Monday, October 25, 2010

Cultural Diplomacy as a Listening Project?

Awesome, AWESOME conference coming up at SIS!!! Make sure you come, if in town. Please RSVP to: yelena.osipova@student.american.edu :)

U. S. public diplomacy historically has been preoccupied with diverse forms of message delivery: “telling America’s story” to the world. But to what extent does the work of diplomacy include listening?

“Cultural Diplomacy as a Listening Project?” will bring together key stakeholders in the future of cultural diplomacy, including members of the policy community, diplomacy professionals, and academic researchers, to explore the challenges to, and potential for, listening across different approaches to cultural diplomacy.


This one-day conference will be held on November 8, 2010, 12:00-4:30pm on the campus of American University. (For directions: http://www.american.edu/sis/about/directions.cfm).

For further information please contact the conference organizers (albro@american.edu) or consult our website: http://www.american.edu/sis/ic/2010-Cultural-Diplomacy-Conference.cfm.

We hope to see you there!

Help us spread the word: invite friends and colleagues!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Russia Today: Iran's Soft Power

My highlight of the day: Lavelle discussing Iran's Soft Power with Marandi, Fisk, and Rhode.



Interesting to hear and certainly funny to watch.

Yet, the program makes a good point: Iran itself is very often demonized in the West, and the pervasive wishful thinking seems only to contribute to the underestimation of the extent of its influence and leverage (in the region in particular). The sanctions and the isolation might be working from the Western point of view. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that this perspective is not the only one (at least, not anymore), and there are groups and individuals who - for various reasons and purposes - seem to be leaning toward Iran.

Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon earlier this month highlighted this fact very well. It was a very smart move, as Hizballah indeed put on a great show, with the Iranian prez starring in the lead. And despite all the pressure from the West and efforts to undermine his government, he does deserve recognition for increasingly honing his public diplomacy skills, which, although rough at times, do address his own "constituent" audiences in the immediate region and beyond. What he still needs to learn, however, is addressing the more "hostile" public in the West, since antagonism, especially in his case, does not seem to be effective at all in the charming business.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Twitter Craze. This Time, It's a Worm…

This post originally appeared on RuNet Echo, on Global Voices Online.


...I mean, a real worm.

The fact that Russian officials had become devout fans of Twitter is not news anymore. Their enthusiasm has even been credited for the explosion of the Russian "tweet-o-sphere" over the past several months, so much so that the administration of the microblogging website has announced a plan to launch a Russian-language interface for its users.


Screenshot of the RT YouTube video showing the celeb worm, as posted by Zelenin.

Yet, it was a different matter that topped the Twitter-related news in Russia on Wednesday. Apparently, as the Kremlin was hosting an honorable guest on Tuesday evening - German President Christian Wulff - the dinner menu for the Governor of Tver region, Dmitry Zelenin, included an extra shot of protein: a live earth worm. The tweet-o-enthusiastic Governor managed to take a picture of the unwanted guest and shared it on his microblog, along with a comment which, according to RIA Novosti, read:

"Things like this happen even in Alexandrovsky Hall. Along with beef you're also served lettuce with live earthworms."

The Moscow Times pointed out that the Governor had an additional comment:
"It's an attempt of sorts to show that the salad leaves are fresh."

Kremlin was certainly not happy with these comments. Sergei Prikhodko, President Medvedev's top foreign policy adviser, told RIA Novosti that he found Zelenin's comments to be "irresponsible" and "stupid":

"Fortunately, I deal with foreign policy issues; however, I would, probably, advise my lawyer-colleagues to introduce a provision in the guidelines for the evaluation of governors' activities that would allow them to be fired 'on grounds of idiocy'."

Prikhodko also advised everyone to think twice, from now on, before inviting Zelenin over for dinner.

The photo along with the tweets have since been removed from Zelenin's feed. However, the story still managed to get several prominent mentions:

REUTERS reported on the incident, contextualizing it within the general issue of tweet-o-mania among Russian officials, as well as the convoluted relationship between the President and the regional governors in the country.

