Josef Korbel School of International Studies - Ethics of Engagement


Thomas Schelling testifies before Congress in October, 1969

Date Submitted: 11/18/2019

Question summary:

Engaging with media from authoritarian regimes

Full question:

I sometimes receive media requests from journalists in authoritarian or near-authoritarian regimes (Iran, China, Russia, for example). I am concerned about my words/analysis contributing to state-run media and, particular concerned about my responses being twisted to serve authoritarian ends. But I also recognize that there are legitimate journalists in these countries who may be pushing for a freer press, and so do not want to dismiss these requests out of hand. I would welcome your thoughts on best practices for responding to these requests.

Response 1

These are very legitimate concerns, and I think there are multiple levels to how one might respond. There are degrees of state control of media, and in many authoritarian countries there are platforms with a higher margin of freedom and with an important internal audience. You can help legitimate and support those publications, and the often courageous journalists running them, without doing the same for straight-up regime mouthpieces. Engaging with those platforms can let your ideas reach sympathetic audiences within those countries, where otherwise people might not be exposed at all to such ideas. Audience and intent matters a lot. I would be much more willing to speak to, say, a reformist newspaper in Iran or an independent website in Egypt than I would be to speak with a state-run television station aimed at the outside world – in the latter case, propaganda is the entire purpose and there is no possibility of reaching the internal reformist audience. The more control you have over the media situation, the better. I have had even publications I considered sympathetic insert entirely made-up sentences into interviews. I would have a one-strike policy with such publications – if they do this to you even once, never talk to them again. If you speak the language of the country in question, ask to review the text before they publish, and if they don’t allow that then carefully review what was actually published and if your words were distorted or changed in any way use social media to let people know that this happened. I am also very leery of live interviews with such stations because it is easy to be ambushed with a leading question which you aren’t prepared to answer and which leads you to say something problematic. If you do those types of interviews, try to have as much of a pre-interview as possible and ask for questions in advance. Finally, never take money for an appearance on a foreign media outlet – even if the money had no impact whatsoever on what you said, it creates the appearance of impropriety.

Response 2

That’s such a tricky situation! My own personal experience in authoritarian regimes isn’t precisely with journalists (rather research institutions), so that specific experience shapes my thoughts. But, I would generally suggest trying to get a sense of the journalist’s past work, as there are indeed more critical journalists who strive toward ideals tied to a freer press. This would involve asking them a few questions about their work but also looking into the articles they have published up until this point. There is a never a guarantee that a journalist’s past practices predict how they will frame or reframe your words, but reading their prior articles (or even throwing them into a translation software) would be useful to gain broad ideas regarding their typical slant in publishing. I personally wouldn’t talk with someone if I couldn’t find out any information regarding their prior pieces.

Response 3

It makes a lot of sense to be cautious about this. The concern that our research and writing could be twisted for any ends applies, in differing degrees, to a range of media outlets. But the consequences in authoritarian regimes, as you’ve highlighted, could be negative. That said, it’s great that you’re also thinking about ways to support legitimate journalists and a freer press in such countries, which in itself seems to me a form of responsible engagement.

One practice that comes to mind is always asking journalists who contact you to identify their media outlets so that you can check them out yourselves and see how credibly they are representing different points of view versus serving as a mouthpiece for the regime. You could go one step further in asking these journalists to share with you a recent report of their own. They should be able to provide you with such an example, no matter what form of media they work in. If you are satisfied that they are indeed legitimate journalists, as you phrase it, then hopefully you will in turn feel that you can engage responsibly with these particular journalists. I hope this form of basic due diligence on your part doesn’t turn out to be too onerous to turn into a regular practice.

It may still be possible that even reports by legitimate journalists are subsequently repurposed and their meaning twisted by state-run media. I’m not sure there is any reasonable way to prevent that from happening. In this case, you would at least be one step removed from responsibility in terms of what is reported. But here is where your specific expertise on the regime or country in question should come into the picture. What “authoritarian ends” could conceivably be served—and how would you feel about your work being used specifically for those purposes? If you think there is any chance that your work could be used in harming human rights then, in my view, the ethically responsible course of action would be to not engage in that context. Instead, you might find that another avenue of responsible engagement is to share your work in free media and open forums in other countries where it could shed new light on the regime in question.