Information and Communication Technologies

This tag is associated with 11 posts

Misreporting the Turkish Protests

Turkish Demonstrators during the Gezi Park occupation

Turkish demonstrators during the Gezi Park occupation. Credit: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty via

In late May, protestors descended on Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park.  At first, there was a small sit-in over re-development plans that would have it, one of the few parks in European Istanbul.  After months of unsuccessful petitioning to save the park, activists took to camping out there to prevent the demolition.  Police removed them by force, setting their encampment on fire in the process.

The state’s aggressive response was met with outrage as images of the police action spread.  This brought far more protestors to the park. They expressed a general dissatisfaction with the government’s increasingly restrictive policies and actions.  Some were displeased with new limitations on alcohol sales during certain hours, increasing censorship and bans on public displays of affection. The government deployed punitive measures against dissidents and those insulting religion.

Turkey’s contemporary politics is defined by a delicate, but tilting balance between the religiously-inclined socio-politics of the dominant AK party and the deep strain of Kemalist secularism. The latter is reflected constitutionally, going back to the founder of modern, post-Ottoman Turkey.  It’s a set of nationalist values entrenched institutionally in the military, which plays a vital role in shaping Turkey’s polity, as well as among a good portion of the Turkish population.  The AK party, however, was re-elected several times by a majority of the country, and therefore enjoys something of a popular mandate to legislate socially conservative policies.  The modernist, westernizing vision of Turkey is at odds with the outcomes of democratic process.

This turn in political culture matches Turkey’s pivot in foreign affairs, from its abandoned westward aims of joining the European Union to playing a more active role in Middle Eastern international relations.

Protests that began over a very specific qualm — the razing of the park — quickly grew to larger movements of general dissent in others parts of the country. Labor strikes, mass protests and organized action by professionals and academics confronted the government. Riot police frequently used force and instruments such as tear gas, clubs and other weapons to disperse crowds.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül recently praised the original sit-in for the values it espoused, though he differentiated them from the later agitators who he saw as perpetrating violence. In response to the accusation that the state’s response was overwrought, he said its tactics were quite consistent with the types of response in other countries.  Rather than seeing these as amounting to a crisis of legitimacy, he sought to normalize the protest and the state’s response: “These kinds of problems are mainly democratic and developed countries’ problems. Turkey’s problems have come to a point resembling these.” In other words, these are #firstworldproblems.

President Gül’s claims are hard to square with the extent of violence that ensued. Freelance journalist Ahmet Sik said: “I have worked in war zones but Taksim was terrible. The security forces were hunting people down. Media personnel are targeted twice over. By demonstrators who think they are siding with the government and not covering events properly. And by the security forces, who deliberately fire at us.”

I am sure reasonable people can disagree to whether this is hyperbole or not, but one less ambitious question could be: How capable was foreign and Turkish media in reporting the story?

At a recent one-day symposium at Dublin City University, Esra Doğramaci spoke on this exact topic. She highlighted numerous, systematic errors in traditional news coverage, and showed how social media helped correct misreporting.

Her most stinging critique was that foreign media reported these protests within an “Arab spring” frame.  This suggests a revolutionary purpose aimed at regime change, rather than towards specific policy reforms.  Referencing the protests as “Turkish Tahrir” was emblematic of “sensationalism and misinformation.”  The numbers, the eventual unanimity, and the scale of government repression did not match, making the Arab spring frame fall flat. As one analyst suggested the underlying issue is identity, and that Kemalism was a “spent force” while long-suppressed religious politics are emergent.

Not only did news media fail to explore this more relevant historic context, but they offered reductionist and ahistorical parallels instead.  She points out The Economist cover that superimposed Prime Minister Erdogan’s face on an Ottoman Sultan’s body.

The June 8th - 14th, 2013 cover.

The June 8th – 14th, 2013 cover.

Doğramaci pointed to blatant acts of misreporting, from identifying a mass audience for the Prime Minister as an anti-government protest, to outdated photos of an injured child, to articles gauging national opinion based on interviews with ten Turks. One rumor that the government shuttered cell phone service was reported, but shown by a social media user to be false. She attributed these, in part, to the problem of producing “news requiring least effort.” Social media users, could correct the record and push journalism to be better.

There are, however, other systematic issues.  The Turkish spring frame, could reflect a lack of familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of Turkey, such as the deeper tension in its changing political culture.  Editors or journalists may just collapse it in with the set of Arab countries that saw uprisings starting in late 2010 — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Or, it could be a frame intended to grab more page views: a “hook.” That certainly seems to be the purpose of magazine covers, after all.

Covering it poorly is probably better than not covering it all.  CNN Turk, Doğramaci mentioned, famously ignored the story all together, showing a documentary about penguins instead of the first protests. CNN International was more on the ball, refusing to get scooped.  The CNN Turk documentary led to a fun protest meme. The penguin became the protestors’ new logo for neglectful media non-coverage.

One wonders, however, whether we can just fully blame faulty media coverage.  The Turkish government’s high rate of convicting and imprisoning journalists won it the nickname “world’s largest prison for journalists.”  When Reporters With Borders deems a country that, one wonders how state policy and pressures interfere with journalists’ access and ability to report competently on important stories, such as these protests. Documented reports of intimidation and censorship of journalists suggest government policy can also create reporting skews.  One impact is it discourages reporters from covering it. This could be the reason CNN Turk was slow to the subject.

Turkish repression of media is so extensive that it immediately calls into question President Gül’s assessment of the protests and the state response.

Despite the potential for social media users to circumvent traditional state instruments, such as its criminal law, the thick censorial regime would be very likely to impact how key moments in Turkey’s struggle for a new direction are presented, making the veracity of information more difficult to decipher.  Far from excusing sloppy journalism, unimaginative metaphors and skin-deep analysis in news media, pointing to the lack of press freedom in Turkey is an essential first step towards helping outsiders better understand what is happening within.


Democracy and 21st Century Statecraft

Tallying election results with the aid of cellphones in Kenya

Tallying election results with the aid of cellphones in Kenya

By Rebecca Woodward

The recent presidential elections in Kenya served as a platform to showcase mobile technology as a medium for transparent and fair processes in a country troubled by election violence and fraud in the recent past.  There are roughly six billion mobile phones in the world, in Kenya over 75% of the population uses cell-phones, so drawing upon technology already in use as a tool for institutional accountability is a logical choice. Much has been said and written about the Obama administration’s approach to digital government, and it has mostly revolved around former Secretary of State Clinton’s plan for 21st century statecraft.  This novel approach of Government using technology as the building blocks and foundation to reach out and connect with friends and (not-so-friendly) partners, has meant rethinking many of the tenets of diplomacy up until now.

TechCamp imageThe U.S. State Department has developed several programs, which have revolutionized traditional diplomacy; among them is TechCamp, which is a program within the Civil Society 2.0 initiative.  Since 2010, there have been over 15 TechCamps held all over the world, from Santiago (Chile) to Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), aimed at educating civil societies around the world providing them with stronger technology skills, which in turn will lead to more transparent governments and empowered citizens, ultimately strengthening democratic institutions.

