In the American mainstream media fact and fiction frequently diverge, leading to established narratives that bear little relationship to what is actually happening. The recent events in Paris have most often been described as free speech colliding with religious extremism but the reality is that existing French hate crime legislation means that the country has only very limited freedom of expression. In France you can be arrested and imprisoned or fined heavily just for saying something that the government considers to be unacceptable even if you do nothing at all beyond that.
In the United States there has been a virtual media evisceration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is consistently demonized as an autocratic along the lines of the country’s former Czarist rulers and it is frequently claimed that he is an ex-KGB thug and bully who seeks to muzzle the democracy in his country, to include the press and all independent political forces. He is also invariably depicted as the agent provocateur in the recent upheaval involving Ukraine.
But are the claims about Putin true or are they just the kind of pablum that is convenient to feed to a mass American audience that is essentially blissfully ignorant about what is going on in the world? With that possibility in mind, it would be useful to compare the record of the Russian president with that of our own President Barack Obama. Such an examination might well include their respective interactions in areas that most people would consider part and parcel of the essential liberties pertaining to a democratic society. They should include freedom of the press, ability to associate and organize political parties that oppose the one in power, government accountability, freedom of speech and freedom from arbitrary arrest and punishment. The respective governments should also be judged on whether their interactions with other nations are proportionate and serve actual national interests or not.
Press freedom is tricky. The United States has a notionally free press but it is in reality largely controlled by special and corporate interests that are not prepared to challenge the government in any serious way. It is currently ranked 46th in the world by Reporters Without Borders’ freedom index, just in front of Haiti.
The Obama Administration has initiated twice as many prosecutions for violation of the Espionage Act as all previous administrations combined. The ongoing six year long pursuit of the sources of New York Times journalist James Risen suggests that the freedom to do investigative journalism in the United States is limited when it runs up against government secrecy. In yet another case, a FOX journalist James Rosen had his emails and phone records seized while twenty phone lines used by the Associated Press were monitored by federal law enforcement.
And even what appears to be free is often not really free. Most Americans who want to find out what is going on in government and elsewhere are forced to resort to the alternative media, most notably resources that are internet based, but nearly all the alternative media is itself dependent on donors who frequently influence or even control the content. Obama meanwhile has proposed a “kill switch” which the White House could use in case of emergency to turn off all internet services. The president would decide what constitutes an emergency.
The news media in Russia have it much worse, however. There remains an independent media but government controlled outlets dominate. Putin has used the legal system, which is susceptible to pressure from the government, to crack down on viewpoints that it finds unacceptable, claiming that stories critical of the regime are “defamation” or “extremist” in nature. This forces journalists to self-censor in their reporting. When they persist, they are frequently tried and sent to prison for economic crimes to include extortion, embezzlement, money laundering and tax evasion where it is possible to obtain a conviction based on false or misleading evidence produced by prosecutors. Many Russians resort to internet based news to supplement what they are able to read locally, but the government’s creation of a central telecommunications regulator has resulted in the blocking or shutting down of many sites.
The role of political parties in the respective countries is even trickier, though both have multi-party systems and ostensibly free elections. The United States permits the creation of new political parties but two party dominance means that in fact there are numerous obstacles to their becoming viable. At the local level, rules established by power brokers create impediments to new parties being authorized, recognized and placed on the ballot. The same applies to the internal democracy prevailing within the parties themselves where rules are designed to protect establishment views, witness the marginalization of Ron Paul at the 2012 Republican convention. And new parties are also priced out of contention in local campaigns costing tens of millions of dollars not to mention national campaigns where the costs exceed $1 billion. Because of the influence of money in campaigns, large donors often are able to dictate what positions candidates will take. So the average voter has little choice in reality and is forced to hold his or her nose and select one of two cookie cutter parties, both of which are corrupt, in order not to waste a vote.
Russia has nearly 200 political parties, some of which are quite vocal in their opposition to the Putin. In the Duma United Russia, Putin’s party, has 238 seats while the three opposition parties have 212 seats. As elections are still relatively cheap, an ordinary oligarch can fund an opposition movement. But the billionaire has to be very careful because the Russian government will be looking at just how he made his billions with an eye on tax evasion and other forms of corruption. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a leading oligarch, was pardoned by Putin in December 2013 after more than ten years in a Russian prison based on convictions for embezzlement and money laundering. Though he was likely guilty of a number of economic crimes in accumulating his vast fortune the real reason for his imprisonment was his attempt to create an opposition political movement.
Russian elections have been relatively free of fraud which is not to say that they have been fair. The government has used its resources and media access to make its own case while denying any similar fora to its opponents. Police have permitted large opposition demonstrations but they have also broken up political rallies and arrested unfriendly politicians. Opposition internet sites have been blocked, including the official website of Alexei Navalny. Navalny, running on a political platform of liberalization and fighting corruption, finished second in the recent mayoral elections in Moscow. The website of opposition leader and former World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov has also been attacked. But at the same time it must be conceded that Putin is genuinely popular and his party United Russia has majority support as indicated by opinion and exit polls, so his electoral successes are not necessarily fraudulent.
Government accountability is all about corruption. Russia has been described as a very corrupt place, but much of Putin’s appeal is that he has turned on the so-called oligarchs who plundered the country under Boris Yeltsin. Corruption came with the rapid democratization and development of a bogus free market that permitted the looting of Russia’s natural resources, earning billions for venal politicians and exploiters of “free markets.” Political corruption undeniably continues to plague the country but one might reasonably argue that Putin has attempted to rein it in even if he simultaneously exploits it to enrich his own inner circle.