The Moscow Times picked it up, too, with a little follow-up, highlighting that Zelenin's spokeswoman declined to comment on why the Governor removed the tweets and the photo. The article also featured comments by Kremlin's head chef, who was quick to clear himself of blame. (As a side note: it is worth pointing out that the piece mentioned that Prime Minister Putin's grandfather was the personal cook to Lenin and Stalin. Just by the way!)



The most interesting mention, however, is certainly that by Russia Today TV, which not only featured two separate segments on it, but also had managed to capture the actual photo, before it was removed. Weird public diplomacy: I guess they did not consult Prikhodko before airing or publishing these.

Another interesting comment on the matter came from the mock @Kremlins_Wife user on Twitter, who wrote:



"@DZelenin brought the worm there himself and arranged a provocation. Every child knows that no worm survives within the Sadovoye Beltway."

[Sadovoe Koltso, or the Garden Ring, one of the major highways around Moscow's downtown].

And just in case you are wondering (according to RT)...
"...The fate of the worm is unknown."


UPDATE [12:50 p.m., EST]: The Kremlin worm is apparently alive and kicking, and it has come out of hiding: later on Thursday it registered an official Twitter account of its own @KremlinCherv, posting comments and asking for attention. At the time of this writing, it already has 785 followers.

The first Tweet read:
"@DZelenin Thank you, Dmitry Vadimovich. I am a star now!"

The Celeb Worm also re-shared its previously removed portrait:


Yet, the most noteworthy update so far has been:

"Brothers, eat salads. I'm the last worm of democracy!"

As for Governor Zelenin, apparently he has run into real trouble, with a full-scale investigation launched into the case. According to Russian news agencies, a preliminary examination of the photograph has revealed that it did not correspond to the location and presentation of the plate at the table. If the photo is found to be indeed fake, Mr. Zelenin can "face charges based on the existing legal code."

---

Americans afraid of foreign media?

Peter Lavelle hosted a discussion at his CrossTalk, yesterday: a follow-up to Russia Today TV's fury over BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson's comments last week. This time, I should admit, the program was very interesting.





I guess, in this case, I cannot but agree with him and some of the points that the speakers make. The fact that every news outlet offers its own "twist" on events depending on its source (geographic, political, or financial) is not news to anyone who has ever followed anything on the international media. Nonetheless, what surprised me most (and still does), is the refusal of many in the U.S. to understand that (or, at least, to admit that fact). For some reason, no matter what CCTV, Press TV, Russia Today TV, or even Al Jazeera report is considered to be "propaganda" for many, while Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Farda, (etc..) and the likes of the CNN International are providing perfectly unslanted news.

Well - honestly? - this is tragic. Here, I do not mean to say that VOA or RFE/RL are involved in propaganda or intentional whitewash (and yet, it's all relative, too, right?). What people need to realize, however, is that the media - any media - can be considered as biased, even if only due to the principle of selective perception. After all, Russians or Zimbabweans are socialized within their own environment - their respective societal norms, educational systems, media outlets, dominant "orthodoxies", etc.. - and when faced with a presentation of an event from a completely different perspective (again - even if there is no malice or ill-intent involved), they can easily characterize it as "propaganda", because it is so incongruous with their own perception and knowledge of "reality".

Now let's turn to media production that is actually intended to sway foreign audience's perceptions, attitudes, and behavior. Ironic (ridiculous?), but true: the Smith-Mundt Act, forbidding the broadcast of VOA, RFE, and the like within the United States (although long obsolete and irrelevant, it is still there!), was passed primarily due to the concern that these broadcasts might be affecting the American public as well. What was their true intent, then, one might ask? Oh, excuse me: it's public diplomacy.

Nevertheless, it is really sad that very few people inside the country (relatively speaking) are actually exposed to the broad-ranging work that these media organizations are doing: at least, their number is not as large as it should be. After all, MSNBC and FoxNews, and even CNN domestic, do not provide adequate coverage of international affairs, effectively preventing the American public from sufficient exposure to the world they so actively want to participate in. (Yes, there's the Internet now, but unless there is initial interest in foreign issues to begin with, it can be very easy to filter out everything that is not personally-relevant.)

