News Overview 2013

Using Media as a "Soft Power"

By Dima Romashkan

How can countries strengthen their influence on other nations? On the one hand, by means of the obvious hard factors such as economic power, geostrategic advantages, and military might. But there are also more subtle tools that countries can use to articulate their national interests abroad.

In the age of the Internet and global communication, countries can use the media in particular as a "soft power." Up until now, international media markets were under Western control. But now other countries, especially the emerging BRICS nations - Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa - are increasingly getting involved in shaping global public opinion. China is expanding its largest TV network, CCTV, into a multinational network similar to Al-Jazeera. And Russia is also investing a half billion annually in international media campaigns.

What effect will these activities have on international politics? What will the consequences be for the field of journalism? What system is governing the BRICS nations’ search for new media markets, and how are the established players from the West reacting?

At the 9th FoME Symposium in Berlin, media researchers, journalists, and political scientists discussed these and further questions. The Robert Bosch Stiftung, in cooperation with the Forum for Media and Development, hosted the event, called "Promoting Alternative Views in a Multipolar World: BRICS and their Evolving Role in Developing Media Markets." We spoke with the international experts once more about their core theses and impressions from the symposium. The interviews can be found here:
Daya Thussu is a professor of international communications at the University of Westminster in London and codirector of the India Media Centre. His publications on the media landscape’s international expansion are some of the most influential works in this field.
"We are standing at the beginning of something completely new"
Professor Thussu on Bollywood’s international influence and what will happen one day when all Indian and Chinese citizens have Internet access.

Mr. Thussu, as an Indian intellectual and academic, what is your opinion of Bollywood films?

They are chaotic and wonderful.

One of your key statements at the symposium was that Bollywood films, as a cultural export, are becoming increasingly well-known and as a result, India is becoming increasingly influential.

Yes, I believe so. You see, these films reach an incredibly large audience around the entire world. And that isn’t just the result of the Indian diaspora. It is only a matter of time before the Indian government realizes what an enormous communications tool that they actually have available to them in Bollywood films.

What do you mean?

You see, there is already more Indian material on YouTube than English-language videos. Yet only 13 percent of Indians have Internet access. And only a fraction of China’s population is already online. When one day every Indian and Chinese citizen has Internet access, the Internet will change significantly.

How so?

That is something that even I can’t predict. But I assume that the Internet will certainly not speak English anymore. The Internet as a medium driven primarily by Americans will cease to exist.

At the symposium, it was heavily discussed that Russia is increasingly financing internationally active media outlets to improve its own image, and that China is investing massively in African media outlets. How do you see these developments?

I was personally very pleased about being able to see the Russian view of the Syrian conflict while I was in London, without any Western spin. Sure, it’s state-run television and is loyal to the Russian government. But still - just having different viewpoints available represents real progress. At least as long as you are aware of the source of the information. That’s why I view these developments favorably. It is obviously not perfect, but these processes take time. We are standing at the beginning of something completely new.
Anbin Shi is, among other things, a professor of cultural and media studies at the Tsinghua University in Beijing. He is the assistant dean of the International Development School of Journalism and Communication. In addition, Shi has trained more than 10,000 Chinese politicians in making "proper public appearances."
"We must rethink the concept of globalization"
The international media system is too Western-centric and almost always depicts China unfairly. That’s why China needs to defend itself with a global media campaign - says Professor Anbin Shi.

Mr. Shi, China’s largest television network, CCTV, has significantly expanded its international activities and is now broadcasting in an increasing number of countries. At the same time, China is investing staggering amounts in foreign media outlets. That sounds like a fairly aggressive Chinese media offensive.

If anything, I would call it a Chinese defensive. International reporting about China was so unbelievably negative and demonizing that we were forced to speak up for ourselves and show the world which values are truly important to China.

So which values are truly important to China?

You see, that’s where it starts. China is a huge country with an unbelievable number of different currents and cultural developments. There is no such thing as THE Chinese values. An enormous modernization process is taking place right now - with a new China forming. Even we don’t know what this new China will look like in the end. But these are all things that Western media simply doesn’t notice.

Is the international media landscape too Western-centric?

The slogan is still "Highlight the West, neglect the rest." We need to rethink the concept of globalization. For example, why does the media report so little on Chinese social media projects? WeChat (a Chinese messaging app for smartphones) is a huge success, particularly in developing countries. No one in the West wants to report on it. Why not?

