As part of the activities marking Africa Day, (historically celebrated May 25), the Russian Association for International Cooperation (RAMS), the Russkiy Mir Foundation and the Association for Economic Cooperation with African States (AECAS) held a snapshot videoconference under the theme, "Russia - Africa in the Mirror of the Media" at the offices of TASS News Agency.
The roundtable discussion was devoted to mapping out strategies on how to inform effectively the African public about Russia and the Russian public about Africa. Nearly all the participants acknowledged the important role media can play in strengthening economic and cultural cooperation between Russia and Africa.
With Russia speedily entering a new phase in consolidating multifaceted relations with Africa, the participants noted that Russian state media needs to make more efforts in getting information to the African public and Russian authorities also have to support African media broadly interested in Russian affairs.
For a successful return of Russia to Africa, it is necessary to expand information cooperation in order, among other things, to destroy negative myths on both sides, and to understand the prospects of information interaction between the media in the coverage of Russia on the African continent and Africa in Russia. The media can, and indeed must, be a decisive factor in building effective ties.
Over the years, many experts and academics have said, during different meetings, conferences and forums, that in African countries as a whole, in the local media market, there is an acute shortage of information about Russia. As a result, the task now could be facilitated by the creation of an Association of Russian-speaking journalists and bloggers in Africa.
But this media cooperation, in practical terms and during the past years, has not been prioritized by authorities. European and Western media brands, such as British Broadcasting Corporation, Cable News Network, Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Press, Quartz, Al-Jazeera, Bloomberg, Xinhua News Agency et cetera, are active with their African partners, while the Russian media are largely invisible.
Besides the roundtable fixed in the building of TASS News Agency, other participants spoke, via video communication, about culture and education-related topics, on how to tackle existing challenges as well as the continent's media landscape from Morocco, Egypt, Mauritania, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Nigeria.
Over the years, many experts and researchers have offered their observations and made several recommendations. Russia has all the institutional tools, such as Russia Today, Sputnik, Voice of Russia, Interfax Information Service and TASS News Agency and many others, to create its own positive image in Africa. Instead, Russia has been critical on western media in Africa, often speak about anti-Russia propaganda and information war.
In addition, the Department of Information and Press of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs holds the responsibility for accreditation of foreign media. It has granted accreditation to only two African media from Morocco and Egypt. Both are from the Maghreb region. Within the foreign policy in Africa, without doubt, North Africa is highly considered a strategic region for Russia.
That however, the prospects for collaboration in the information sphere in Africa, in November 2018, the State Duma, lower house of parliamentarians, during a special session on Africa unreservedly called for an increased Russian media presence in sub-Saharan Africa.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the Chairman of the State Duma, told Ambassadors of African countries in the Russian Federation, "it is necessary to take certain steps together for the Russian media to work on the African continent. You know that the Russian media provide broadcasting in various languages, they work in many countries, although it is certainly impossible to compare this presence with the presence of the media of the United States, United Kingdom and Germany."
In an email conversation a decade ago, Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal 'Russia in Global Affairs ' and Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, wrote "Soft power has never been a strong side of Russian policy in the post-Soviet era. Russian media write very little about Africa, economic and political dynamics in different parts of the continent."
"Russian media write very little about Africa, what is going on there, what are the social and political dynamics in different parts of the continent. Media and NGOs should make big efforts to increase the level of mutual knowledge, which can stimulate interest for each other and lead to increased economic interaction as well," according to him.
As far back as 2014, Olga Kulkova, Research Fellow at the Centre for Studies of Russian-African Relations, noted "in the global struggle for Africa, Russia is sadly far from outpacing its competitors. In terms of stringency of strategic outlook and activity, Russia is seriously lagging behind key global players in Africa."
Kulkova further proposed: "Africa needs broader coverage in Russian media. Leading Russian media agencies should release more topical news items and quality analytical articles about the continent, and on-the-spot TV reports in order to adequately collaborate with African partners and attract Russian business to Africa."