Other countries have similar initiatives using technology as a key component of their diplomacy toolkit, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), for example, has a wide array of programs across the world which use basic SMS to request service from government agencies, report service interruptions or lack of service in order to keep governments accountable. In the U.S., organizations such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), among others have been active in democracy promotion for many years, and as technology has become ubiquitous in our daily lives, it has also become part of their programs.  More recently, organizations such as Code for America have begun expanding internationally to partner with local governments worldwide to provide them with the tools and insights needed to bring technology to their citizens.

The TechCamp initiative differentiates itself from other organizations in that it brings together people from varying socio-economic backgrounds around technology, whereas NDI or SIDA bring technology to specific groups with common interests (teachers, economists).  TechCamp reflects the values of 21st Century Statecraft touted by the Obama administration: openness, transparency, and engagement.  TechCamp reflects these values in its entire organization; the website provides “TechCamp in a box,” which includes all the tools needed to start a TechCamp, the planning process, as well as solutions which are documented (both in English and other languages) through TechCamp Wiki.

TechCamp Mumbai Tries Out the Harlem Shake

TechCamp Mumbai tries out the Harlem Shake

Through TechCamp, the U.S. is not only sharing cultural norms and values (including the Harlem Shake), but is also establishing valuable ties and on-going relationships with the future decision makers around the world.  Finally, the recent TechCamp in Philadelphia is an interesting addition to the TechCamp curriculum.  Having the domestic component could be interpreted as a signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. is not just exporting the program without applying it at home, but also to showcase work being done overseas by the State Department to U.S. taxpayers.

Countries using culture and diplomacy to advance democracy abroad, such as the U.S., need to take advantage of their privileged positions with regards to access to technology, communication channels and international presence.  The U.S. could focus on strengthening the programs it has started to develop over the last four years and incorporate them into its diplomatic toolkit for future democracy promotion around the world.  Programs such as TechCamp need to multiply at every level, promoting a grassroots approach to technology.  As NGO’s move forward with successful results using technology platforms to promote transparency and civil society engagement; at the state level, cases such as Kenya illustrate the many uses technology can have in promoting democracy worldwide.

Rebecca Woodward is a graduate student in the Global Communication program at the George Washington University with a focus on Communication and Information Technology.

The above post is from Take Five’s new Student Perspective series. Graduate students studying Cultural Diplomacy as Communication at the George Washington University are encouraged to think about themes such as youth, gender, health, climate, free press, and democracy, and write on how these themes relate to cultural diplomacy and to communication.  The posts involve thoughtful commentary on the writer’s chosen theme, linking to class readings and discussions. 

How Does Cultural Diplomacy Communicate? Let Me Count the Ways

U.S. senior diplomat Robert Jackson and Casablanca high school research team at Rabat Environment Eair, 2010

Opportunities to Engage: U.S. senior diplomat Robert Jackson with Casablanca high school research team members (Morocco’s Earth Day Network Fair, 2010)

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine, who delivered the annual Walter Roberts Lecture at George Washington University last Thursday, comes from a serious press and media background.  She is the recipient of 10 News Emmy Awards and other awards in journalism for broadcast programs on domestic and international issues.  She has also worked as strategic communications adviser to Internews and the International Women’s Media Foundation, among a number of other international organizations.

TS pink suitSo it was all the more striking how prominently cultural diplomacy featured in her comments last Thursday, just as it does in many of her other communications — including the U.S. public diplomacy highlights she publishes every few weeks.

This is a reminder that the Under Secretary recognizes and embraces the fact that cultural programming IS communication.  It is an essential diplomatic tool that enables the U.S. to persuade influential people to listen to us with an open mind; allows us to share knowledge and skills with potential international partners and allies; and helps us attract positive attention via mass media and digital media.

As Harvard scholar Joeph Nye has noted, the scarcest information resource in the 21st Century is likely to be the audience’s attention span.  Here in the U.S., despite the plethora of contemporary media distractions, most citizens still pay some attention to what our own government says, because we know it might affect us directly, and also because we conceive of every citizen having a watchdog role.   Certainly U.S. journalists see scrutiny of government as an obligation.

cross cultural iceberg

THE ICEBERG MODEL This graphic shows why direct messaging – via print or audio-visual media – can so easily fail to reach its target.

But it would be a mistake to think that official U.S. statements and policy explanations get even the modest automatic hearing abroad that they do at home.   People are certainly interested in what the U.S. is up to, but they have a host of non-U.S. sources for that information that are more familiar to them, more trusted, and frequently more accommodating to their preconceptions.

Overseas, it takes creativity and insight to increase the chances that people will listen to U.S. officials with an open mind, and be prepared to respond accordingly.

This is why public diplomacy practitioners know that cultural programming is increasingly vital to the achievement of foreign policy goals.  Some cultural programs serve as the proverbial “picture worth a thousand words,” projecting the essence of American policies, principles, and values via local mass media and fast-growing new digital media.  Some cultural programming works as a powerful teaching tool to help influential people abroad understand (if not necessarily accept) both U.S. foreign affairs priorities and fundamental American principles.

More fundamentally, cultural programming fosters relationships and understanding between foreign officials and U.S. diplomats who will be called on, sooner or later, to work on contentious issues across the table from one other.  It helps sustain generalized affinities even as individuals come and go in the diplomatic service.  And it helps connect the real global communicators of the 21st century:  journalists, activists, scholars, researchers, teachers, writers, artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs, as well as young people just joining the conversation.

The following recent U.S. public diplomacy highlights show the variety of ways in which cultural programming communicates.  These highlights, published in January by the Office of the Under Secretary, are here sorted into three categories:  Talking, Teaching, and Spreading the Word.

1)  Talking — recognizing the people who are (or are likely to become) influential, and bringing them together across borders for focused and purposeful exchange of ideas.

  • Alumnus Hassen Ould Ahmed was recently appointed Deputy Director of Mauritania’s Cabinet.  Ahmed was a 2008-2009 Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at Penn State University.  Meanwhile, Armenian political magazine De Facto named Edmon Marukyan, an alumnus of the Hubert H. Humphrey Program 2010 and previously the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), “Member of Parliament of the Year.” Marukyan was elected to parliament in spring 2012.  
  • Public Affairs Section Jerusalem hosted Oberlin College Professor of History Dr. Gary Kornblith, who spoke on American democracy at An-Najah University, Birzeit University, and Al Quds Open University.  Dr. Kornblith also discussed the possibility of establishing an American Studies Program at the universities, meeting with university staff and academics at an Embassy reception designed to nurture cultural dialogue and advance the pursuit of American Studies.
  • At Rich Mix, East London (U.K.), playwright Wajahat Ali participated in an evening monologue and discussion with members of the Muslim arts community. The event attracted artists, writers, students and community leaders, including many women.  An accomplished Muslim-American writer and an engaging speaker, Mr. Ali is comfortable with both his American and his Muslim identities, and there was much discussion about the contrast between American and British Muslims on that topic.
  • xborders gamesOn January 5-6, while India and Pakistan faced each other on the cricket pitch, teams of exchange program alumni from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh engaged in the xBorder Games.  Using social media tools like Google+, Storify, and Twitter, two teams comprised of alumni from each country competed in a digital scavenger hunt.  The xBorder Games connected 45 alumni separated by geographic, cultural, and linguistic lines, created new friendships, and increased cross-cultural understanding.  U.S. Embassies Islamabad, New Delhi and Dhaka organized the event.
  • Paralympian and Fulbright Scholar Yevgeniy Tetyukhin spoke about disability policy to an audience of special education teachers and administrators at the University of Guam.  A professor, two-time Paralympian, and lifelong disability advocate, Tetyukhin is spending a year at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Center on Disability Studies, researching disability policy in the context of globalization and multicultural diversity.
  • Unconventional artists and activists narrate their own stories on a new VOA program that seeks to connect underground communities in Iran and the rest of the world.  The twice-monthly TV and web program called ZirZameen is produced by Voice of America’s Persian Service and is available in both English and Farsi editions.  The show, hosted by Mehrnoush Karimian, premiered in December and is available on social media sites, the VOA Persian satellite stream and on Livestation, a 24/7 Internet streaming platform.
  • The U.S. Ambassador to Korea hosted a New Year’s party for the Embassy’s online friends.  Out of 35,000 people who follow the post’s various social media accounts, a diverse group of 20 were invited based on their online activity. The Ambassador blogged about the party, and the Embassy will post an “Ask the Ambassador” YouTube video highlighting the event.  The Ambassador will continue this type of online-offline engagement with innovative netizens in the future.

