed Methods Analysis of the Populism “Breeding Ground” among the Youth in the City of Zagreb; In: Revija za sociologiju [Sociological Review]; Vol. 46, Nr. 2, Pages 141-173; Croatian Sociological Association; Zagreb; August 2016; Page 142

[3] Inglehart, Ronald F.: Norris, Pippa; Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash; HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series; August 2016

[4] Mudde, Cas; Europe’s Populist Surge A Long Time in the Making; Foreign Affairs, 2016 Nov-Dec, Vol.95(6), pp.25-30

[5] Mudde, Cas; Europe’s Populist Surge A Long Time in the Making; Foreign Affairs, 2016 Nov-Dec, Vol.95(6), pp.25-30



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