Now, when Al Jazeera or Russia Today come in and start promoting their own interpretation of the story - and let's remind ourselves, again, that everyone has their own version - the country panics, so much so that law-makers pass bills banning the broadcasts of certain channels (to their own detriment, by the way).

Another interesting observation that I'm still trying to comprehend, was that the awesome Worldview TV Channel - which rebroadcasts programming from Al Jazeera, Deutsche-Welle, France24, Russia Today, NHK, etc.. - always puts up a notice on the screen that reads something along the lines of "viewer discretion advised: foreign-produced content". One might ask, then, why discriminate against the viewers of domestic networks and not warn them about the questionable content they get on their domestic channels?

In short, again, it boils down to double-standards and (by now unjustifiable) "single-truth" worldview; and unless people become more willing to admit that, they run the risk of falling behind all others.

I would suggest reading a related piece by Lavelle himself, from earlier this year.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mr. Isaacson, Please Wake Up! (or: RT Strikes Back)

In his keynote address at the reception marking the 60th Anniversary of the first RFE broadcast, held at the Newseum on September 28, 2010, BBG's new Chairman Walter Isaacson, stressed the need to end the mostly top-down and "info-dissemination" approach of most of America's foreign broadcasting, emphasizing the importance of engagement with the audience:

"[...] we need to be as innovative and as creative as the founders of RFE were. This is particularly true in a digital age, an age that offers not only new channels to disseminate our journalism but the ability and, indeed, the imperative, the duty to not only disseminate journalism but to interact, to engage; to engage with people to share, to set up peer-to-peer networks rather than merely to hand down the news."

[...] the hallmarks of digital media are that they are networked, that they can be user-generated. They can be collaborative. They can be social. They encourage engagement and discourse. They are interactive and they are peer to peer. And that’s why they’re so good for us.

"[...] We will facilitate the conversations that don’t just disseminate but that share information, news and ideas. And it will be a very tricky mix that our partners in the commercial world have not yet mastered, which is how to merge great journalism with, also, the sharing of communities and peer-to-peer sharing of information."

KEYNOTE: Walter Isaacson at RFE's 60th Anniversary Reception from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on Vimeo.


He also spoke of the need to promote Internet freedom around the world (following Secretary Clinton's much-discussed E-Freedom speech  in January this year), and went into great detail about the ethos, the mission, and the relevance of America's international broadcasting in the post-modern world.
"It’s sometimes said that our international broadcasting is in a difficult position because by law and by tradition it’s tasked with two separate missions that might conflict: first of all, covering the news with the highest journalistic standards and secondly, being a part of America’s public diplomacy by accurately conveying its policies and values to the world.

Let me say to you, my fellow journalists, that I will stress and we will stress the primacy of the first of these missions, our mission of being credible journalists, because it is the best – in fact, it’s the only way to carry out the second mission. You can’t do it unless you’re credible and telling the truth, and in the end, the truth is on our side. Credibility is the key to all that we do."
Correct. Please go on...: 
"We can’t allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies. There’s that Freedom House report that reveals that today’s autocratic leaders are investing billions of dollars in media resources to influence the global opinion.

You’ve got Russia Today, Iran’s Press TV, Venezuela’s TeleSUR, and of course, China is launching an international broadcasting 24-hour news channel with correspondents around the world – spent – reportedly set aside six (billion dollars) to $10 billion – we’ve to go to Capitol Hill with that number – to expand their overseas media operations."
Oh, and that's not it. The conclusion was even more... interesting:
We’re going to win this struggle because it defines who we are as a nation, the ability to tell the truth and to believe that the free flow of information will promote the forces of tolerance and democracy. My old friend Benjamin Franklin, when he was trying to help create this nation, one of the first things he did was create a postal service. He wanted the free flow of information up and down the colonies so that we could unite.