2)  Teaching — transferring knowledge and skills that are essential in civic life, political life, and international relations.  Cultural programming promotes retention and “useability” of new knowledge through dialogue, debate, and learning-by-doing.  Two-way knowledge transfer and “paying know-how  forward” are frequent outcomes of cultural programming.

  • Pilarani Phiri from Zodiak Broadcasting radio station in Malawi – a participant in the State Department Foreign Press Center’s (FPC) 2012 Elections program for visiting journalists – reported that he Malawi journo interviews presidentsecured the first live phone interview with a Malawian president as a result of his U.S. program experience.  In his words: “one thing I learned while covering the elections is that the American President is always scrutinized by the public.  Immediately I arrived home I got in touch with our ‘White House’ to have the President answer questions from the public.  I am proud to announce that on December 31, I was the first Malawian journalist to have a live phone interview with the President where people posed questions to [him], a thing that has never happened before in my country.”
  • For four months, hundreds of Indonesian English teachers gathered every Saturday morning to take part in the series “Shaping the Way We Teach English,” taught by the [U.S. Embassy] Regional English Language Officer and English Language Fellows.  The teachers came to @america [the high-tech American Center] in Jakarta or participated via digital link from the Consulate in Medan and the American Corner in Yogyakarta.
  • U.S. Embassy Kampala’s Information Officer gave a presentation at the “Writing Our World” (WOW) workshop at Makerere University, coaching participants on using social media to broadcast their voices and market their writing.  Facebook, Twitter, and blogging were introduced as tools to expand the young writers’ network and increase attention to their work.  The Embassy has also given grants to facilitate the activities of Writing Our World through readers and writers clubs in 10 schools.  WOW’s leader is a member of the Embassy’s Youth Council.
  • AC SalfeetJerusalem: The board game Monopoly has proven a potent tool in fostering the entrepreneurial spirit among Palestinian youth, while simultaneously introducing a mainstay of American culture.  American Corner Salfeet hosted 20 undergraduate students from Al Quds Open University for a discussion about business plans, barriers to entry, and board games with a visiting U.S. diplomat.
  • Seven officials from Zambia’s Ministry of Tourism traveled to the U.S. in January on an IVLP program to enhance their planning of the 20th session of the United Nations World Tourism Organization General Assembly, which will take place in Zambia in August 2013. During the program the officials examined how to plan a world conference, including best practices, leveraging partnerships, and capitalizing on them for longer-term benefit beyond the conference.

3) Spreading the word – via local media coverage or on digital media.  While the previous two genres of cultural programming are designed to make a significant impact on the immediate participants, the purpose of this third type is to spark positive interest among the many.

  • U.S. Embassy Caracas held its annual “Baseball Visa Day” during which Venezuelan players in the U.S. major leagues and their family members obtain visas for the upcoming season.  This year some 40 major leaguers and their families visited the Consular Section for their visas, and afterwards participated in a brief ceremony and reception with coverage by multiple print and television media outlets.  Chargé d’Affaires (CDA) James Derham reminded those present that baseball is just one of many historic and cultural ties uniting Venezuela and the United States, and congratulated the players for an unprecedented season in which one Venezuelan won the batting Triple Crown, one pitched a no-hitter, another pitched a perfect game, and nine played in the World Series.   During this event, Embassy Caracas took the opportunity to promote its youth outreach program “Béisbol y Amistad” (Baseball and Friendship), now in its seventh season.
  • OBama in hong kongIn the lead-up to the U.S. Presidential Inauguration, Consulate Hong Kong began a social media project that included photos, videos and travelling cardboard cutouts of President Obama and the First Lady.  Consulate Hong Kong Facebook posts of “President Obama” riding the Mid-Levels Escalator and standing in a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station generated 42 comments, and 213 likes.  Public Affairs Section Hong Kong will complete the project on January 21, 2013 with a video montage of the cutout President’s “tour” of Hong Kong.
  • The Innovation Generation Facebook page of State Department’s IIP Bureau hosted Monica Dodi, co-founder of MTV Europe and The Women’s Venture Capital Fund, on its “Ask the Entrepreneur” series, which features accomplished American entrepreneurs.  The discussion sparked questions from around the globe including from India, Indonesia, Mauritania, Mexico, and Pakistan.
  • MeetUS program in GermanyThe U.S. Consul General in Munich spoke to students and faculty of “Berufsschule 4,” an off-the-beaten-track school in Nuremberg.  He addressed U.S.-German relations, the U.S. presence in Bavaria, and economic and commercial ties, and tackled tough questions about car emissions, Guantanamo, gun control, and social media topics.  The MeetUS speaker program is a core part of Mission Germany’s youth outreach, and the discussion was live Tweeted to highlight the event to a broader audience.
  • Bosnian Brooklyn Nets Player Interview Makes Front Page:  The State Department’s New York Foreign Press Center assisted the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo in securing an interview with Brooklyn Nets player Mirza Teletovic – a Bosnian basketball star who has recently joined the NBA – in Dnevni Avaz (Daily Voice), the leading Bosnian newspaper and news website.
  • In January, [State Department] hosted 20 Youth Ambassadors from Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Panama for a reception and meeting with the Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA), which promoted the event on social media along with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the relevant U.S. Embassies; Embassy San José alone received nearly 6,000 Facebook page views and 300 likes.

All the above constitute just a few of the highlights shared by the Under Secretary’s office for January alone.  January’s highlights in turn constitute a tiny sliver of the cultural programming that takes place week in, week out at every U.S. Embassy and Consulate around the world.  Most of it is targeted to advance specific foreign policy goals, and just about all of it is conceptualized strategically.

Each example is also a reminder that cultural diplomacy IS communication.  The U.S. can only benefit from greater use of cultural programming  to advance U.S. foreign affairs priorities.

21st Century Visual Culture, NGOs, and Public Diplomacy


An early Christmas present arrived in the mail today – a new book called Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism (Meg McLagan and Yates McKee, eds., Zone Books, 2012.)