Professor Vladimir Shubin, from the Institute for African Studies , explained in an interview with me ten years ago, that political relations between Russia and Africa as well as the economic cooperation would attract more and more academic discussions, and such scholarly contributions, in essence, would help deepen understanding of the problems that impede building solid relationship or partnership with Russia.
In order to maintain the relationship, both Russia and Africa have to pay high attention to and take significant steps in promoting their achievements and highlighting the most development needs in a comprehensive way for mutual benefits using the media, according to the academic professor.
"African leaders do their best in developing bilateral relations," he added. "Truly and passionately, they come to Russia more often than ten years ago, but a lot still has to be done; both Russian and African media, in this case, have a huge role to play."
Quite recently, the question on the media was, again raised and discussed, at length, at the second Russia-Africa Public Forum. It is necessary to maximize the potential of public, cultural and business diplomacy using the basic instrument of the media, according to the Chairman of the Board of the Valdai International Discussion Club's Development and Support Foundation, Andrei Bystritsky, speaking at the plenary meeting of the Second Russia-Africa Public Forum held in November 2020.
"On the one hand, the Russian public knows little about Africa. And I guess people in Africa know little about Russia," he noted, and further explained that Russia and Africa need to communicate more. Creating necessary conditions for conversation is important, as communication is the foundation of development, and will help strengthen the mutually beneficial ties between Russia and Africa.
While highlighting the key obstacles facing the development of Russia-African ties during a session at Urals-Africa economic forum in Yekaterinburg, the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Mikhail Bogdanov, assertively remarked: "One must admit that the practical span of Russian companies' business operations in Africa falls far below export capabilities, on one hand, and the huge natural resources of the continent, on the other."
According to him, one major obstacle has been insufficient knowledge of the economic potential, on the part of Russian entrepreneurs, needs and opportunities of the African region. "Poor knowledge of the African markets' structure and the characteristics of African customers by the Russian business community remains an undeniable fact. The Africans in their turn are insufficiently informed on the capabilities of potential Russian partners," Bogdanov stressed.
The past few years are marked by a noticeable re-activation of the whole complex of relations between Russia and Africa, Professor Irina Abramova, Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, explicitly noted in an exclusive interview with me in May 2016.
The media should more actively inform Russians about the prospects for the development of the African continent, its history and culture. Unfortunately, the Russian man, in the street, does not know much about Africa. There has to be an active work in the information sphere with the African Diaspora in the Russian Federation.
For Africans, so far, Russia is associated with the Soviet Union, although majority of Africans still have very warm feelings towards Russia. But that aside, the Russian Federation in Africa, and Africa in the Russian Federation are very poorly represented in the media, according to Abramova.
"It is a direct challenge – to move from declarations to deeds by bringing together government, diplomatic, scientific, economic and financial resources in order to promote Russian business on the continent. I think and will strongly suggest that Russia should take the lead in preserving the balance of interests on the African continent as it seeks cooperation on the full range of African issues," she added.
On the other hand, Professor Abramova explained that Africans are poorly informed about the possibilities of Russian partnership. Interest in quality enhancing economic ties, including the line of private enterprises, with a tendency of growth. To do this, first of all, it is absolutely necessary to establish an effective exchange of information about the investment potential of the business, to focus efforts on expanding various partnerships.
A number of Moscow- based African ambassadors and senior diplomats have also acknowledged in separate interviews with me that the weak media connectivity between the two regions is one of the deep cracks or potholes in the post-Soviet diplomacy, most especially now when Russia is making efforts at strengthening its relations with the continent. Admittedly, Russians always refer to Africa as a priority region.
In their objective observations, despite prospects for strengthening relations, even as outlined during the first Russia-Africa summit held in 2019, African media and their representatives are hardly supported, and encouraged to work in the Russian Federation. The second Russia-Africa summit is planned for 2022 in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia.
*Kester Kenn Klomegah is a versatile researcher and a passionate contributor, most of his well-resourced articles are reprinted elsewhere in a number of reputable foreign media.