Africa’s Changing Mediascape: Spreading the Word from China

mediaA monumental shift is taking place in the world’s mediascape. As traditional news outlets such as CNN and the BBC see their operating budgets shrink and wither in response to lower revenues, new providers fill the vacuum and capture audiences.

China in particular is investing massive amounts of money in expanding the reach of its news outlets. Since opening its first international broadcast hub in Nairobi, Kenya three years ago, China Central Television (CCTV) has firmly established itself as a global purveyor of news. Its channels are now available in about 25 African countries.

Chinese wire service Xinhua is also gaining ground by offering its services free-of-charge to hundreds of newspapers all across Africa. Xinhua has recently also started its own CNC World television news channel.

Writing in the China Daily, Deng Yanting of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences argues that his country needs to break the monopoly Western media have enjoyed in the developing world lest its intentions are misinterpreted.

“You’d have to be blind not to note the arrival of Chinese media in Africa.”

“To make the world aware of China’s true intentions in Africa, we need to be able to broadcast our point of view and our policy objectives.” According to Mr Yanting China has been silent for too long in the face of “unfounded suspicions” raised by Western-backed media: “Our policies in Africa and elsewhere in the developed world are benign and beneficial but you wouldn’t know it from the traditional media.”

Editor Eric Shimoli of the Kenya’s most-read newspaper The Daily Nation confirms China’s media offensive: “You’d have to be blind not to note the arrival of Chinese media in Africa.”

China is reportedly pouring some $7 billion in its worldwide charm offensive after the Communist Party leadership decided in 2010 to expand the country’s soft power. Two years later even then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took note and – true to character – promptly declared a war: “We are engaged in an information war and are losing it.” Mrs Clinton told a congressional committee in Washington that state-backed news outlets as Russia Today and CCTV are moving in as US broadcasters are beating a retreat.

CCTV now claims to attract some 300 million regular viewers to its newscasts. The network broadcasts in six languages and has embraced the slick production techniques of its Western counterparts. Gone are the days when Chinese news anchors would shriek about “running dogs” when referring to the US and its “vassal” states. Still, Chinese media strenuously avoid using the term “democracy” when reporting on the unrest in the Middle East.

“The fundamental difference is that Western media sees itself as a watchdog while the Chinese model seeks to defend the state from questions about its authority,” says Douglas Farah of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center. This may explain why some news stories simply do not exist on CCTV or Xinhua.

When the blind pro-democracy activist Chen Guangcheng sought refuge in the US embassy in Beijing and was later granted political asylum, CCTV remained stubbornly silent on the subject.

Abebe Gellaw of exile-run Ethiopia Satellite Television (EST) doesn’t think China is too interested in promoting freedom of information and expression in Africa: “If they don’t have these freedoms at home, why would the Chinese provide them to Africa or Latin America?”

Zhou Xisheng, vice-president of Xinhua, begs to disagree and says his wire service is filing hundreds of stories each day: “These are not propaganda pieces but well-researched articles that provide valuable information. What matters most is the perspective you’re coming from.”

However Xinhua is seen to help some governments in Africa block broadcasts and publications of groups deemed dissident such as EST in Ethiopia. In fact, exile groups claim that the Ethiopian government obtained some $1.5 billion dollars of Chinese aid and loans to increase its capabilities of blocking free speech on the Internet and in print and broadcasting.

Even if this claim is somewhat outlandish – or at least vastly overstated – Chinese authorities should take note: In media, reputation and trust are capital assets. No matter how much money CCTV and other Chinese outlets spend on expansion, without the trust of the public the exercise will prove to be a vain one.

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