The “visual culture of nongovernmental activism” seems like an important topic for U.S. public diplomacy practitioners to consider.  Even though public diplomacy isn’t exactly nongovernmental, neither does it 100 women initiativerepresent the prevailing governing power of the countries in which public diplomats work.   And in “making the case for America” in those foreign lands, we are very much activist, vying for attention along with non-governmental (and other-governmental) efforts of every stripe.   We may ally ourselves enthusiastically with some causes, for example women’s empowerment.  We may argue against others, for example restrictions on free speech deemed blasphemous.  But we are always one voice among many, without the authority (however defined or felt) that a government body carries in its own country.

And of course, one of public diplomacy’s key resources is visual culture.   From the first great expansion of Amerika the last issueU.S. public diplomacy during the Cold War period, the U.S. looked for ways to make visual our ideas, our values, our culture.  Jazz Ambassadors did not tour just so people could hear their music; these mega-stars were sent abroad so that their photos would be on the front page of every newspaper, perhaps shaking the hand of a prime minister or jamming with local musicians.  Jeeps and trucks carried USIS officers to remote areas with movies and portable generator-run projectors.  Every month USIS distributed glossy color-photo magazines in Russian, Arabic, Spanish, French, and other languages.  U.S. cultural centers were and are full of posters, photographs – even décor – supporting our particular “cause,” i.e., America itself.  With the advent of satellite television in the 1980’s, USIA under Charles Wick eagerly embraced the opportunity to engage via this new medium.   Interestingly, the first and most prominent use of USIA’s “Worldnet” television was to bring together multi-country audiences in mutual discussion and debate.

In the past couple of decades, non-governmental and civil society organizations have proliferated across the globe.  In wealthier countries, philanthropy and sometimes government grants provided support.  In the developing world, international donors channeled development assistance funds to and through such A scene from %22Soul City%22 TVgroups.  Even before the Internet became widely accessible, NGOs expressed their activism visually, via photography, posters, videos, theater.  Some development agencies ventured deep into visual culture territory, funding local NGO partners to produce films and television programs designed to promote positive actions such as conflict resolution or combating HIV/AIDS.  Non-governmental organizations around the world became sophisticated in working with visual culture.  Under-funded public diplomacy organizations have felt the pressure.

Today, we all continue to be amazed at the impact and promise of digital media.  Digital and social media The Uprising of Women in the Arab World logomost certainly multiply our ability to communicate, but they expand the opportunity exponentially to those who may not have much in the way of funds, but who do have the passion, energy, and creativity to produce powerful images that draw us to their message.  In this significantly more crowded visual-culture landscape, the U.S. will likely continue to focus on innovative ways to maintain our profile and to partner with other visual-culture organizations to tell America’s story.  But this new book is a reminder that in the 21st century, communicating “who we are” is losing ground to communicating “what must change” — with real implications for public diplomacy.

In any case, it’s exciting when a book provokes so much thought via the title alone.  And now I see that already on  p. 14 there’s a discussion of Walter Benjamin on the “’aestheticizing of politics’ by fascism” in the 1930’s, which somehow got me thinking about the global reach of U.S. consumer culture and how this also shapes the landscape in which we public diplomacy practitioners work.  Sounds like a topic for a future blog post!

Tweeting in State



When the recent Diplopundit post and related news items came out about State Department revising its external communication clearance rules, a lot of people reacted with concern that State was either deliberately or merely blind-bureaucratically limiting its ability to communicate by imposing a new delay on digital communication, even on tweets.   Colleagues here at GWU quizzed me with “State Department rules might impose a 48-hour review period on employees tweets.  Because that’s the best way to communicate in the era of instant communication?”

But my experience with the State Department tells me this is not what the new draft clearance rules are about — and here is why:

Right now, if you are an Ambassador or PAO (public affairs officer) overseas you are cleared to tweet or post to social media (as well as talk to local journalists, do interviews with local media, etc.) as you see fit — and it doesn’t look like these new rules would change that.  And if you are in Washington in an office that needs to communicate publicly about something, you can work with the PA staff in your own bureau to get near-instant clearance.

(Plus, employees can always use language that’s already been cleared, e.g. text from previous official speeches and statements — and frankly, a lot of language gets recycled this way because it’s efficient and ensures consistency, which is necessarily valued in this business).

So I don’t see the new rules having any restrictive effect on on-the-job communication via digital media, either overseas or at reasonably senior levels in Washington.

To me (and again, this is just from looking at Diplopundit and the spinoff media articles from it), the new draft rules appear to do two things:

  • Actually shorten the maximum time State PA is allowed to take to clear independent thoughts on foreign affairs which State employees might want to express in a non-official or quasi-official role.  In other words, in situations where the reason people might read your blog article or listen to your speech is that you work for State, but you want to use your own words and speak your own thoughts.  And of course there’s a broad spectrum of such situations, ranging from invitational speaking that all State officers ought to do as part of their work (on one end) to whistle-blowing (at the other); and,
  • Close a loophole that indicated if State PA doesn’t respond to a request for clearance within a certain deadline, one is free to publish.

Up until now, there’s been a blanket maximum time of 30 days for clearance of such quasi-official communication, via any media. But according to the new draft rules, the very small subset of employees’ social media content that might be subject to review through this formal Department process would be guaranteed a much shorter maximum (not target) deadline for clearance.

But it’s good that journalists and the general public are interested in this. (Government always works better when the citizens are paying attention and can give sensible advice if insider-thinking shows signs of going off the rails!)

Opinion Leaders: Still the Most Important PD Audience.

Diplomeet Tweetup co-sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Morocco and the Social Media Club of Casablanca.

 Note:  First in a new Take Five blog post series 

The Office of U.S. Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Tara Sonenshine began several months ago to distribute summary PD activity highlights to interested members of the U.S. public.  In a series of blog posts starting today, I’d like to showcase some of these highlights, and use them to illustrate key facets of ongoing U.S. public diplomacy work.

Last year, after diving into the world of public diplomacy scholarship as a Fellow at GWU’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication (IPDGC), I began to realize that a frequently missing piece of the academic puzzle is concrete discussion and analysis of what public diplomats actually do in the field.  And considering that U.S. public diplomacy remains significantly field-driven, this feels like a major gap. Thus a blog series is born.

Each piece will begin with a few thoughts on what the selected programs and activities have in common, and what is significant about that common theme.   The highlights speak for themselves.

Today’s theme is Opinion Leaders.  Future topics will include: Not Always Setting the Agenda; Messaging Creatively; Arts Programs as Communication; and more. As always, readers, I welcome your interest, your feedback, and your additional thoughts.

Focus:  Opinion Leaders

Over the years, debates have raged within U.S. Public Diplomacy about how much energy and resources to direct towards “opinion leaders” (journalists, professors, artists, political and social movement leaders) and how much towards the broad general public (e.g. via youth outreach.)

Rhetoric in these debates tended to confuse “opinion leaders” and “elites.”  Practically no one objected to the idea of going far beyond elites, but most public diplomacy practitioners recognized that opinion leaders come in all shapes, sizes, ages, classes, genders, and income levels.  Acutely aware that there were only so many PD dollars to go around, they hesitated to abandon working with opinion leaders (sometimes termed audience multipliers) in order to concentrate on engaging ordinary citizens directly.

