Date Submitted: 11/18/2019
Engaging with media from authoritarian regimes
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.
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.