[…] In this new, digital age in which economies are driven by information, the future belongs to those societies that thrive on the free flow of information rather than those that threaten it. That’s who we are as a nation and that’s why we’ll triumph, again, just as we did in the Cold War […]."

Pretty bold and combative... and SO reminiscent of the old rhetoric that's a little too obsolete by now! It's great that the BBG is finally, seriously, considering social media and engagement as a priority task, recognizing those as keys to enhancing the effectiveness of public diplomacy. Yet, the irony is that by the very fact of framing his speech in the context of war and struggle, Mr. Isaacson undermined his previous point of true engagement and emphasis on the interactive communication model. He also seems to have missed that many of the commercial-owned media are, in fact, making very good use of social networking and various other "engagement" techniques.

Obviously, the BBG Chairman is still very much living in the "Cold War" mode, as evidenced by his multiple references to the "good old times" (but not limited to those). In that spirit, not only did he present a black-and-white worldview of "us vs. everyone else", but he also seemed to be driven by the tempting desire to "triumph again", in the struggle for a unipolar world. His discussion of "truth" and "credibility" refers to this same point. One may ask: Whose truth? Credible, from which perspective? I'm afraid, Mr. Isaacson has got the whole idea of information diversity, engagement, and decentralization of communication - which would inevitably lead to a countless multiplicity of "truths" - badly wrong...

And the best example of this was, perhaps, the fact that Russia Today TV did actually respond to his statement, describing the channel as "an enemy". Welcome to the world where others are also actively broadcasting, Mr. Isaacson. And not only are they transmitting information, but they are also actively listening - to you, as well - and are able to respond with strong and (have to admit) very good arguments.

Here is a sequence of (four!) segments that Russia Today ran since yesterday:

Firstly, there was the controversial Peter Lavelle (though, I should say, he's making a good point here):


Then, they managed to get hold of Mr. Isaacson himself, asking him to respond: which he did very poorly, saying that he was actually referring to America's enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that in no way does he see Russia or China as enemies. They also had a an interview with the president of Venezuela's TeleSUR TV:


In the third segment, they featured an interview with Josh Rogin, the author of The Cable blog at the Foreign Policy magazine. Two days ago he wrote a post on this issue (most probably bringing it to the attention of RT in the first place):


In an "update" to his post, Rogin mentions that after the piece appeared online, Isaacson wrote an email to The Cable, "to apologize for the remark, while saying that the 'enemies' he was referring to were in Afghanistan, not the several countries he mentioned."
"'I of course did not mean to refer to, nor do I consider, that Russia, China, and the other countries or news services are enemies of the U.S., and I'm sorry if I gave that impression,' he said."
Again, seems like Mr. Isaacson forgets that not only was the video of his remarks streamed live online and is easily accessible on the web, but that the transcript is there as well, showing his comments in their context. And it really does not seem that impressions are mistaken, here.

The most recent RT segment features the ever-present Danny Schechter, who correctly (this time) points out that the major issue here is with the funding, and that to ensure continued financial support from the government, Mr. Isaacson resorted to positioning the issue within the greater American foreign policy context of proactive "democracy promotion." But again, going back to a point made earlier: can such a view be maintained in the current global and media environment?



Readers of Global Chaos will know that I am not a big fan of RT's approach to news and most of their techniques. And yet, in this case, I would support their stance, and even commend the way they took up the issue, to turn it to their advantage. As for Mr. Isaacson, he needs to truly understand the concepts of multipolarity, media diversity, and engagement. He also needs to truly recognize the fact that the Cold War is long over and that he has to abstain from comments that only undermine his credibility, along with that of the media outlets he is supposed to oversee.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Medvedev: To The People of Belarus

Having a tech-savvy President seems to be proving advantageous for Russia's public diplomacy (for its effort, at the very least). Medvedev has been reaching out to the people of Russia, as well as the foreign publics, through his personal (verified!) Twitter accounts - in Russian and English - his official blogs (again, Russian and English), and the official Kremlin YouTube channel (with disabled comments section, by the way). Having combined what many in the U.S. would differentiate as public affairs and public diplomacy, Medvedev often covers overlapping subjects, especially when it comes to issues related to Russia's "near abroad".