Fortunately, among the many benefits of digital technology and social media are two that have helped lay to rest the elites vs. opinion leader debate.  First, digital media has expanded the communication power and resources of non-elites to the point where no one any longer can doubt their ability to shape public opinion; and second, digital communication means field diplomats can now reach the general public (in a more interactive and targeted way than broadcasting allows) with much less expenditure of funds and time resources.

The following recent State Department highlights are selected to showcase the variety of ways that U.S. public diplomacy continues to work with opinion leaders — journalists, teachers, professors, NGO leaders, entrepreneurs, and selected youth leaders, and to communicate – through them – with their own respective networks and audiences. (Text from State Department highlights is marked with *)

 Journalists are opinion leaders par excellence.

VOA Program Connects US and Pakistan:  Viewers in Pakistan can now experience a slice of life in America, with the premiere of a dynamic new VOA program called “Sana, A Pakistani,” that follows show host Sana Mirza — one of Pakistan’s most popular television newscasters — as she gets to know this country.  “I just moved here, so I’m seeing things with fresh eyes,” says Sana. “I want the program to a picture of what life is really like in the United States.” The first program focused on Washington D.C. and included a visit to a mosque, the White House, and an aid organization that provides free meals to the homeless. Sana says she plans to travel around the country so she can show viewers how people really live, including the many Pakistani-Americans that have moved to the United States.

* Alumna’s Recognition Marks Fulbright’s 20th Anniversary in Vietnam:  July’s State Alumni Member of the Month is Do Minh Thuy, a Fulbright Program alumna from Vietnam dedicated to raising the professional and ethical standards of Vietnamese journalism.  The honor coincided with Fulbright’s 20th anniversary in Vietnam.

* Embassy Seoul Hosts Student Journalism Seminar:  In a first-ever collaboration with the Korea
Association of International Educators (KAIE), Embassy Seoul arranged the 2012 Student Journalism Seminar, inviting 34 top student journalists from 17 university newspapers and broadcasting stations across eight cities in Korea.  Under the theme of “Journalism and the Changing Media Environment,” participants enjoyed remarks from U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim, journalism workshops, visits to major media outlets, and meetings with U.S. and Korean journalists.

* Partnering with VOA in South Sudan
: Voice of America’s (VOA) South Sudan Project held a reporting training workshop in Juba, South Sudan for 19 journalists, including reporters from VOA’s radio program, South Sudan in Focus, as well as reporters and announcers from the Voice of the People, Radio Miraya, and South Sudan Radio.

IIP’s eLibraryUSA Wows Influential Ghana TV Station:  The Accra Information Resource Center (IRC) hosted staff from one of Ghana’s most influential TV stations; showing them how to locate documentaries and books, podcasts, videos, articles and reference sources via the collection of 30 commercial databases available to audiences worldwide.  Following the two hour session, TV3’s lead producer said they would extend training invitations to the most prominent people in Ghana’s media landscape.

But media influence is no longer just the domain of journalists.

* Libyan Civil Society Organizations Produce First Public Service Announcements: Four civil society organizations from the cities of Misrata, Tripoli, and Sebha completed technical training in video production and public messaging with a grant from the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).  The organizations produced twelve public service announcements (PSAs) on electoral education, voter participation, rule of law, and mine risk awareness.

People listen to business leaders too (even those not profiled in major newspapers!)

*Russian Business Leader Credits FLEX Year in the United States for Success:  Leading Russian businesswoman Marina Malykhina was featured in a July 27 article in The Moscow Times, where she attributed much of her success to the entrepreneurial values learned as a teenager on ECA’s Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program.  Malykhina is the cofounder and CEO of one of Russia’s largest market research firms.

Fortune Alum Pays it Forward with Mentoring Challenge in Nigeria:  Consulate General Lagos partnered with Idea Builders Initiative, a non-governmental organization run by an alumna of the Fortune/State Department Mentoring program, to conduct a three-day orientation and training program for 35 young women.  These 35 women accepted a “Mentoring Challenge” to reach out to 100 female students in area high schools over the next 12 months.  They learned about public speaking, confidence building, goal setting, conflict resolution, money and time management, career planning, and handling peer pressure.

Coca-Cola Scholars:  The State Department’s Bureau of Near East / North African Affairs hosted 100 young leaders from the region on July 13 to mark the completion of their month-long entrepreneurship education program sponsored by the State Department and the Coca-Cola Company in partnership with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University (IU.)  The young leaders showcased community-based initiative proposals they developed during their program at IU.  Under Secretary Sonenshine and White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes addressed the scholars and NEA Spokesperson Aaron Snipe took extensive questions from the group.

All posts aspire to engage future government and political leaders:

ECA Alumni To Play Key Role in Yemen Transition:  Yemen’s President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi has appointed five ECA alumni (from International Visitor Leadership Program and Fulbright) to serve on the Preparatory Committee for the National Dialogue.  Committee outcomes will set the stage for the anticipated constitution-drafting process.

First Mongolian Fulbrighter Joins Parliament:  Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, a Fulbright and Eisenhower program alumna and a board member of the Embassy Alumni Association, was recently elected to the Mongolian parliament.  She is the first Fulbright and the third Eisenhower alumna to become a Mongolian parliament member.  She is one of only nine women parliamentarians serving alongside 67 men.

At the local government level, ensuring that at least one or two people know the U.S. can have a big impact:

International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) Transforms Iraqi Views of Muslim Life in America:  A member of the Anbar (Iraq) Provincial Council shared his views of Muslim life in America, after participating in the “Transparency in Federal, State, and Local Government” IVLP.  He said his colleagues thought it was “impossible to be a Muslim in the United States, since the Americans all hate Muslims and kick them out of the country.”  He said, “I immediately corrected my friends’ misunderstanding and told them about the vibrant community of Muslims that I met in Miami.  I knew what they were saying was wrong, and I couldn’t stay silent.”

Teachers and scholars spread knowledge and shape opinions for a living.

* A Record Number of Fulbrighters Prepare for Departure:  180 new Fulbright Masters and PhD scholars from every province in Pakistan, the largest group of Pakistani Fulbrighters ever, prepared in June / July to head off for universities throughout the United States.

Exchange and public affairs reach current and future influential Americans too:

ECA Teacher Alumnus Is Connecticut Teacher of the Year:  ECA’s Teaching Excellence and Achievement (TEA) alumnus David Bosso was honored by President Obama as the 2012 Connecticut State Teacher of the Year for his passion for learning and teaching about the world.  The TEA program provides outstanding secondary school teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL), social studies, math and science with unique opportunities to develop expertise in their subject areas. One student wrote: “Mr. Bosso has taken what he has learned from classrooms across the globe and shared his insights with us. When he learns something new, so do we.”

