The International Responsibility of the Free Press

Those who take interest in the presidency of Donald Trump may have familiarized themselves with the special relationship that exists between US President and Fox News.  Fox has Trump’s ear, and Trump has Sean Hannity on speed dial.  This relationship has helped the President to construct his agenda, frame it for the American public, and adapt his policy goals based on feedback.  While I, like many Trump detractors, would initially like to call such a friendship foul, the reality is that this dynamic has always existed between politicians and the media.  If anything, Trump’s connection to Fox News is obvious enough to make it far less insidious than a hypothetical media relationship that escapes public scrutiny.

Agenda-constructing dynamics between media outlets and politicians are already well researched among the theories of domestic politics.  Relationships between political actors and the media outlets are central to policymaking in any democracy, connecting politicians to their constituents.  The media can be both an autonomous force directing policy makers, or a tool manipulated in service of policy.  By selectively delivering statements and facts to media outlets, political actors can elevate themselves and damage their rivals.  At the same time, political actors gain advantage by adopting and implement policy based on media feedback, giving journalists their own opportunity to inject influence.

This is all well and expected when within a democracy, but how much media manipulation would people tolerate if they knew it was coming from outside their domestic sphere, from kleptocrats and war criminals?  Anabela Carvalho’s research into the media dynamics of Angolan civil war found that members of the UNITA faction utilized foreign media as their one of their best methods in acquiring the international aid and intervention necessary to maintain their war effort.  Portuguese media outlets served as a launchpad to reach American politicians, bolstering the UNITA cause and creating opposition towards the nominally Marxist MPLA.  This served to prolong a brutal, decades long conflict in Angola that in its worst years saw slave labor, attacks on civilians, and child soldiers employed on by both sides.

Carvalho’s study suggested that media pressure causes politicians to act in a certain way, influencing the solutions they choose to adopt and people they choose to support.  By presenting issues to foreign media and framing them in a selective way, communicators can manipulate the political agendas of foreign countries and influence foreign politicians to work towards their advantage.  In a country like Angola, where local media outlets appear as extensions the ruling faction and are disregarded as untrustworthy, political actors can achieve more success domestically by interacting with foreign media outlets than with their own.

Carvalho contends that these international media relationships have been ignored in theoretical research, which has been focused primarily on relationships politicians and their domestic national press.  Manipulative media is certainly a contentious topic for those anxious to protect the democratic process, but most are focused on the issues it presents for their own democracy rather than the potential ramifications it has abroad.  Media outlets and their audience alike should be keenly aware that every report, once it begins to affect policy decisions, could easily empower international actors with dubious intentions.

A relevant example for this kind of foreign media outreach is playing out in Angola right now.  Many eye-catching articles have cropped up regarding Isabel Dos Santos and her legal battle with the current Angolan Regime.  Daughter of the notorious kleptocrat and former regime leader Jose dos Santos, Isabel holds billions in offshore wealth that is now being targeted for seizure and repatriation by her father’s successor.  Current Angolan president João Lourenço has entreated the banks of Brazil, Portugal, U.S. and other nations to return this stolen wealth back to the Angolan government, generating a relatively large amount of foreign media coverage.

While the reports of corruption within the dos Santos regime are quite well evidenced and easy to believe, these news stories about “returning stolen wealth” hardly tell the full story.  João Lourenço, succeeding a president who retained power for 38 years, has hardly been in power long enough to prove whether he is any less despotic or corrupt than his predecessor.  Should Isabel’s offshore wealth be returned to Angola, João Lourenço could easily commandeer the wealth for the purpose of securing his own lifetime presidency.  Americans who would initially support the repatriation of Isabel’s wealth likely only do so under the impression such an act would be to benefit of the Angolans, and might change their response knowing that her money could just as easily be repurposed to fund physical and structural violence. 

Angolan jurisprudence in this matter has also been questionable.  Normally a civil seizure of assets would be handed down by the Provincial Court of Luanda; it has in this case been issued by the Supreme Court of Angola, which is appointed by executive power and easily manipulated to serve Lourenço.  The Supreme Court has chosen to act through the media rather than in a judicial manner, at first failing to issue an official summons for Isabel dos Santos to defend herself.  Instead, the decree of civil asset seizure against Isabel dos Santos was announced publicly and in generalized terms, and thusly disseminated to domestic and international media outlets.  The specific accusations, or even full content of the declaration of seizure, have been withheld from both the defendant and the public.  It is impossible right now to even know what the actual charges against Isabel will be, making it dubious as to whether the Supreme Court of Angola actually intends for her to present a defense.

A billion dollars in the wrong hands is purchasing power on a disastrous scale for a country attempting to rid itself of autocracy and oppression.  If we were to imagine a scenario that Lourenço is corrupt, and US and European politicians are convinced into placing Isabel’s wealth is placed under his control, the media outlets that currently reporting on the case would have played a central role in the oppression and exploitation of Angolans.  

I am not equipped to pass judgement on the sincerity of Lourenço’s anti-corruption efforts, and time could easily prove his detractors wrong.  The trial of Isabel dos Santos, hypotheticals for where her money will end up, are not my concern.  Instead I am concerned for the people who live in countries like Angolans, any long-term victims of state violence and despotism, whose fates are being decided in foreign courts of public opinion.  It is antithetical the idea of self-determination and can cripple the efforts of a nation attempting to implement or maintain democracy.

Media outlets not only have a duty to report honestly, but also must be meticulously aware that their reports have real world consequences.  In my opinion, Journalists bear significant responsibility for their influence on policymaking, and must understand that seemingly innocent stories can still have dire ramifications abroad.

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