January 21, 2011

PD or Propaganda?

Back to "class blogging," again! This time, we'll be exploring the domain of public diplomacy with Dr. Craig Hayden. Given the subject and my interest, most (if not all) of my posts will inevitably be cross-posted on Global Chaos: a disclaimer I felt I should state before we embarked on our grand, semester-long group endeavor.

To begin, I'll just share a post from today, hoping to start a discussion. Would appreciate thoughts, insights, and comments!


As we started the new class on Public Diplomacy this semester, the first couple of sessions and readings were  - of course - devoted to the discussion of the (hard-to-define and often ambiguous) differences between "propaganda" and "public diplomacy". I won't be reproducing the entire discussion here. Instead, I wanted to raise the question (and hope to get insights from the readers of this blog): which category would this Voice of America program belong to?

Courtesy of The Washington Post, December 31, 2010

I never watch or follow VOA Persian (primarily due to my non-existent Farsi skills), and I heard about Parazit only recently. Yet, it seems to have gotten quite a lot of attention from mainstream American media lately, so much so that Jon Stewart himself ("the Prophet" of satire, as Parazit's creators called him!) hosted them at his Daily Show last night.

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There's no denying, political humor and satire is a whole different animal. The case of Iran itself, is very... difficult, for the lack of a better word. The limitations on freedoms and the strict regulation of speech make the production of such programming within Iran practically impossible. So yes, in that sense VOA Persian is "breaking" taboos and raising legitimate questions.

But the way it is done, the language and symbolism used, as well as its method - the appeal to emotions and indirect influence through humor - seem controversial to me. Moreover, one should not forget the fact that this is a part of a country's international broadcasting, paid for by American taxpayers and targeting the public of the very same government the show so vehemently attacks.

That is why, as much as I appreciate VOA's work in bringing uncensored and more objective information to the Iranian people, I'm finding it hard to define such programming in any terms that do not involve references to propaganda, in some shape or form. After all, the difference between propaganda and public diplomacy is based on the "element of morality" and, more importantly, on one's perspective. The former aims to tell people what to think, while the latter supposedly informs, raises questions, and suggests what the audience should think about.

So, what do you think?


  1. There is a fine line that divides propaganda from public diplomacy. But there is a profound difference in the intent of the two. Propaganda by its connotation is negative and in its modern form is directed against a regime or a nation. Public diplomacy is not against anyone, but in favor of values, traditions and policies etc that a country value or pursue.
    If Voice of America (VOA) is trying to defame the Iranian regime, it is resorting to propaganda, but if its broadcasts try to promote among the people of Iran a soft image of the U.S. and its value system, this is public diplomacy.
    In short, public diplomacy is to sell your product in the global market of ideas, while propaganda is to give a bad name to others' products.

  2. GREAT point, Faiz. Will be quoting you on the continuation of this debate on my blog! :)