USUN Panel on Media in a Changing World:  Nearly 100 [U.S.] students interning at news outlets in New York City came to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (USUN) on July 23 to discuss “Media in a Changing World” with peers and media veterans.  The program began with a panel, moderated by Deputy Spokesperson Kurtis Cooper, featuring Richard Roth of CNN, Marcelle Hopkins of Al-Jazeera, Sylvan Solloway from the New York University Curtis Institute of Journalism, and Koda Mike Wang of the Huffington Post. The convergence of media and tech, social media, changing business models for news outlets, and many other aspects of covering international affairs were part of a lively discussion.

Everybody’s Talking About World Press Freedom Day

World Press Freedom Day – celebrated today, May 3, with the centerpiece UNESCO event held in Carthage, Tunisia – is one of those global phenomena, like soccer, that seizes Americans only peripherally.  Yes, the main event last year was held in New York, and yes, U.S. organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists release key reports on the occasion, but by and large the day comes and goes here in the U.S. without much fanfare.  Through the wisdom of our founding fathers and much vigilance and hard work by journalists, editors, and publishers since that time, U.S. press freedom is secure.  But this is by no means the case everywhere, and therefore World Press Freedom Day becomes an important opportunity – and sometimes an all-too-necessary excuse – for renewed discussion of media freedom issues in countries around the world.  The U.S. government, through its Embassies overseas, is an active participant in these discussions.

President Barack Obama’s statement on World Press Freedom Day 2012 makes U.S. principles and commitment clear, as does the video statement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  But U.S. Embassies overseas also actively seize the opportunity of World Press Freedom Day to reinforce American support for the principle and practice of media freedom.  Many Embassies develop and promote creative opportunities for local journalists and editors to speak out.   More on that below.

When the UN General Assembly proclaimed World Press Freedom Day in 1993, it outlined the following goals:
–     to encourage and develop initiatives in favor of press freedom
–     to assess the state of press freedom worldwide
–     to remind governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom
–     to encourage reflection among media professionals about press freedom and professional ethics
–     to mobilize support for media that are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom
–     to remember journalists who lost their lives in the exercise of their profession

UNESCO’s selection of Tunisia as the site of this year’s World Press Freedom Day ceremony reinforces its key theme for 2012: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies, summarized here:  “the recent uprisings in some Arab states have highlighted the power of media and the human quest for media freedom, as well as underlining the fact that social inequalities will indefinitely search for equilibrium, in order to address those inequalities. Could the Arab Spring have taken place without the proliferation of social media or satellite TV? [Text messaging] and social media have enabled the diffusion of vital information to reach the widest number of people in a very short span of time. Social media have enabled protesters to self-organize, and have engaged the global youth in the fight to be able to freely express themselves and the aspirations of their wider communities.”

U.S. Embassies are making the most of this opportunity to reinforce American principles and policies in support of press freedom.   Here is just a small sampling — from Angola to Surinam (both this and this), to Pakistan (via YouTube and Facebook); from the Philippines (through a new partnership with the Philippine Press Institute), to an op-ed by a State Department official that was shared via this all-Africa digital media outlet, picked up in Namibia, and tweeted by All-Africa news website Co-founder and Chairman Amadou Mahtar Ba; from an upcoming Twitter Q&A in Rwanda, to a seminar in Luxembourg, and this U.S. Ambassadorial initiative reported in Kyrgyzstan.

World Press Freedom Day is also an important occasion for the UN, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and other global organizations to recognize journalists who are “targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom” — in other words, journalists who have been intimidated, persecuted, jailed, or even killed because pf their work.

The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, through its website, also highlights compelling and emblematic cases of journalists who are imprisoned or living under threats, among them Reyot Alemu (left) of Ethiopia, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in June 2011.

As the UN General Assembly of 1993 intended, May 3 has become an occasion in most countries for journalists and editors to sit down, sometimes with government officials, to discuss and debate press freedom issues of local concern.  Not infrequently, governments use the occasion to reinforce their own perspectives on the need for restraints and limits on press freedom – or (per our recent blog post Fear and Loathing in Development Journalism) to define journalists’ role in the country’s development.  This debate around media responsibilities vs. media freedom is discussed explicitly or implicitly in many local news stories on World Press Freedom Day, including in this revealing sample of pieces from Uganda,  Nigeria,  Sri Lanka,  IndiaGuyana. and Ghana.

Press freedom is an issue for every day, not just for May 3.  But World Press Freedom Day is a vitally important opportunity to get people talking about what is happening in their countries and what needs to change.  And public diplomacy to promote press freedom is one of the most important kinds of public diplomacy there is.

A Proposal for Revitalizing International Broadcasting in the Information Age

Co-author: Shawn Powers, Georgia State University

State-funded broadcasters face more competition for publics’ attention.  With the wide proliferation of information sources globally, audiences have the option of accessing a multitude of news outlets while increasing their own engagement through two-way communications technologies.  The growth of other international broadcasters, or state news media aimed at foreign audiences, as well as private news media, is part of increasingly complex informational environments.

For state broadcasters constrained by host governments’ strategic interests and/or lethargic bureaucracy, adapting to the information age is especially challenging.  They are bound by old missions, institutional pressure, declining budgets, and domestic politics, not to mention the presumption of propaganda by many receiving publics.  However, the source of their new challenges—the growth of information and communication technologies—also offers a possible way forward.

These factors along with financial crises and the demise of clear, global geopolitical polarity, has engendered identity crises among many state-run broadcasters already facing the ever-difficult dilemma between being news with instrumental purposes – the pursuit of the host country’s national interests – while not being dismissed as propaganda.

State broadcasters can re-define themselves by focusing on specific information poor and weakly governed societies, often termed failed or non-transitioning states – of which there are still dozens according to Foreign Policy’s Failed State index.

In a newly published paper in a special symposium in the Journal of Public Deliberation, we propose international broadcasters find renewal by fostering deliberative technologies in such societies.  By sponsoring mediated forums for average Somalis, Afghans, Haitians and so on to discuss public matters, international broadcasters can aid development through hosting safe communicative spaces for articulating public concerns, reaching shared expectations of governance, and, advancing norms of citizen participation in public affairs.

To support this policy prescription, we offer two case studies.  The first is Voice of America’s Middle East Voices (MEV) online portal, launched in November 2011.  Its goals are explicitly deliberative.  According to managing director Davin Hutchins, “We wanted to find a place where people could start conversations about the news. There are plenty of sites and organizations that cover the Middle East. What we wanted was a site that enhanced the level of dialogue.”

VOA’s use of deliberation technologies in non-transitioning and authoritarian states facilitated informed dialogue on divisive issues, much of which is based on user-generated content and collaborative journalism.  While MEV has not reached nor involved large audiences, it offers a new model for international broadcasters to encourage the flow of information and political expression where domestic media are under assault.   Such deliberative infrastructure for national and transnational dialogue is valuable as an avenue for circumventing state censors and informational controls.

The second is “Somalia Speaks,” a collaborative project spearheaded by Al Jazeera English that combines several communication technologies to solicit short message service (SMS) texts about Somalia and shares them on its website.  Soud Hyder, an AJE staff member, said the project’s aim is to circulate “the perspective of normal Somali citizens” and let them “tell us how the crisis has affected them.”  It tapped into the growth of mobile phones in Somalia.