In his latest video blog post, for example, Medvedev expressed his concern about the recent Russia-bashing rhetoric in Belarus (with the elections coming up next year), and criticized President Lukashenko for attempting to brand Russia as the new "outside enemy" of the Belarusian people. Here is the video segment in Russian, followed by excerpts from the English translation of the transcript.



"I want to address both the Russian and Belarusian people. After all, we are all citizens of the Union State.

It is my deep conviction that our country has always treated and will continue to treat the Belarusian people as our closest neighbour. We are united by centuries-old history, shared culture, common joys and common sorrows. We will always remember that our nations - and I always want to say  “our single nation” - have suffered huge losses during the Great Patriotic War. Together we survived terrible hardships of the collectivisation, famine and repressions.

Now Russia and Belarus are partners in the Union State. Both of our countries are also actively involved in the creation of the Customs Union, in the development of the EurAsEC, CSTO and the Commonwealth of Independent States. [...] we have always helped the people of Belarus. In fact, since the collapse of the Soviet Union almost 20 years ago, the volumes of this support, whatever they say, have been huge. Only this year our help to Belarus in the form of favourable oil supply terms amounted to almost two billion dollars. There are comparable subsidies in the supply of Russian gas to Belarus. We do all this because we firmly believe that our nations are inextricably linked.

[...] In his comments, President Lukashenko goes far beyond not only diplomatic protocol but also basic human decency. However, this was nothing new to me.


[...] And, of course, we will bear this in mind when building relations with the current President of Belarus.

A flood of accusations and abuse has been directed against Russia and its leadership. Mr Lukashenko’s entire election campaign is based on that. [...] Of course, this is not what defines the relations between nations and individuals.

[...] I would just like to say this openly: Russia is ready to develop allied relations with Belarus. Moreover, no matter who leads Russia and Belarus, our peoples will forever be fraternal. We want our citizens not to live in fear, but in an atmosphere of freedom, democracy and justice. And we are ready to pursue this together with our Belarusian friends."

Photo courtesy of Kremlin.ru

A perfect example of truly public diplomacy: not only does Medvedev talk directly to the Belarusians, but he also states his disapproval of Lukashenko in public, for the whole world to see. Of course, the statement and the medium - by themselves - cannot provide any measure of the effectiveness of this particular message; however, the President (along with his PR/PD team) should be commended for his willingness to learn and practice PD more actively.

Related: Links to the new blog post were published on the President's official Twitter feed, as well as on that of his blog. The two consecutive tweets read:
"The senseless tension in relations with Belarus will certainly end."

"Russia has always treated  - and will keep doing so - the Belarusian nation as its closest neighbor."

In response, the mock Kremlin tweeter @KermlinRussia tweeted [in Russian]:
"Belarus' senseless independence will certainly end."

"Belarus has always been - and will be - a part of its closest neighbor. Russia."
Lukashenko's time is certainly over. Just not sure if the country is able to stand more trouble..

UPDATE [13:45]: Russia Today TV touched upon this too!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"Iran in State of Soft War"

Here are some excerpts from an article in Tehran Times today:

TEHRAN - National Prosecutor General Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei has stated that the enemy has launched an all-out soft war against Iran.
The enemy is aware of its inability to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran, and thus it has initiated a new war on a new battlefield to interfere with Iran’s police and general public, he said during a military war game held in Tehran on Saturday.
[...] Commenting on the political and social unrest that occurred after the Iranian presidential election of 2009, he said, “The enemy had seriously counted on the soft war it started last year,” but became disappointed as their efforts proved futile.
On Saturday, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari said that Iran is in “a state of soft war.” This war is cultural and political in nature and is more dangerous than a military confrontation, he added.

