Why Is China Trying To Manage African Media?

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Written by Dana Sanchez

More than 300 delegates from 44 African countries are in Beijing for the Third Forum on China-Africa Media Cooperation, the goal being to deepen media cooperation and boost the development of China-Africa ties, according to Chinese government-controlled CCTV.

China and Africa should share content, said Donald Liphoko, director of South Africa’s government communication and information systems (GCIS), in a press release. The forum is meant to be a platform to strengthen exchanges and cooperation between China and Africa on media-related matters.

Liphoko spoke at the opening ceremony of the forum Tuesday in Beijing.

The forum is a place to exchange best practices, he said. There is a lot that Africa and China can learn from each other such as media policies and regulations in China and Africa.

China and Africa should exchange programs focusing on digital content for communities and small businesses as they prepare for broadband and digital broadcasting,according to Liphoko.

In December, South Africa played host to the China-Africa Media Summit in Cape Town, leading up to the current forum now underway in Beijing. China’s minister of the State Council Information Office, Jiang Jianguo, represented the Chinese government.

He said China is concerned about “the world’s unbalanced media power system,” according to a report by the Center For International Media Assistance. Jiang lamented that both China and African countries “face prejudice, misunderstandings, and stereotypes” and that “it’s very urgent for the developing countries to improve their international communication capability to create a more objective, impartial, and balanced international public opinion environment.”

China must strengthen international transmission capacity using the capacity of newly-emerging media “to raise the creative strength, charisma and credibility of our external discourse, telling Chinese stories well, transmitting China’s voice well, interpreting Chinese characteristics well,” Xi said.

China has been involved in African media for many years, but Xi’s remarks imply that its interest in emerging media systems goes beyond gaining access to natural resources in places such as sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Center For International Media Assistance:

Xi’s insistence that China engage with emerging media systems to tell “Chinese stories well” points to a broader and more ambitious effort to control media narratives outside its borders. If engagement in the African media space is driven by an overarching objective to control what and how emerging media cover certain issues, the free, independent, and sustainable media that the media development community works to promote on the continent could be in peril.

China grooms African journalists, “and African leaders are assured that they can practice censorship with impunity,” said Anne Nelson, author of the 2013 report, “CCTV’s International Expansion: China’s Grand Strategy for Media.”

“China’s integrated approach to media investment could provide it with a high level of control,” Nelson said.

How much is China spending on media in Africa?

As many Western media outlets were cutting back on foreign reporting budgets, Beijing in 2009 allocated $7 billion to increasing China’s state-owned media presence around the world, African Arguments reported in August, 2015.

China wants to compete with the likes of the BBC, CNN and Aljazeera and the effects have been impressive, not least in Africa, according to African Arguments. CCTV Africa’s programs provide up-to-date coverage on a wide range of issues; stories from Xinhua feature frequently in national newspapers across the continent; China Daily Africa rolls off the press once a week; and China Radio International rides the African airwaves.

At first, many on the continent and beyond saw this as the rise of Chinese propaganda. Beijing was clear: it wanted to create a more positive view of China in Africa. Some worried that Chinese media would prohibit reporters from covering controversial issues and be uncritical about China and the continent.

Years later, journalists who have been working for China in Africa say publicly that this is not the case.

“I can guarantee you that we have been 100 percent in control of our own editorial content,” said Beatrice Marshall, the anchor of Talk Africa, CCTV Africa’s flagship news analysis show, in a much-repeated soundbite.

Chinese media in Africa tend to take a different approach to other news organisations. This could be because of censorship, or it could be because Chinese media follow a different philosophy of journalism.

Bob Wekesa is a Chinese media expert and research associate at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. “China still operates under a communist system in which criticism is not really appreciated and there are still no-go zones,” he said, according to African Arguments.

It’s more complicated than that, says Zhang Yanqiu, director of the Africa Communication Research Centre at the Communication University of China. Western media typically adopt a watchdog role, whereas Chinese media are more solutions-based, constructive journalism.

“Constructive journalism can be both positive and negative, but the purpose is to find solutions,” Zhang said. “The idea is to give a new kind of balance and shine a new kind of light on the continent. Instead of just reporting on the situation, it asks ‘ how can we help them?’ The Western media may be telling the truth, but if you are telling the truth and things are just getting worse and people are afraid of travelling to Africa, for whose good is this?”

Solutions are at the heart of CCTV Africa, Marshall said.

“When you look at Western media, a lot of the time their strategy is to be combative,” she said. “But what we want to do is say ‘this is the issue, this is the challenge, and this is how it’s being solved,’ rather than getting people to argue.”

Is China’s approach paying off? Researchers find that most viewers are skeptical of Chinese state-owned media. Wekesa said “the people who seem to appreciate the positive or constructive journalism of Chinese media most are those who are in power and certain elites with close business interests with the Chinese.”

Chinese media still struggle to come across as credible to many African audiences, according to African Arguments.

Inside China itself, news media are experiencing some of the worst repression in years, Bloomberg reported in April. The media crackdown includes tightened censorship, blocked websites and televised confessions from reporters. Nevertheless, China’s media industry is booming. The largest Internet companies and startups alike are making record investments in news, movies and online TV shows to satisfy the growing demands of Chinese consumers.

Howard French is a journalist, photographer, and associate professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. What he said in the comments section of the above African Arguments report triggered a discussion that went on a lot longer than the news report itself:

“In my view, one spends $7 billion not just to build soft power, but for power ‘tout court.’ I am more interested, though, in the largely undeveloped line of analysis that emphasizes how these things work out for Africa, and my tentative conclusion is that journalism in many African countries, speaking generally, is stronger than journalism in China. This raises the potentially uncomfortable question of whether China has a model of journalism to propose that has any relevance for the continent.

“I don’t think one invests $7 billion without wishing to have a palpable influence. Furthermore, China is not known, on the whole, for laissez faire, in matters of media, or better put, propaganda.

To the extent that ‘constructive journalism’ has any meaning at all, this seems to me to be an extension of Chinese journalism practice in China, where one very basic propaganda approach is to limit the capacity of the press to indict those who govern for political responsibility and to emphasize, after bad things have happened, how earnest the cleanup has been.”