Respondents expressed how the famine and decades of conflict impacted them.  For example, one SMS posted on January 1, 2012 read:

“I lost both my parents and the elder brother in the bloodshed that has been going for the last 20 years. In addition, my students and their children all perished in this conflict and there is a lot which I can’t count all here.”

The graphic to the right is from the project’s webpage and it outlines the process.  AJE partnered with Souktel, a cell phone service provider with a development ethos, to provide the local response number to receive the SMS texts and the subscriber lists.  A crowd-sourcing platform, Crowdflower, let 80 volunteers translate 1,000 messages into English.  Using Ushahidi’s mapping application, AJE’s website displayed the messages in both map and catalog formats.  This exemplified the possibilities that arise from an international broadcaster working collaboratively with other technology platforms and organizations.

With adjustments, both the MEV and “Somalia Speaks,” could be used to better facilitate domestic information flows.  For example, AJE could have done more to re-circulate the texts through Somali media. This would be easier, of course, if Al Jazeera goes forward with its planned East Africa news channel.  Similarly, VOA could find ways to expand circulation of user-generated content beyond the Internet, perhaps through its broadcasting functions.  These projects do show how international broadcasters can engage in particular media poor environments to benefit local publics.

Some may argue that deliberation, or institutionalized public exchange, is impossible in authoritarian and failed or failing states.  Lisa Wedeen’s excellent ethnographic study of public engagement in Yemen, Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen (2008), shows how overly formalistic definitions of deliberation do not capture the vibrancy of public sphere practices in informal, everyday life settings. She examined Qat chews, in which circles of men share the mildly narcotic leaves while discussing public issues and exchanging information.  This is a form of Yemeni citizenship in action even in lieu of a fully functioning state or formal civil society.  Our proposal would mean more mass mediated channels for the spreading of such deliberation among wider audiences.

Broadcasters may protest that this puts their primary audiences in a handful of countries. This proposal complements rather than supplants current broadcasting.  Also, as the case studies show, such projects can generate valuable content for reporting.  For example, AJE reported on a market fire in a region in Somalia where there are no journalists after receiving text messages.  This alone can give state-sponsored news organs something novel to contribute.  Such reporting adds to, rather than replicates or spins, the dominant news stream, and is more interesting than the typical fare showing the host country in a good light.

We recognize that development problems cannot be resolved by talk and the exchange of ideas alone.  Rather than a panacea, this is about a pragmatic use of state resources to benefit foreign publics with the understanding that this is not done selflessly.  There must be mutual benefit.

Building on notions of deliberative development, we argue that international broadcasters can offer positive, incremental improvement of the internal flow of information and expectations, which can fuel growth in civil society and improve informal or quasi-governance structures – potential precursors to more responsive institutions.  By serving as proxies in places with weak media, broadcasters get a new purpose, a developmental one, and this is a step forward for both.

Of course, since they are intervening in foreign information spaces, broadcasting agencies must approach carefully, self-reflexively and in partnership with groups and audience members in receiving countries.

If this proposal interests you, read our full paper, “A New Purpose for International Broadcasting: Subsidizing Deliberative Technologies in Non-transitioning States.”   Feedback is welcome either below in the comments or email us directly at smp [at] gsu [dot] edu. Or find us on Twitter: @shawnpowers and @wyoumans.

China, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, the Arab world, and the Vatican: New Books on Public Diplomacy Span the Globe.

New books on Public Diplomacy, December 2011 through April 2012

Take Five readers:  Let us know if you like this resource, and we’ll make it a quarterly feature.

1) At the 2012 London Book Fair. Professor Zhao Qizheng is launching his two new books in English. They are Cross-Border Dialogue: the Wisdom of Public Diplomacy, published by the New World Press, and How China Communicates: Public Diplomacy in a Global Age, published by the Foreign Language Press (together constituting an English version of his Chinese book entitled Public Diplomacy and Cross-Cultural Communication, published by Remin University Press, 2011).  Zhao says, “I’m trying to present a picture of the real situation in China, to reduce misunderstanding and eliminate the foreign reader’s sense of unfamiliarity with the country.”

2)  The People’s Peace Process in Northern Ireland,  by Colin Irwin (April 2, 2012) — From the book jacket:  ‘I recommend this book to all those involved with peace making and peace building, political negotiations and public opinion polls, as well as those with a particular interest in Northern Ireland. … I am persuaded that the unique approach [Irwin] developed of running public opinion polls in co-operation with party negotiators contributed significantly to the successful outcome of our efforts. – Senator George J. Mitchell.

3) Cyberspaces and Global Affairs by Sean S. Costigan and Jake Perry (Jan 1, 2012). Note Part II: Web 2.0 and public diplomacy includes the following articles:  – Call for power? Mobile phones as facilitators of political activism;  – ICT infrastructure in two Asian giants: a comparative analysis of China and India;  – Information (without) revolution? Ethnography and the study of new media-enabled change in the Middle East;  – The political history of the internet: a theoretical approach to the implications for US power;  – US identity, security, and governance of the internet;  – Information and communications technologies and power;  – Social media and Iran’s post-election crisis;  – Viewpoint: combating censorship should be a foreign policy goal;  – Viewpoint: an alternative prospect on cyber anarchy for policy-makers.  About the editors: Sean S. Costigan directs MIT CogNet and teaches information technology at The New School, and Jake Perry is an independent scholar.

3) National Relations: Public Diplomacy, National Identity and the Swedish Institute 1945-1970 by Nikolas Glover (Jan 1, 2012).    Says the author:  “My study focuses on the Swedish Institute for Cultural Exchange with Foreign Countries, 1945–1970. … It postulates that identifying with and promoting a particular national identity in the post-war world has been a question of relating the nation to others …  The concept of national relations leads me to engage with historical research on public diplomacy, the history of communication and the history of nationalism.”

4) Diaspora Diplomacy: Philippine Migration and its Soft Power Influences by Joaquin Jay Gonzalez III (Dec 27, 2011).   The author talks about “the remarkable and untapped soft power that international migrants possess and how various actors—from governments, NGOs, business, the church, and international organizations—could tap this valuable resource to enhance global cooperation, development, and understanding. With detailed and intimate illustrations from the experiences of the Philippine diaspora in San Francisco, London, Dubai, Dhaka, and Singapore…”

New paperback editions:

5) The New Arab Media: Technology, Image and Perception by Mahjoob Zweiri and Emma C. Murphy (Mar 29, 2012; hardcover published January 2011).   ISBS says “topics examined include: the impact of Al-Jazeera * implementation of the internet in the region * the use of the media for diplomacy and propaganda * image culture * the use of the internet by religious diasporas * information and communication technologies and the Arab Public Sphere * the influence of satellite television on Arab public opinion * the explosion of local radio stations in Jordan.” .

6) Kosovo’s Diplomacy: How can Public Diplomacy have an impact on Kosovo’s political and diplomatic position? by Alban Dermaku (Jan 23, 2012; hardcover published January 2011.)  Book flap text:  “The declaration of independence marked a new era for Kosovo and its relations with the countries that have recognized its independence. Since then Kosovo is striving in its diplomatic efforts to achieve broader international recognition and become a member of the United Nations. … In modern times, public diplomacy is receiving broad recognition as a crucial element for understanding and influencing foreign publics.”

