Over the past few years, Russian authorities have been prioritizing media cooperation and the use of soft power to address the falling image of Russia among the political and business elites in Africa.
The authorities have also made persistent efforts to inform the elites and business community about the positive developments and emerging economic opportunities in Russia, but Russian media and policy experts say there is still much room for improvement.
Quite recently, Olga Kulkova, a research fellow at the Center for Studies of Russian-African Relations, Institute for African Studies in Moscow, noted in her opinion article 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.”
For example, at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting, both China and Africa have fixed a “China-Africa Press Exchange Center” in China to encourage exchanges and visits between Chinese and African media, and China already supports frequent exchange of correspondents by media organizations of the two sides.
Professor David H. Shinn, an adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs George, Washington University, thinks that China Central Television, China Radio International, China Daily, and China‘s official news service, Xinhua, have made a major media push into Africa. This effort coincides with China‘s expanding economic and political engagement, including the fact that China is Africa‘s largest trading partner at more than $200 billion annually,
Shinn, who was a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia (1996-99) and Burkina Faso (1987-90), wrote in an emailed interview to Buziness Africa: “Neither Russia nor the government-controlled media of any other country has made a comparable media outreach effort in Africa. This situation speaks more, however, to the extraordinary effort China is putting into its African media campaign than it does Russia‘s comparative lack of effort.”
Kulkova suggested 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 modern Russia should be broadcast in African states. Indisputably, it would take a lot of money and efforts, but the result will pay off.”
The 21st century is the century of new technologies bringing international communication to a qualitatively different level, it is a time for new methods of “struggle for the hearts and minds” of African partners. Russia ought to take that 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 say African media seem uninterested in developing links to Russia, Vasily Pushkov, an independent expert on international media relations argues that “it works both ways and moreso the two regions are very far from each other. They are not as interconnected as they were during the Cold War era. But, the interest in the media is relatively high right now.”
He explained that Russia might have an image problem among African elites, “partly due to the fact that Russia had to somewhat reduce its different development and investment programs in the African continent compared to the Soviet era. There is also a communication problem. 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.”
Some problems and challenges in developing the media connection to Africa still remain. Pushkov said: “Africa is a huge continent. And it is only fair to remind oneself again and again that it is not a single entity. It has multitude of languages, cultures, nations, customs and regional or global interests. This is something that many people tend to forget when dealing with the continent.”
“But this diversity also means that you can not cover the whole continent by firmly establishing yourself in just one part of it. This calls for a very complicated and structured work that requires a lot of resources the amount of which has been significantly reduced by the global financial crisis,” Pushkov explained assertively.
He, however, points to positive trend in media cooperation. Last year for instance, Russian media made somewhat of a breakthrough in establishing partnership relations with African media companies.
The main progress was reached during the forum of the heads of the BRICS countries’ leading media outlets “Towards creating a common information space for the BRICS countries” which took place in October in Moscow. This resulted in a number of signed cooperation agreements between Russian and South African media companies. Furthermore, leading Russian media outlets have continued their work to expand coverage of events happening on the African continent.
China is leading among the BRICS. During the Sixth Ministerial Meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in December 2015 in Pretoria, both China and Africa aspire to reach new milestones in many spheres, one of which is to train hundreds of journalists, help them with skills development and skills transfer programs.
According to the official reports, this will provide an opportunity, by using the power of modern media, for advancing the common interest of the two regions in a mutually beneficial way.
For the past few years, Russia has made some efforts to return with investment and business to Africa, but unfortunately only a few of those development projects have been made public.
“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,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, 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. 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.”
But, this trend may be changing. In a foreign policy speech, President Vladimir Putin urged all his Russian ambassadors and diplomats to actively use new technologies to highlight Russian success stories, improve Russia’s image and defend its interests abroad, according to Russian daily Kommersant, quoting an official who attended the meeting.
“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,” the official, who spoke on conditions of anonymity, quoted Putin as saying.
According to experts, the level and intensity of cultural influence can be raised by the effective use of soft power, and of course, social media as pointed out by President Putin in his mid-July address to Russian diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But the primary task is for diplomatic representations both in the Russian Federation and inside Africa to recognize these new methods of disseminating information, work with transparency and self-dedication, and keep up their legitimate responsibilities within the policy framework.