At the second Russia-Africa Media Forum held in St. Petersburg, top managers of Russian and African leading news agencies have agreed to strengthen media operations aim at countering Western narratives about Russia and widespread disinformation in the African continent, and to largely contribute tо strengthening the emerging multipolar world.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a video address to forum participants, underlined the fact that the priority goal is to expand Russia’s media presence in Africa and the African media presence in Russia. “One of the aims is to overcome finally the negative stereotypes imposed by the collective West. It is hard to overestimate the role of the media, primarily news agencies, in the further strengthening of friendship, trust and understanding,” he emphasized.
Today, relations between the Russian Federation and African States are on the upswing, which is in the fundamental interests of both sides. Russia-Africa cooperation rests on the principles of equality, mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs.
According to the Russian diplomat, the West is relentless in its attempts to smear the image of Russia and African states in the media space. Under the circumstances, there is high demand for the initiative, responsible work of journalists, media top managers and new media specialists.
Lavrov further expressed high conviction that both Russian and African media can create a constructive news agenda that would be based on truth and facts rather than manipulation and invention to which the United States and European media are increasingly resorting to now.
“It is important to fully harness the potential of modern information technology – social media, the blogosphere, and digital services and platforms. Buttressed by traditional media, it allows journalists to engage in direct dialogue with the public at large and offer our audience high-quality media products on Russia-Africa cooperation as a whole and on a broad range of international issues,” Lavrov said.
In an interview after Valdai Discussion Club session in St. Petersburg, Samir Bhattacharya, senior research associate at Vivekananda International Foundation and doctoral candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, explained that Russian and African media researchers have said that the African continent is increasingly becoming more important in today’s geopolitical changes and global challenges. Russian-African relations are adding an additional dimension to developments, especially with the boost provided by rapidly expanding links across a vast range of areas.
According to the academic researcher, the media landscape can, and indeed must be a decisive factor in building effective ties. Africa is frequently portrayed in the media as suffering from ethnic conflicts, diverse political and economic instability, and an array of social problems. These several years African policymakers have begun to attend periodic summit-level meetings with new centres of power such as China, India, Russia, and Turkey. But what is important is that the countries of the continent must exercise more agency in determining their own affairs.
Admittedly, there are various parameters of strengthening the relations with Africa. The first step is to build an appropriate network. In the mass media and information sphere, Russian media resources, which are largely far from eminent in Africa, include Rossiya Sevogdnya (RIA Novosti, Voice of Russia and Russia Today), Itar-Tass News Agency and Interfax Information Service. During the first Russia-Africa summit, there was a special panel discussion on media. The panelists and participants attempted to exhaustively, examine such questions (which are still important today) as follows:
What issues are currently, encountered in the formation of the modern media landscape? What role does the media play in Russia-African relations? What are the prospects for collaboration in the information sphere? What needs to be done to develop a Russian media agenda in Africa? What is the role and place of Russia in the information space of Africa today?
For the past few years, Russia has made some efforts returning with investment and business to Africa, but unfortunately, not all these steps have received adequate publicity. The presence of Russian media on the African continent and that of African media in the Russian Federation have been raised several times in the past by many policy experts.
Vladimir Shubin, former deputy director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that Africa has great potential for bilateral relationships with Russia and, most importantly, Russia’s contribution is very noticeable in dealing with the problems of Africa.
Perhaps, one of the reasons why some African leaders have written off Russia is the lack of information about Russia or rather plenty of distorted information they have received from the Western media coverage of Russia. In fact, Russia needs genuine and objective information about modern Africa, and here both state and private mass media linger a lot, according to Professor Shubin.
Olga Kulkova, a research fellow at the Center for Russian-African Relations at the Institute for African Studies, said that “Africa needs broader coverage in Russian media. Leading Russian media agencies should release more topical news items and analytical quality articles about the continent. Russia has to adequately collaborate with African partners and attract Russian business to Africa. More quality information about modern Russia should be broadcast in African states.”
“Indisputably, it takes a lot of money and efforts, but the result will pay off. Russia ought to take the media into account if it wants to improve the chances for success in Africa. All the leading countries have been doing that quite efficiently for a long time,” Kulkova noted.
While many experts argue that African media seem uninterested in developing working links to Russia, Vasily Pushkov, an independent expert on international media relations wrote in an emailed comment that “it works both ways and the two regions are very far from each other.” Russia and Africa are not as interconnected as they were during the Soviet era, he stressed.
Pushkov explained that “Russia might have an image problem among African political and business elites, partly due to the fact that Russia has low presence in Africa compared to the Soviet era. Most African media get their global news from the leading Western media outlets, which in turn have a nasty and longstanding habit of always portraying Russia as the world’s bogeyman.”
Last year between September and October, a media research surveyed 38 African editors, analyzed content from 60 African news outlets in 15 countries revealed startling results. One of the key results pointed to the fact media is incredibly influential in setting the agenda and determining narratives about Africa. More importantly, Africa continues to promote some of the stereotypical narratives by the Western and European.
“Russian media write very little about Africa, what is going on there, what are the social and political dynamics in different parts of the continent. Media and NGOs should make big efforts to increase level of mutual knowledge, which can stimulate interest for each other and lead to increased economic interaction as well,” argues research professor Fyodor Lukyanov at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, and editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
“To certain extent,” Lukyanov said, “the intensification of non-political contacts may contribute to increased interest. Soft power has never been on a strong side of Russian policy in post-Soviet era.”
The trend may change for the better. In a foreign policy speech, President Vladimir Putin urged all his Russian ambassadors and diplomats actively use new technologies to highlight Russian success stories, improve Russia’s image and defend its interests abroad, according to Russian daily newspaper Kommersant. “It’s not enough to just crow something once… We should explain our positions again and again, using various platforms and new media technologies, until they understand,”Kommersant quoted Putin as saying.
Welcoming the growing importance of the media particularly at this stage in Russian-African relations, Dr. Babafemi A. Badejo, professor of political science and international relations at the Chrisland University in Abeokuta, Nigeria, pointed out in an interview that comparatively not much of Russia’s image is promoted by the media in Africa.
He explicitly suggests that Russia could similarly use the media to do more advisory services for its companies, and secondly design public outreach diplomacy (people-at-large oriented activities) that could help change negative perceptions and common skepticism among the estimated 1.4 billion population in Africa.
The media as a major aid to conceptualization of reality will always play a decisive role in building bilateral ties among players at the international level. This is irrespective of whatever language is used as a medium of interaction. As a matter of fact, the media is a critical tool in the expression of diplomacy, especially unofficial interactions between states.
Badejo said that the Soviet Union as a post-Second World-War major power had a major media influence in Africa. However, this major influence did not move to Russia as the main successor state to the Soviet Union. It remains extremely easy for the United States or the West, in general, to use a large media presence to define so much in the African space with respect to media and information flow. The new tech giants being American has helped and continue to deepen the Western information hold on Africa.
In his objective views, so many Russian speaking African experts who were trained by the Soviet Union can still bolster a Russian re-engagement with Africa through many activities that are reported using media that link Russia with the many countries in Africa. This will be beyond a focus on the African Union or support to African governments at the United Nations, which support are hardly known about by the people of Africa given the weak media engagement.
“Interestingly, and at the moment, not much of Russia’s image is promoted by the media in Africa. At best, it is Western perception and narrative of Russia that pervades the African media,” Badejo said, adding further that Russia needs to do more in using media to tell its own story and interest in Africa. In this final analysis, Russia has to make consistent efforts in building its media network that could further play key role in strengthening relations, including the media sphere with Africa.