Did you enjoy the symposium with many of your Western counterparts anyway?

Of course I did. So many events are held in Europe where people discuss China, yet not one Chinese person is given the opportunity to speak. Most of the time, the West speaks about us, and not with us. That’s why I was truly pleased to be able to directly participate in this exciting exchange of ideas.
Alexey Dolinskiy is head of the consulting firm Ward Howell Institute. He advises the Russian government and spent many years working as a Russian diplomat himself. In addition, he teaches public diplomacy at the Moscow State University.
"Russia needs to listen more"
Alexey Dolinskiy about Russia’s image problem abroad and the media campaign to solve it.

Mr. Dolinskiy, what is the status of Russia’s reputation in the world?

Russia is relatively unpopular. Most countries believe Russia has a negative influence on the world. And the low number of tourists who visit the country is also a sign that Russia is a rather unpopular travel destination.

You work as a consultant for, among other institutions, the Russian government. Are there even efforts being made by Russia’s leaders to improve the country’s image?

Of course, and significant ones at that. Russia feels that it is perceived unfairly. On top of that, investors automatically invest less in a country with a bad reputation. That’s why the Russian government is now spending almost half a billion on media projects that are being broadcast internationally with the goal of conveying Russia’s view of things.

Can you give us some examples of these projects?

One magazine alone, Russia - Beyond the Headlines, is subsidized by the government to the tune of 100 million annually. It appears worldwide as an insert in the most renowned newspapers, like the New York Times and the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Another example is the Voice of Russia radio network. Or Ria Novosti, the Russian agency for international information. On top of these projects, there are also public diplomacy activities and investments in international academic operations.

How would you rate the success of Russia’s "charm offensive" so far?

Well, let’s put it this way ... there’s still room for improvement.

What do you think is the problem?

On their own, the individual media projects are actually doing pretty well. But they need to communicate with one another much more. In some respects, each project is fighting for itself. What’s missing is a joint strategy.

Better explaining your own behavior is one thing. But can you really improve your reputation without questioning your own actions?

No, you can’t. In this regard, Russia often portrays itself as a country that is always misunderstood, wrapped in a white veil of innocence, and thrusts itself too heavily into the role of a victim. We need to demonstrate an increased willingness to listen, so that the outside world will listen to Russia once again.
Herman Wasserman is the director of Rhodes University in South Africa and teaches journalism and media studies. He has also lectured at universities in Great Britain and the United States. Before his academic career, Mr. Wasserman worked as a journalist himself.
"China is giving South Africa the chance to become a global player in the media landscape"
China is investing billions in South African media outlets. Is this a risk or an opportunity for the smallest of the BRICS nations?

Mr. Wasserman, China is investing a large amount of money in South African media outlets. Critics are already speaking of recolonization. Do you share this opinion?

I think we need to be very careful with terms such as recolonization. China isn’t coming as an oppressor with whips and pistols, but legitimately as an investor. These enormous economic resources open up completely new opportunities for our media system.

But China isn’t just investing for the fun of it. The enormous country’s primary goal is geopolitical influence. Aren’t you worried about the independence of the South African media?

Of course China is also pursuing imperialistic interests. But the United States does the exact same thing when it invests. So we should pose the same critical questions to everyone, even the West.

How are South Africa’s journalists reacting to this development?

There are certainly voices that say we are endangering our media’s independence. But my studies show that most journalists view the collaboration with China with cautious optimism.

Cautious optimism?

Most of the people who work in the South African media primarily see an opportunity in the cooperation. When the Western media wants to report on South Africa, they send their people over, they get their story, and then they disappear as fast as they came. In contrast, Chinese media outlets rely on South African journalists much more often - journalists who are usually more knowledgeable and better connected locally. The Chinese media lets us speak for ourselves, instead of just speaking about us.

Are there other positive effects?

Of course. It isn’t like China only has an influence on us. There are many reciprocal effects. South Africa even invests in the Chinese media. This has led to our reporting on China becoming much more accurate, for example. In fact, our reporting may already be better than that offered by the established Western media. Ultimately, South Africa can become a global player in the media landscape through the collaboration with China. That is a huge opportunity.

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