Countering Growing Authoritarianism Requires a Robust Civil Society, Media & Academia

  • by Margee Ensign (blagoevgrad, bulgaria)
  • Inter Press Service

Nalvalny's martyrdom and the crackdown on his followers points up a loss of freedom not only in Russia but around the world, as authoritarian regimes everywhere seek to stifle dissent and undermine democracy through ever-more sophisticated disinformation campaigns. It’s a lethal threat which requires a coordinated international response.

The Framework to Counter Foreign State Information Manipulation, which the US, UK, and Canada endorse, posits a multilateral approach to nurturing fact-based information ecosystems resistant to manipulation by foreign states.

That's a start, but countering growing authoritarianism requires a bigger, more interconnected ecosystem of robust civil society, media, and academia, each of which underpin democratic values and an informed citizenry, and connect the individual to the state.

They are the institutions which nurture and amplify the voices daring to speak out against tyranny. They incubate grassroots movements pushing back against disinformation, and demanding accountability.

Universities are a key part of this mix. In the struggle to preserve freedom, they can’t stand above the political fray. They must embrace their crucial role in building courageous citizenship and equipping students to think critically and serve the higher good.

My institution, the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) has produced people like investigative journalist Christo Grozev. He and his team exposed the operatives behind the 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, England, and Navalny's poisoning in 2020, landing him on Putin’s “most-wanted” list. Grozev was prominently featured in the 2022 documentary “Navalny” and shared an Oscar for it.

Universities around the world should consciously cultivate their role in producing the next generation of Navalnys, Volkovs, and Grozevs. With Russia assuming the presidency of the BRICS bloc and expanding disinformation campaigns across the Global South, authoritarianism is getting deliberately globalized.

We therefore should be deliberate about globalizing independent journalism and courageous citizenship. Universities must make it part of their mission to nurture them, and governments and civil society need to consciously protect journalists and activists.

It's getting more and more dangerous to be either. Youth activists engaging on social media have never been more at risk. Killings of environmental activists are at record highs. Recently more journalists died in Palestine in three months than were ever killed in a single country in a whole year.

When journalists are murdered for doing their jobs, nine out of ten times the killer walks free. So groups advocating for journalists are calling for stepped up prevention, protection, and prosecution of their attackers.

Such measures aren’t acts of charity; they are necessary, strategic defense of the infrastructure of democracy, which is under attack from disinformation campaigns. International awards and recognition, multilateral legal instruments, and diplomatic pressure are necessary but often insufficient, as Navalny’s death proves.

He had no lack of support from Western democracies, and a slew of awards from many countries, including a nomination for the Nobel Prize.

We must learn from Navalny’s death as well as his life, and from growing attacks on democracy advocates everywhere, and get serious about building a better, stronger bulwark against the rising tide of authoritarianism. The global community must invest in training, legal protection, access to international platforms, and material and moral support for journalists under threat.

Universities must own their role as crucibles for courageous inquiry, truth-telling, public service, and unflinching civic engagement. That’s why AUBG will organize a series of workshops this year in Alexei Navalny’s memory, working with journalists and government officials to recognize and redress the dangers posed by disinformation campaigns.

In the end, it is by the courage with which we pursue truth that our era will be defined and freedom will stand or fall. Journalists who face down repression and bear witness, and activists who speak truth to power, are the architects of democratic resilience.

As authoritarianism and disinformation seek to expand around the world, we must optimize and globalize not only our markets and technologies, but also our active defense of truth and democracy.

Dr. Margee Ensign is the 10th president of the American University in Bulgaria.

IPS UN Bureau

Follow IPS News UN Bureau on Instagram

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service