According to Oxford’s English dictionary, the definition of propaganda is “ideas or statements that may be false or present only one side of an argument in order to gain support for a political leader, party, etc.” Strictly speaking, under this definition the propaganda in question does not necessarily have to be false, or even have a negative influence on those who consume it. Themes such as anti-vaping and smoking ads are clear examples of positive, factually sourced propaganda that many viewers in the US will undoubtably be familiar with.
Using this definition, US government supported outlets like VOA and RFERL could be considered “pro-liberal values,” “pro-free press” or “pro-liberal democracy” positive propaganda surrounding alleged attempts to persuade through selective reporting of issues. Strictly speaking, this depends on their intention to persuade, rather than just provide a point of view favorable to liberal democracy. RFERL’s stated mission is to “promote democratic values by providing accurate, uncensored news and open debate in countries where a free press is threatened, and disinformation is pervasive.” VOA has a nearly identical mission. Characterizing either of them as “propaganda” thus lacks a degree of nuance.
Despite both outlets generally being regarded as highly factual by US media watchdogs like Media Bias Factcheck, both have faced criticism in the past over their alleged promotion of US foreign policy interests. The Russian language versions of both outlets, for example, are strongly pro-Western on the issue of the Ukraine war. Obviously, that is not to say that being pro-Western with regards to Ukraine issue is a bad thing; quite the contrary, such a position is necessary for the security of Europe and liberal democracy in general. But not including Russian, Belarusian, etc. government opinions, no matter how ridiculous or far-fetched, does little to help their credibility outside of target audiences already predisposed towards opposition politics. Their widely known affiliation with the US government furthermore brings with them the additional baggage of being tied to the United States’ often controversial foreign policy objectives, such as the Iraq War, harming their credibility.
On the other hand, publishing consistently pro-opposition views on topics such as Belarusian politics can sometimes help galvanize public opposition against autocratic regimes, even if it comes at the cost of eliciting knee-jerk reactions among people disposed to or otherwise enabling an authoritarian style of government.
Though most news outlets regardless of source have at least some biases, few have gone the lengths of groups like Al Jazeera to put themselves squarely in the middle of sometimes outrageous issues. During the Iraq War, Al Jazeera aired briefings from then Secretary of State Colin Powell as well as exclusively publishing recorded addresses from Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But even this served Qatar’s foreign policy, the government that owns Al Jazeera, in that it sought to place itself in the middle of any ongoing dispute or debate and thus increase its clout. The lack of critical pieces about its government and alleged bias against Israel is an enduring problem for the agency, however.
The reach of Al Jazeera around the Arab world is unparalleled. Some have accredited its reporting to being a key driver of the Arab Spring protests in the early 2010s. This suggests that there is a large potential market for credible, unbiased reporting, and engagement with a multitude of viewpoints that matter to audiences. It also appears successful even in countries where liberal democracy is not the norm. Likewise, in 2020, the Hungarian media company Telex.hu was founded after journalists from its predecessor Index.hu staged a walk out over the replacement of the news bureau’s chief in that year. Shortly after its launch, nearly half of survey respondents viewed the group as trustworthy, with over a third claiming not to know enough about it, and only 15% distrusting it. Today, less than three years later, despite being funded completely by donations, Telex has become one of the largest digital publications in the country and is widely regarded as being a neutral voice in the Hungarian media landscape.
The perception of neutrality, however, may be more important than to what degree outlets really are. Like Telex, news outlets also need to cover issues that viewers particularly care about, and that means local news. In countries with minimal press freedom, however, local and non-international news can be hard to produce. But by no means can all the countries served by US foreign-aimed media be considered hostile to these forms of local reporting.
Having at least some overseas aimed broadcasts, whether home-grown or funded by the state, working to generate credibility and trust towards audiences not predisposed to liberal points of view is not only possible, but also desirable. Groups like Belsat, which is heavily pro-Belarusian opposition, can have an important role to play in promoting liberal democratic values, however. The limitations of this format need to be acknowledged, and supplemented with tools and outlets that seek primarily to serve news consumers of all stripes on issues that directly affect them. It is with the fulfillment of this last condition that more foreign-aimed media can become properly and widely trusted and credible sources.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com.