In the United States corruption is also endemic but it operates through the existing political networks by making corrupt practices legal. No foreign country has lobbyists and interest groups that operate as brazenly as they do in the United States. President Obama bailed out the banksters and, within the political class, jobs and money are doled out to players within the system to buy loyalty. Political contributors get ambassadorships and senior federal positions. Congressmen and generals become highly paid lobbyists and so on down the line. One might observe that Russia is openly corrupt in the old fashioned way while the United States has legalized and institutionalized corruption through what used to be referred to as the “spoils system.”
Turning to freedom of speech, the United States appears to have the better record in spite of the illegal NSA surveillance program which monitored the emails and phone calls of millions of citizens. This has been due to the First Amendment to the Constitution, which has generally been upheld as a fundamental liberty by the nation’s courts. Efforts to define illegal hate speech have generally foundered and to commit a hate crime it is necessary to actually do something harmful.
But the group most affected by lack of freedom of speech is the more than 3 million federal government employees who, in spite of attempts to create effective whistleblower legislation, are regularly penalized if they go public with information about wrongdoing. Challenges to government illegality are also dealt with through exploitation of the State Secrets Privilege, which has been used to obstruct judicial remedies for institutional wrongdoing. So people in America are generally free to say what they wish but the government itself has a number of mechanisms in place to prevent challenges to its monopoly control of information.
Freedom of speech in Russia is also a constitutional right, but it runs head on into laws that limit what one might say. The courts rely on loosely defined definitions for “extremism” and “defamation,” as noted above, to take legal action against opponents.
Freedom from arbitrary arrest and punishment is far from good in either the United States or Russia. To be sure, American citizens arrested inside the United States enjoy a well-established criminal justice system to prove their innocence but there is the little matter of the killing of troublesome American citizens overseas by executive order, for which there is no legal or historical precedent. Nor is there any legitimate legal basis for the black site prisons complete with the torture and arbitrary detention that have become part and parcel of the War on Terror.
There has also been considerable erosion of liberty in the U.S. due to terrorist legislation that has come into effect since 9/11. Material support for terrorism is a crime and it can consist of almost anything, including a letter to a local newspaper or an immigrant sending money to family in his or her country of origin. Most terrorism cases involve the insertion of an FBI informant who might or might not influence the course of action taken by the group of dissidents being infiltrated, a practice once referred to as entrapment. The informant frequently provides the target with an inoperable weapon or bomb. Convictions are guaranteed. The United States has also established military tribunals to deal with terrorism cases and so-called enemy combatants can be held for years in solitary confinement in places like Guantanamo without being charged or tried.
In Moscow, Putin can correctly claim that he has not ordered on his executive authority the execution of any Russian citizens and his country no longer has any Gulags like Guantanamo prison. But the Sergei Magnitsky case suggests that his judiciary is quite willing to take steps to silence government critics. Magnitsky, an accountant, discovered that there had been a large-scale theft from government funds that was carried out by high officials. He was arrested, imprisoned and died in prison in 2009, allegedly after being denied medical care. He may also have been tortured. The Magnitsky case is symptomatic of the Putin government’s preference to use the judiciary as its principal weapon against the political opposition and critics.
Finally, governments should be judged in terms of what they do in support of the actual interests of the citizens. The area in which the most damage can potentially accomplished in a short time is by engaging in military conflict either directly or by proxy. The Global War on Terror (now called Overseas Contingency Plans) has brought about the United States government’s embrace of preemptive invasion, torture and drone strikes as tools in what has become a simmering multi-front conflict. There is no visible solution to what is occurring in Afghanistan, Syria-Iraq and “liberated” Libya. And there is no way out for the United States, which appears to be blundering its way into yet another intractable conflict with Iran.
Moscow too has its problems with its neighbors, but whereas Washington is preoccupied with relatively minor threats that are largely of its own creation, Russia is dealing with what are vital interests on its very doorstep. The coup in Ukraine was initiated by neoconservatives from the United States, not by Vladimir Putin or his proxies, and Russia’s claim over Crimea is historically and strategically solid. The Russian response to developments in Ukraine might fairly be described as self-serving but also limited and proportionate, not at all like the overextension engaged in by the United States since 9/11. Unlike Washington, Moscow has also played a positive and constructive role in Syria and in dealing with Iran.
So one might well conclude that in Putin’s Russia free speech exists up to a point but not to include criticism that directly challenges the government. The media is similarly restrained and an increasing percentage of it is directly responsive to government direction. But a critical media and a political opposition do exist and free elections do more-or-less take place, even if they are manipulated in favor of those in power. In Russia the risk of being arbitrarily arrested is not high unless one interferes in politics. In the United States it is likewise not high unless one is a member of a targeted group.
I am not for a moment suggesting that living in Putin’s Russia would be better than living in Obama’s America in terms of individual liberties, but the ledger is not as one sided as it is frequently represented to be. Russians have a government that does everything it can to maintain itself in power and shield itself from criticism. So does the United States and Washington’s record on foreign policy and all that pertains to it is far worse than Russia’s. In practical terms there is little to separate Putin’s sense that he is acting aggressively to restore the prerogatives of Holy Russia and Obama’s insistence on extending unconstitutional executive privilege in pursuit of a progressive agenda. Both are convinced that it is altogether right and proper to have great power concentrated in their hands but it would be more correct to argue that both are wrong. They have actually inflicted grave damage on the constitutional liberties that should be prevailing in their respective countries, damage that might well be irreversible.