In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Journalism in Authoritarian Societies

  • Introduction
  • Placing the Authoritarian Media Model in the History of Journalism
  • Media Capture
  • Journalism and Social Movement in Autocracies
  • Media Freedom and Authoritarian Stability
  • Support for Censorship in Autocracies

Communication Journalism in Authoritarian Societies
Marius Dragomir
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0303


Despite the transnational nature of the journalistic profession, there is no common history of journalism, hence research of journalism in authoritarian societies is anchored in the study of manipulation and censorship. The history of censorship is much older than journalism, yet it is the emergence of journalism that led authoritarian regimes to create censorship mechanisms and systems aimed at reining in critical, independent voices and narratives. Absolutist monarchies established the first censorship models whose purpose was to control the periodical press in its early years. Following a brief period during the 19th century when censorship systems were eliminated almost everywhere in Europe, sophisticated forms of censorship, unseen before, reappeared and flourished in the next century. The most repressive ones were developed by fascist dictatorships in several European nations and by the Soviet regime in Russia. A bevy of authoritarian regimes across the world found much inspiration in these models and copied them, especially the Soviet censorship system, during the Cold War period. After a period of revival of media freedom in the aftermath of the Soviet Union collapse during the early 1990s, an increasing number of countries, including the successors of the former Soviet republics, restored authoritarian practices with important consequences for news media and journalists. Tight censorship systems are still in place in a variety of countries across the globe ranging from North Korea to China to Venezuela to Eritrea. Their response to manipulation and censorship varies broadly from country to country, depending on the effectiveness of the censorship systems and other contextual factors including economic and technological development, levels of literacy, and local cultural codes. At the same time, media capture whereby governments use businesses to achieve control over the media has been on the rise too in countries as diverse as Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Egypt, Nicaragua, and Sri Lanka. The rise of new technologies of communication fueled a rapid expansion of the Internet, creating unprecedented opportunities for journalists to reach out to their audiences in new, innovative ways. At the same time, this technological growth empowered an increasing number of governments to design new and more effective forms of control and censorship.

Placing the Authoritarian Media Model in the History of Journalism

Studies about the beginnings of journalism and its emergence as a mainstream field have been published throughout the 20th century, with Retallack 1993, Chalaby 1996, Delporte 1999, and Birkner 2012 attempting in their scholarly work to establish the birth of journalism as a profession and describe its early history in various contexts and environments. Historical studies aimed at identifying the rise of journalism in various parts of the world are complemented by a series of academic works aimed at defining the types of media systems that emerged as journalism matured and became a mass phenomenon. A seminal work in that respect is Siebert, et al. 1956, which introduced a normative classification of media systems that consists of four models, one of which being the authoritarian model. McQuail 1987 is one of the works that then explored in more depth the authoritarian model.

  • Birkner, Thomas. 2012. Das Selbstgespräch der Zeit: Die Geschichte des Journalisten in Deutschland 1605–1914. Cologne: Herbert von Halem Verlag.

    This volume presents a history of German journalism anchored in journalism research and social historiography that goes back to the 17th century when journalism developed from a printing trade into an independent profession. The book delves into the repression that journalism had to face for a long period of time in German history.

  • Chalaby, Jean K. 1996. Journalism as an Anglo-American invention: A comparison of the development of French and Anglo-American journalism, 1830–1920s. European Journal of Communication 11.3: 303–326.

    DOI: 10.1177/0267323196011003002

    Arguing that journalism is an Anglo-American product, this article offers historical insights into the history of French and Anglo-American journalism between the 1830s and the 1920s. The article argues that, like their peers elsewhere, French journalists also imported and adapted journalistic methods and genres from Anglo-American journalism.

  • Delporte, Christian. 1999. Les journalistes en France (1880–1950): Naissance et construction d’une profession. Paris, France: Seuil.

    This book discusses some of the key issues, including freedom of expression, editorial independence, ethical rules, and the public service concept, that were central to the debate about the role of the press in society between late 19th century and the middle of the 20th century. The book presents key facts about the development of journalism in France from the 1880s, when journalism won its freedom, until the 1950s when the mass information media were expanding at a fast pace.

  • McQuail, Denis. 1987. Mass communication theory: An introduction. London: SAGE.

    This work is a classic introduction to the study of mass communication. Within the wealth of media- and communication-related issues covered by this book, McQuail also explains how the press functions in authoritarian societies, and how journalists see their relationship with the government.

  • Retallack, James. 1993. From pariah to professional? The journalist in German society and politics, from the late Enlightenment to the rise of Hitler. German Studies Review 16.2: 175–223.

    DOI: 10.2307/1431645

    An attempt to describe how political factors have influenced the image of journalists in German society, this essay also provides a historical perspective of the rise of journalism in Germany starting during the late Enlightenment.

  • Siebert, Fredrick Seaton, Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Schramm. 1956. Four theories of the press. Urbana: University of Chicago Press.

    Combining a history of Western development with a set of basic norms about the rise of journalism, this seminal book has influenced for years the comparative scholarship on media systems and press theories despite criticism mostly targeted at its Western-centric approach, including the omission of several factors that affected journalism development. The book introduced four major theories of the press, two of which are relevant for the topic of this article: the authoritarian theory, and Soviet Communist theory.

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