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November 30, 2017

Do Africans trust Chinese media? (Opinion piece)

By Emeka Umejei.

The recent diplomatic spat between Botswana and China raised concerns beyond the diplomatic orbit. One of the issues that emerged from that spat is the perception of Chinese media by African governments. The Botswana-China diplomatic altercation may provide an insight into how governments in Africa view Chinese media. For instance, during the  standoff the Botswana government cautioned some journalists visiting China to be wary of China’s democratic credentials, which, it noted, differs significantly from what obtains in the ‘free society’ that Botswana represents. On 19 July the Botswana government, which goes by the account BW on Facebook, posted a statement entitled Uphold the Values of a Free Society on its Facebook page. The statement reads in part:

We would hope that our journalists, academics and opinion makers, men and women who have a special role to play as key agents in the upholding of the universal principles of democracy and human rights, will carefully reflect on these developments in the context of our own country’s longstanding democratic and humanist ideals and practices. It is in our collective practice of such values that we in Botswana today enjoy the basic freedoms of speech, publication and association that are sadly still denied to too many others around the world.  In as much as we in Botswana enjoy the freedom to criticize one another, let us not allow ourselves to be manipulated into betraying the fundamental principles that are the foundation of free peoples everywhere

While this may not reflect the view of Chinese media in Africa, it may signpost how Chinese media is perceived on the African continent.  However, Dr Bob Wekesa of the Africa-China Reporting Project emphasised that the statement should be understood within the context of the diplomatic upheaval between both countries at the time:

The statement should be taken in the context of the controversial ‘proposed’ visit by Dalai Lama to Botswana mid this year. The Chinese authorities are adamant that any visits by the Dalai Lama to any country contravene the One-China policy. China maintains a stringent policy on this under its foreign policy of non-interference and respect for its sovereignty. The fact that Botswana seemed determined to invite the Dalai Lama soured the relations and it’s against this backdrop that related issues such as Botswana journalists being warned on their travel to China may be considered.

In essence, the message from the Botswana government may have been that a country that dictates to it with regards to its diplomatic policy and practice cannot be good for its (Botswana) journalists. I can also be speculated that China might have wanted to invite Botswana journalists to China as a means of managing the Dalai Lama saga. If you go back in history, you will see that Botswana-China relations have been troubled for many years and this incident is, therefore, but part of the ideological differences.

African leaders too

One question yet to be explored about Chinese media expansion in Africa is whether African leaders trust it. How often do African political leaders grant interviews to Chinese media organisations ahead of western media organisations? How often do African leaders choose CGTN to break stories about their countries ahead of BBC, CNN, CNBC and France 24? Aljazeera also qualifies to be included on this list despite coming from the Global South. While the views of scholars and journalists are mixed on the viability of the Chinese media model in Africa, its perception among African political and economic elites and governments remains, at best, a conjecture.

A journalist with of one China’s media organisation in Nairobi provided an insight into how government officials in Kenya view Chinese media. The reporter told this author that access to high profile government officials in Kenya is difficult. He said one of the things he noticed about Chinese media is that the voices of African political leaders are often limited in their stories and he thought he could change the pattern when he joined this particular media organisation but it was not easy as he thought it would be. “Now that I am working with them,” said the reporter who pleaded for anonymity,

I have come to understand that it is actually difficult to access these government officials. They will ask if you are a journalist and with which media house and when you say Chinese media they will not like to talk to you but if I say I work for local media they will speak to me and give me the information I seek.

Just propaganda

Similarly, another journalist told of his encounter with a prospective employer in Kenya. He said that immediately when he informed his would-be employers that he worked for a Chinese media organisation, they dismissed him as a tool of Chinese propaganda in Africa:

I have gone for job interviews with local media establishments here in Nairobi and the first question I have been asked is whether I am just a local media promoting Chinese propaganda. So I tell them no, not really, that they could have a look at the articles that I have published and see if they are promoting Chinese propaganda but they don’t read them. This has happened to me; I was carrying one of our latest editions to an interview session; they looked at the medium and asked written by who? The first page was written by a Chinese; second page, a Chinese; and third page, myself; and they said if this is an African edition why is it that every person writing here is Chinese?

Doubtful of China’s intentions

The perception of Chinese media might be informed by the lack of knowledge about China among many Africans. This is also the case in China, where it seems many Chinese do not know anything about Africa beyond it being a poor continent. This has resulted in allegations of racism and discrimination against Africans living in China. On the African side, many are likewise ignorant of China’s intentions in Africa. For instance, one journalist shared his experience with an African parliamentary delegation visiting Beijing. He said he met the government delegation in Beijing and asked their mission and their response was doubtful of China’s mission. The journalists told this author,

I met them and spoke to them including the deputy speaker of our parliament and she said we are here to represent the government but we are not so sure about our engagement with China that is why we have come to know exactly the Chinese ideas and what they want to do for us first hand.

Any impact?

Does positive or negative perceptions of Chinese media have any impact on Chinese media organisations based in Africa? The answer is mixed. On the one hand, it may impact advertising revenues of the Chinese media organisations based in Africa. However, Chinese media do not rely on advertising revenues to run media organisations, so they don’t worry about how viewers perceive their media. This has also been the case at CGTN where there has been no audience survey since its inception in 2012. Some journalists at CGTN complained to this author that they have been unable to conduct audience surveys. Whether Chinese media organisations in Africa will continue to run without advertising revenue is debatable but China’s declining economy points to a future where China will care about the perception of its media in Africa.

On the other hand, the negative perception of Chinese media will rub off negatively on China’s engagement with Africans. If Chinese media do not succeed in resetting China’s image in Africa, it may be difficult for Africans to trust China’s rhetoric of win-win and common development.

Emeka Umejei is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of Journalism at Wits University.

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