Russia and Africa: Debating the Role of Media in Diplomacy

Published on 8th January 2019

Experts and Researchers have observed that, since the collapse of the Soviet-era politics, an appreciable level of media cooperation has never been on the side of Russia's public diplomacy with Africa.

In practice, Russian officialdom has not encouraged and supported the idea of media that could, in a way, present the positive changes and emerging economic opportunities in the Russian Federation to the general reading public, political elite and business community in Africa.

Instead, they often talk about anti-Russian propaganda by western media and further express inadequate knowledge of investment and economic possibilities in Africa.

"Russian media write very little about Africa, what is going on there, the social and political dynamics in different parts of the continent. Media and NGOs should make big efforts to increase the level of mutual knowledge, which can stimulate interest for each other and lead to increased economic interaction as well," says Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal Russia in Global Affairs and also the Chairman of the State Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

"To a certain extent," Lukyanov says, "the intensification of non-political contacts may contribute to increased interest. But in Russia's case, the main drivers of any cooperation are more traditional rather than political interests of the state and economic interest of big companies. Soft power has never been a strong side of Russian policy in the post-Soviet era."

Professor Vladimir Shubin, the Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies, told Buziness Africa media that political relations between Russia and Africa as well as the economic cooperation would attract more and more academic discussions, and such scholarly contributions, in essence, would help deepen understanding of the problems that mitigate in building solid relationship or partnership with Russia.

In order to maintain this relationship, both Russia and Africa have to pay high attention to and take significant steps in promoting their achievements and highlighting the most development needs in a comprehensive way for mutual benefits, according to the academic professor.

From his observation and research, he explains accurately that "African leaders do their best in developing bilateral relations. Truly and passionately, they come to Russia more often than ten years ago, but a lot still has to be done."

Perhaps, one of the reasons why some African leaders have "written off" Russia has been the lack of information about Russia, or rather plenty of distorted information they have received from the Western media coverage of Russia, Shubin concluded.

Western and other foreign media that operate actively in Africa are Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg, British Broadcasting Corporation, AFP, United Press International, Inter Press Service, Xinhua and Al-Jazeera.

Olga Kulkova, Research Fellow at the Center for Studies of Russian-African Relations, notes that "in the global struggle for Africa, Russia is sadly far from outpacing its competitors. In terms of stringency of strategic outlook and activeness, the country is seriously lagging behind China, US, EU, India, Brazil."

Kulkova says that "Africa needs broader coverage in Russian media. Leading Russian media agencies should release more topical news items and quality analytical articles about the continent, on-the-spot TV reports in order to adequately collaborate with African partners and attract Russian business to Africa. More quality information about Russia be broadcast in African states. Indisputably, it would take a lot of money and efforts, but the result will pay off."

All the leading foreign countries have been doing that quite efficiently for a long time and Russia has to take this into account if it wants to improve the chances for success in Africa, Kulkova adds, citing the example of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) where both China and Africa fixed the "China-Africa Press Exchange Center" in Shanghai, China.

The China-Africa Press Exchange Center aims at encouraging exchanges and visits between Chinese and African media, and China has already supported frequent exchange of correspondents from media organizations of the two sides.

The Foreign Ministry published the text of Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov's speech on official website where he highlighted the same old problems facing the development of Russia-African ties at a session on Urals-Africa economic forum in Yekaterinburg.

"One must admit that the practical span of Russian companies' business operations in Africa falls far below our export capabilities, on one hand, and the huge natural resources of the continent, on the other," Bogdanov says assertively.

According to him, one of the major obstacles has been insufficient knowledge of the economic potential, on the part of Russian entrepreneurs, needs and opportunities of the African region.

"Poor knowledge of the African markets' structure and the characteristics of African customers by the Russian business community remains an undeniable fact. The Africans in their turn are insufficiently informed on the capabilities of potential Russian partners," Bogdanov stresses in his speech without suggesting any possible solutions.

Quite recently, Vyacheslav Volodin, the Chairman of the State Duma, told an instant meeting held with Ambassadors of African countries in the Russian Federation, to brainstorm for fresh views and ideas on the current Russia-African relations: "it is necessary to take certain steps together for the Russian media to work on the African continent."

"You know that the Russian media provide broadcasting in various languages, they work in many countries, although it is certainly impossible to compare this presence with presence of the media of the United States, United Kingdom and Germany," he informed comparing western media with Russia.

Russia media here, which is largely not prominent in Africa, includes Rossiya Sevogdnya (Ria Novosti, Voice of Russia and Russia Today), Itar-Tass News Agency and Interfax Information Service.

In March 2018, the Deputy Director of the Information and Press Department, Artyom Kozhin, reassured in his media briefing that the Russian Federation would prioritise media, art and culture among several other programmes in efforts aimed at consolidating cooperation with African countries. While the Foreign Ministry has accredited foreign media from the United States, Europe and Asian countries, none came from Africa that comprises 54 states.

A number of Moscow- based African diplomats have acknowledged in separate interviews that the weak media connectivity between the two parties is one of the deep cracks or potholes in the post-Soviet diplomacy most especially now when Russia is making efforts strengthening its relations with the continent. The diplomats unreservedly advocated for media and a wide range of cultural cooperation.

During the past few years, President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin authorities have moved progressively with a new phase in consolidating political ties broadly at the state levels with Africa.

By Kester Kenn Klomegah

The author writes about Russia, Africa and BRICS.

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