Photo courtesy of RightWinged.com

The story was also featured on PressTV:
"Presently we are engaged in an all-out war in both soft and hard fronts with the world's arrogant powers, and the main approach of our sworn enemies, the US and Zionism, is soft confrontation with Iran," Mohseni-Ejei said on Saturday.

"This does not mean that the enemy has ceased its hard [war] measures," Mohseni-Ejei said, adding that in the current situation the enemy supports and trains terrorists, villains and bombers to create insecurity in Iran.


Wonder if there will be a response from the US DoS...

Good new ol' times!

I had seen this story on ORT (1TV) the previous day, but I didn't really think it would make it to Russia Today TV, too.



Well done! After all, the President is emphasizing the importance of "good relations" with Lithuanians (following all the tension with the Baltics...).

Photo from WSJ.

[Read more on Putin's very special visit to the Agricultural Expo here and here.]

And can't help but notice: sort of reminiscent of the past; perhaps even too similar? A great photo op.!

Glad there were no cows on RT, at least...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Iran's (attempted) media management?

Last week I had some thoughts on Iran's President Ahmadinejad, his visit to the U.S. (as a part of the UNGA meetings), and all the media blitz surrounding him. Al Jazeera's Listening Post dedicated their leading story this week to his visit, and I thought I'd share it here as a follow up to the posts I had before.



The program does a good job in questioning American media's approach to Ahmadinejad, and criticizing them for making him the highlight of the UNGA coverage. It also tells the story of Hossein Derakhshan, the Canadian-Iranian blogger, who was sentenced to 19.5 years in prison last week. I will get back to this point a little later.

Another very interesting Iranian-related event this week was the meeting of the Russian and Iranian bloggers at the Iranian embassy in Moscow. Promoting citizen/digital diplomacy and "civic activism"? Great. One thing both sides seem to have missed, however, is that for such initiatives to work they have to be truly civic, or at the very least, appear to be such. Holding "blogger" meetings at countries' official representations certainly does not give one the impression of independent and genuine dialogue. This is especially the case when one of the "bloggers" is the Iranian Ambassador himself...

According to Норвежский Лесной, who participated in the meeting, the conversation focused on:
"The modern history of Iran and its extremely difficult relationship with the U.S.; its differences from other countries of the region;  Iran's life and development in isolation; myths - how Iranians see Russia and how the Russian citizens see Iran; tourism (over two thousand Russians visit Iran every year - this figure does not include Russian contractors in Iran; while about five thousand Iranians come to Russia every week - they mostly visit Moscow and St. Petersburg); sources of information about Iran; the peculiarities of photojournalists' work in the country; the Iranian Ambassador's blog in Russian; and the readiness of the embassy to assist the invited Russian bloggers in gaining a closer acquaintance with the country of Iran."

Ambassador Sajjadi's official blog was a real discovery for me. Fluent in Russian, he not only promotes all the wonders Iran's got to offer, but also puts out arguments and responses to major media issues. Here is what he had to say about Hossein Derakhshan's sentence in his latest blog post (October 2, 2010):

"Regarding the blogger who was sentenced in Iran: Islam encourages scientific discussion on religious issues, and opposes the blind following of dogma. At the same time, Islam strongly opposes insults, slander and blasphemy. People are free to doubt the existence of God or the prophetic mission of Muhammad and the Koran, and can discuss these points so as to either accept or reject them in the end. But profanity is strictly prohibited. According to the Islamic law, if someone offends Jesus or the Virgin Mary, he will be imprisoned. Hossein Derakhshan was imprisoned not for the fact that he was a blogger, but for the blasphemy and the gravely indecent remarks he had made about Islam."
It would have helped to provide at least some links to support his point...

In any case, seems like Iran is improving its skills of foreign public engagement, and Russia - being the not-so-hostile territory - is a great place for such test-runs (I'm sure the case of the Moscow Embassy is not the only one, and that there are many others out there). Then, there is also the Iranian Cultural Center in Russia, with its shiny and pretty substantive website.

Awesome public diplomacy, isn't it?