Media and Autocracies: What we learned from the Jamal Khashoggi episode

                The news of Jamal Khashoggi murder and the developments thereafter continue to generate interest worldwide. This episode was unique as worldwide media played an important role to keep the issue at the top of the news cycle creating relentless pressure on all the parties involved, primarily United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

                          This issue also exposed the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia, and maybe that of autocracies worldwide to the 'always on' news cycle in the digital age. What was also evident was Saudi Arabia's inability to understand the Fourth Estate, how they operate and the impact it can have. Turkey, led by President Erdogan, had their media strategy in place and led the Saudis deeper and deeper into the issue and also made United States change it's stand on the issue multiple times. The perfectly timed drip feed leaks to Turkish media, most of which are state controlled, not only kept the issue alive but also built the narrative that eventually led Saudi Arabia to agree that it was indeed a 'premeditated murder.'

        The learning here is maybe autocracies like Saudi Arabia are increasingly vulnerable as media grows in its sophistication and reach. Their lack of experience in dealing with a free press was evident in the number of times they changed the official narrative and expected to get away with it. The photo opp with Khashoggi's son was a huge PR fiasco that only made it worse for them. There was a complete lack of understanding of the medium and the audience. Turkey, not the best of places for a free media to exist, on the other hand made good use of their government controlled media outlets and proximity to media hubs in Europe to drive the issue the way it wanted. Remember, when it comes to the World Press Freedom Index, both these countries rank really low. Turkey is ranked at 157, while Saudi Arabia at 169.

       Media had a significant role to play in the collapse of Soviet Union and clearly can be a crucial ally in ending autocratic rule worldwide. Autocracies are vulnerable as they do not understand how media works, especially the complexity today and won't be able to manage it. While they can control the press within their own borders, in an increasingly interconnected, conversational and globalized world, borders are meaningless. More so in the world of media. In this context, China had the foresight to create platforms like the Global Times to project the Chinese point of view to the world but we are yet to see how compelling a counter narrative it can create.

What makes China's Public Diplomacy effective

            India made considerable progress in Public Diplomacy in the last decade and we have extensively chronicled that in this blog. Soft power seems to have become a mainstream consideration for the policy wonks of South Block. This is a worldwide trend, a natural consequence of the media revolution that we are witnessing. Even closed countries like China are now trying to reach out to audiences overseas. This is where it gets interesting. How does India public diplomacy compare with the Chinese initiatives?

                Lately Indian soft power has been exerting its influence in China through Bollywood with the success of films like Dangal. This even led to some Chinese commentators to opine that when it comes to Public Diplomacy India has a huge advantage because of Bollywood’s popularity world over. While cultural diplomacy has always been the India’s forte, but we are not sure if it in any way confers a huge strategic advantage to India. 

            This blog has often talked about how it is important for Public Diplomacy to contribute to strategic foreign policy goals – the key question that needs to be answered is “How do we want the influence we generate to serve national priorities?” Looking at Public Diplomacy from this lens China might be miles ahead! There have been lot of initiatives by China which successfully garnered influence for China internationally – the love for Chinese food not included.

Photo by Robert Nyman on Unsplash

               Exchange diplomacy is where China seems to be doing very well. More specifically educational exchange. The Chinese leadership are beginning to view ‘Education’ as a key driving force for the country’s future development. While the number of students and universities have increased, China’s educational sector is now increasingly marketing itself as an attractive destination to students, faculty and researchers abroad. 

                  The number of international students in China have increased manifold and is close to 500,000 now as per China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We need to see this also in the context of the number of students China sends to universities abroad every year. Apart from opening universities to international faculty, China is also introducing English language programs at Tsinghua University and also at Peking University. Coupled with initiatives such as the Yidan Prize, China seems to be on track to make education a strategic component in its soft power arsenal.  

               Prof. Nicolas Cull from the Center of Public Diplomacy in the University of Southern California, in 2009 had correctly highlighted the strength of China’s exchange programs in his testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Educational exchange programs foster relations and build a network of influence that is generational. Closer to home, if one considers the affinity of Indians for United States, a lot of credit would go to American universities and educational exchange programs. This creates a relationship that is very organic and inherently strong as it involves cultural immersion and experiential learning. For the time that you are abroad as a student, you get to become ‘the other.’ As a country that boasts of a formidable intellectual tradition, India can do wonders to become the ‘thought leader’ of the world, like it was for most of human history. But we need to close the gap with China first and, Bollywood cannot accomplish that.

Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash


2018 Press Freedom Index questions India's commitment to democracy

Another ranking and another dismal show! The latest is from the organization "Reporters Without Borders (RSF)" which published it's annual Press Freedom Index for 2018.

The World Press Freedom Index 2018  ranked India at a lowly 138 out of 180 countries surveyed! This was reported widely in India's mainstream media and other publications in Asia. The fact that the largest democracy in the world cannot ensure a free media comes as a shocker to all - a development that also questions the very basis of Indian democracy. It is important to recognize the fact that India ranked 136 in 2017, which was not great in itself and signifies that press freedom has never been easy in India even though the Constitution guarantees it. In 2002, when the report was first released, India ranked 80th, indicating that it has gone from bad to worse in the last decade for independent media in the world's largest democracy (?).

(Press Freedom Index in Asia. Image courtesy: RSF)

In it's report, Reporters Without Borders stated, 
"with Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of 'anti-national' thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals." 

The report also took into account the recent murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh and cited India's Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry as the most active censoring agency of 2018.

While this was reported extensively in the Indian press we hope a larger debate takes place that looks into the reasons for the progressively deteriorating press freedom situation in India. With reports such as these out there in the public domain, how do you build a credible counter narrative? Is counter narrative a better idea than introspection on the part of the India state given it's commitment to democracy. 

These are the moments that really calls for character in a public diplomacy program where it becomes a two way process of influencing  domestic politics as well.

The Index is an annual ranking of countries compiled by Reporters Without Borders which is based upon the organization's own assessment of the countries' records when it comes to freedom of the press. Reporters Without Borders is an international non-profit that promotes and defends freedom of the press worldwide. The organization has consultant status at the United Nations and is headquartered out of Paris.

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