Regulating Foreign Public DiplomacyNovember 4, 2014
Russian external communications have been in the news for obvious reasons. The announcement that RT are launching a special UK service has attracted comment particularly in light of the outstanding complaints against the channel over coverage of events in Ukraine. Given the previous decision of the UK TV regulator OFCOM to withdraw the license of the Iranian PD channel Press TV it wouldn’t be surprising if there’s going to be a space on the Freeview box before too long; already some people are shouting censorship.
This raises a broader issue. What is legitimate public diplomacy and what rights do states have to regulate it? Given the criticism of for instance Egypt, Russia or Hungary over restrictions on NGO funding what is a rational position on this that does not turn on whether we approve of a country or not? It seems to me that there are two main ways that we can approach the question first, at an interstate level and then secondly, through a liberal perspective but then there a variety of state practices that would imply modifications to the liberal theory.
The interstate position would start from the assumption that states have the right to control what happens within their territory subject to international legal norms. Can we find a general right to conduct public diplomacy? Probably not although treaties with human rights components (eg Helsinki Final Act) by granting right to information are sometimes used. My reading of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations suggests a fairly narrow definition of diplomatic activity. Cultural agreements between states can be used as a legal basis. Any agreement between states starts from an assumption of reciprocity and this provides quite a powerful lever. During the Cold War states on both sides would use formal cultural agreements to achieve their objectives. On the Communist side (and at points in the West) they could be used to limit ideological contamination. Also the West used reciprocity in exchanges to avoid a situation where they were shut out of Soviet labs while having to host floods of scientists from the East. During the 1950s the UK tried to avoid such agreements because they would create limits on the scope of interaction (Caute 2005, Richmond 2003) .
Post Cold War the application of reciprocity atrophied – but did not disappear – as FM rebroadcasting of the BBC became more common some countries demanded access to UK airwaves in return. More generally Western countries have accepted situations where their access to publics in authoritarian states is restricted but they do not impose reciprocal constraints – this would be true in relation to China, Russia and Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia.
This is where the liberal argument comes in to play. Restrictions on the activities of foreign states can be seen as restrictions on freedom of speech. In the marketplace of ideas error will be corrected. During the Cold War the strength of Western societies was such that they did not jam Communist radio stations. From this perspective the application of reciprocity ie ‘we will let country x broadcast on our terrestrial TV system if the BBC can operate on the same basis’ is seen more as a threat to censor country X than as a way to expand access. Obviously non-liberal states do not buy this
However its worth noting though that many Western states do not operate unlimited free speech policies in at least two realms. Firstly, the regulatory regime for broadcasting and similar services often imposes restrictions on foreign ownership as well as standards such as impartiality. Secondly, they have regulations regarding foreign funding of political parties and to make lobbying more transparent. The point about both of these sets of restrictions is they start with an assumption that the democracy is about a particular demos and there are differential rights and responsibilities between the members and non-members.
This is more an attempt to set out the parameters of an issue than reach a solution – I’m not sure what my position is. I think that the starting point is to make the connection between the international perspective on the issue and the liberal and democratic arguments which tend to look at it through a domestic lens. A more consistent position would avoid the kind of ad hoc reaction to events abroad or relying on the communications regulator to apply rules developed for commercial channels to foreign international broadcasters.