Postgraduate Theses from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, new on Kindle eBook: 

7) Prioritizing Efforts to Improve Foreign Public Opinion of America: Applying a Business Model to Discover and Create Customer Value by Anthony J. Sampson – Kindle eBook (published Apr 12, 2012; thesis written in 2007 for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA).  Author’s note: “Given the reality of fiscal and resource constraints, America could not possibly address all of the concerns of the foreign public; rather, America must focus its efforts on the factors that are likely to make the greatest impact. This study identifies negative factors that interfere with favorable foreign pubic opinion and suggests an analytic framework for prioritizing those factors.

8) The Holy See and the Middle East: The Public Diplomacy of Pope John Paul II by Ronald Patrick Stake – Kindle eBook (published March 31,2012; thesis written in 2006 for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA).  Author’s note:  “This thesis considers changes in the diplomacy of the Holy See with respect to the Middle East … between 1990 and 2003. Policies … involved (1) establishing full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel; (2) convening the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Lebanon, ending in the papal visit to Lebanon in May 1997; and (3) opposing the 1991 and 2003 U.S. led wars against Iraq. …{T}he thesis argues that new circumstances occasioned a rethinking of the Holy See’s interests in light of the development of modern Catholic social teaching.”

Fear and Loathing in Development Journalism

Three items on development journalism in Africa came across my radar screen yesterday, and it was fascinating to read such a diversity of views.  It seems that harnessing media in the service of development has been used, at times, as a strategy to repress free speech and democracy, and yet the concept of development journalism is experiencing a revival in the digital age.

What do “Take Five” readers think about these issues?  What are the contemporary risks and benefits of promoting development journalism?  Shared below are the three views that, taken together, coalesced into this unexpected debate on my desk top.  I invite you to continue the discussion here.

“Three Knight Fellows to Launch Continent-Wide Media Projects” (September 2011) announces a dynamic new initiative to be based in Nairobi, Kenya, where three media experts will train African journalists in media management, the environment, and rural development.  The project webpage explains that the media training on rural development will be conducted by Knight International Fellow Joseph Warungu, the very distinguished former head of BBC’s African News and Current Affairs department, who will “work with South Africa’s Rhodes University to build a pan-African network of journalists with the skills to cover agriculture, health, small business and other development issues.”  This particular fellowship is sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Well, so far, so good.  I’ve spent enough time reading newspapers in developing countries to know that coverage is often dominated by purely political developments, while economic news gets short shrift.  Business news taken largely from corporate press releases and launches makes it into the paper, but not the in-depth, grassroots economic reporting that helps readers understand, for example, the local effect of global fluctuations in commodity prices, or how price subsidies can affect rural-urban migration, or how some conflicts are sustained by localized economic opportunities for the few, or how some types of information are as valuable and bankable as a durable good. Therefore, training that helps reporters and editors “follow the money” has to be a good thing, because readers want very much to understand both the development efforts and the wider economic forces that affect their most basic existence.

However, Terje S. Skjerdal’s “Development journalism revived: the case of Ethiopia” (2011) introduces some different ideas.  The author explains that “development journalism has attracted considerable hostility over the years.  … The practice has been blamed for promoting political agendas instead of people’s interests.  The strong dependency on the state, especially in African versions of development journalism, has roused worries from press freedom organizations. … Local journalism paradigms such as Nkrumah’s revolutionary journalism [in Ghana] and Nyerere’s ujamaa Journalism [in Tanzania] were seamlessly interwoven with development-oriented journalism. This was made possible because development journalism in the African meaning of the term, in contrast to the Asian, meant close collaboration between the media and the authorities rather than critical reporting on development efforts. In effect, the state media and the government joined forces against the private media … [and] the critical and investigative role of the media was severely suppressed in the name of the ‘greater good.’”

Yet Skjerdal also explains that, despite this negative history, there has been a revival of interest in development journalism in recent years.  He cites as an example the framework of five principles synthesized by Fackson Banda (Communicatio: South African Journal for Communication Theory and Research, Volume 33Issue 2, 2007) for “development journalism in a new era.”   These include seeing the audience as active citizens rather than passive consumers; listening (as journalists) to the public, and not just to official sources; promoting deliberation among people, and between the people and their leaders; and encouraging citizens to conceptualize and express their own development concerns.  In sum, the development journalist “must get readers to realize how serious the development problem is, to think about the problem, to open their eyes to possible solutions.”

The rest of Skjerdal’s piece focuses more specifically on the case of Ethiopia, and the results of a survey of Ethiopian journalists on the significance of a new Ethiopian media policy promoting development journalism.   Discouragingly, Skjerdal concludes that journalists in that country are finding it difficult to maintain their objective and outspoken stance in the face of a development journalism imperative to promote success stories in order to support national efforts.

But are there other ways to manage development journalism?  Ways in which the journalist’s core commitment to objectivity is enhanced rather than diminished by a focus on development?

Into this nuanced landscape of potential benefits and pitfalls comes a paper on “Developing undergraduate journalism curricula: Concerns and issues” presented at a 2009 South African conference by Monica Chibita, senior lecturer in journalism at Makere University in Uganda.  I read it with interest, having been privileged to work with Dr. Chibita on a multi-faceted radio journalism training project when I was posted to the U.S. Embassy in Kampala about a decade ago.

First Chibita notes the subjects that Makerere journalism students are traditionally expected to cover – media history, writing, editing, ethics, graphics, analytical thinking and research methods.

Then she asks, “for a journalist looking at practicing in an African context, though, what about understanding community problems and dynamics? What about applying their understanding of the workings of the media to poverty, maternal and infant mortality, HIV/AIDS, energy, environmental degradation, unemployment, governance etc?”  And, channelling Banda, “how about making sense of how people diagnose and seek solutions to these problems in their local context and what role the media can play in making this possible?”

And here Chibita introduces a new element, the digital revolution.   “It appears that there is a growing need [for such development-related skills.]  This is partly because communities now do have some access to a wide range of media. Technologies like the mobile phone, for instance, can be used to bridge the gap between rural people and previously inaccessible ‘mainstream’ media.”

In other words, says Chibita, since digital media brings real potential for mainstream media and government to “listen” to the public, for there to be two-way dialogue among citizens and leaders, and for citizens to be empowered to shape development issues themselves, then it is the obligation of at least some journalists to be professionally prepared to play a role in realizing that potential.

So should we be bullish or bearish on development journalism?   Should we embrace the positive vision expressed through the Knight International Fellowships and by Banda and Chibita, or are we persuaded by the more pessimistic view of Skjerdal?  In the examples above from Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya, do country-specific differences matter, e.g. levels of Internet penetration that are respectively below 2%, about 12%, and above 25%?  Are we persuaded by objective criteria such as UNESCO’s ranking of Makerere’s journalism program as among the top 12 in Africa?   More broadly, do the risks of defining appropriate topics for journalists always outweigh the potential benefits — or should the development imperative sometimes trump market-based media decisions in the African marketplace of ideas?

Again, Take Five welcomes you to continue this debate.

Editor’s note:  On Sunday, Mohamed Keita published an NYTimes Op-Ed entitled “Africa’s Free Press Problem.” Mohamed hits upon similar themes – his post is well worth reading.

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