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Camila Bailey and Talia Nanton

August 1st, 2022

How Global South coverage of the Ukraine War sheds light on diplomatic neutrality: new research

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Camila Bailey and Talia Nanton

August 1st, 2022

How Global South coverage of the Ukraine War sheds light on diplomatic neutrality: new research

0 comments | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

This article by Talia Nanton and Camila Bailey is a report on part of the LSE Media and Communications Department and its research study, ‘MEDIATED WARS, MEDIATED REFUGE: Global media narratives of the Russia-Ukraine war.’ In this project, directed by Dr. Eva Polonska- Kimunguyi, researchers examined articles published every Thursday, Friday, and Monday for the first three weeks of the war (February 24th – March 14th). The research used qualitative analysis to examine mainstream outlets in South Africa (SA) and Brazil (BRA), and their representation of the War in Ukraine.  

Media representation of the Ukraine War was largely led by a Western narrative condemning the Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine. For news consumers in the U.K., the U.S., and their closest allies, positioning Russia as an aggressive attacker was the natural dominant view.  However, stepping away from the Western mainstream media, alternative geopolitical perspectives contradict this narrative.

While dividing the world into North and South can diminish global diversity, in this context it can be beneficial. In this research, ‘the Global South’ acknowledges the increased vulnerability of Brazil and South Africa, and the obstacles they face as a result of the prolonged impacts of colonialism.

Analyzing Global South media during the onset of the War in Ukraine demonstrates the larger factors influencing these countries’ response to the conflict. Sampled articles from the South African Broadcasting Corporation and Folha de São Paulo, depicted diplomatic and communications strategies that position SA and BRA, and the outlets themselves, as ‘unaligned’ in the conflict.

Through our research, we established several “encountered frames” that characterize how BRA and SA leverage domestic news outlets to present, and justify, their neutral position to the War in Ukraine. These frames make up what we consider to be “neutrality in action.” This was primarily accomplished through a “domestic-centric” approach to reporting, in contrast to the Western tendency to globally center coverage. Articles routinely concentrated on the domestic effects of the conflict. These included hindered opportunities for growth and economic setbacks. Rising food costs were a repeated topic along with the ongoing struggle to secure essential goods and materials due to trade disruptions with the warring countries.

 

Both Folha and SABC consistently focused on the economic impact of the war. 32% of sampled articles were economically driven, and 42% of articles from Folha alone were published under the Economy section. Within this global and domestic economic focus, SABC underscored the “significant consequences for global food stability.” Similarly, Folha stressed the ways in which the outbreak of the conflict threatens global market production supply.

Other frames include the preservation of peace as the best solution to the conflict. In Brazil, Foreign Minister Carlos Franca positions the country’s approach as impartial and “on the side of peace.” Similarly, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called on Russia and Ukraine to negotiate a peaceful resolution through mediation. This is in line with South Africa’s history with mediation during its transition out of the apartheid regime.

In SABC samples, we encountered a tendency for the media to reflect on other African nations and their response to the conflict; if not to justify SA’s neutral position. This was illustrated through an emphasis on African nations’ handling of the economic impact of the war and leaders’ approach to the conflict, especially when it mirrored that of President Ramaphosa. SABC’s reporting is also notable as it highlights the treatment of SA students attempting to flee Ukraine. While Western outlets rarely mentioned this issue, SABC highlighted it from the onset of the conflict.

 

SABC and Folha’s framing of Western sanctions against Russia takes on a critical tone. Without directly condemning the use of sanctions and the West for imposing them, the two outlets described the “unprecedented” restrictions and the “brutality” of the Western reaction. Readers are assured that Russia’s already “flailing” economy will feel the effects of this “crushing blow.” Our analysis of the media’s representation of the Western response found actors to be depicted as aggressive and acting alone. There was no external support as the US coordinated with G7 and EU nations “to punish Moscow for its military aggression in Ukraine.”

“Neutrality in action,” as demonstrated by South Africa and Brazil, suggests networks engaged minimally with the Ukrainian people and casualties; evaded explicit indictment of Russia and Putin; focused on economic impacts; and negatively framed Western actions. When viewed alongside the countries’ geopolitical ambitions and current diplomatic ties, the decision to remain neutral becomes clear.

Geopolitical Positioning

The U.S. led condemnation of, and sanctions against, Russia fit into its geopolitical positioning. Negative impacts are minor for the global superpower. However, cutting ties with Russia stands to impact major sectors of the developing economies of the Global South. BRA and SA’s geopolitical goals are still set on resuming growth and reversing the economic downturn from Covid-19. With fewer paths to success than their Western counterparts, cutting ties with entire countries goes against their best diplomatic strategy, yet siding with Russia after it has been politically “canceled” presents great risk.

Both BRA and SA have condemned the Russian invasion in some form. However, statements are indirect, coming from the Foreign Minister (SA) and the ambassador to the UN (BRA) rather than their president. Other official statements have highlighted the issue of force more generally instead of Russian aggression, and calls for peace and dialogue are painted as the best solution rather than sanctions against Russia. BRA and SA have also contributed aid to Ukraine by providing humanitarian visas to Ukrainians and contributing to disaster relief funds and supplies. By promoting this narrative, BRA and SA became actors promoting peace and mediation; a stance few could directly disagree with.

Today, six months into the War in Ukraine, the two countries remain firmly neutral. However, the initial global response to this non-alliance has waned as diplomatic focus shifts to more immediate issues. As Brazil and South Africa continue efforts to develop their diplomatic standing, neutrality will likely continue to be a strategic– and controversial– means of self-preservation towards an end to global inferiority.

This article by Talia Nanton and Camila Bailey reflects the views of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of Polis or the LSE.

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Camila Bailey and Talia Nanton

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