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Changing Channels: The Rise of Chinese Media in Africa

Amidst Western media stories of China's "exploitation" and "neo-colonialism", now the emerging superpower wants to tell its own African story.
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A CCTV debate at the World Economic Forum. Photograph by Qilai Shen/WEF.

Nairobi, Kenya:

China’s growing role in Africa is no secret. Its expansive resource-backed infrastructural projects are widely reported on and the $200 billion/year trade between China and Africa has been turning heads around the world.

Sino-African relations are covered abundantly in Western and African media. But now, China wants to narrate its own stories. Concerned that the loudest stories of China-Africa relations being heard are ones of exploitation, neo-colonialism, and the propping up of dictators, China’s central government has initiated a big media push to offer a counterbalance to Western narratives.

China’s media dreams

China’s central government has reportedly set aside $7 billion to expand its state-run media globally. This is starting to bear fruit.

In January 2012, China Central Television (CCTV) set up headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, and soon began courting Africa’s top journalists. In December, China Daily, China's biggest English-language newspaper, launched Africa Weekly. In Ethiopia, China’s state-run news agency Xinhua erected giant news screens. Thousands of scholarships for African journalists have been established. And Xinhua has also partnered with Kenyan mobile firm, Safaricom, to provide the first mobile news service in sub-Saharan Africa.

"The relationship between China and the African continent is one of the most significant relationships in the world today”, said Zhu Ling, Africa Weekly’s publisher and editor-in-chief. “It is growing and complex and not always understood. We hope to set that straight.”

Alongside this desire to provide a counterbalance to Western stories about China-African relations, some commentators have suggested Chinese media also want to alter broader perceptions of the African continent. While Western coverage typically privileges bad news stories, some believe Chinese media want to promote the good news stories. However, this simplification should be taken with a pinch of salt. As BBC journalist Mary Harper told Aljazeera, “They might not cover them [bad news stories] in great detail, but they do cover them”.

In China’s endeavour to offer a news voice to African media, Beijing may have reason to be optimistic. As Chinese media are confidently making inroads into the continent, many Western news outlets are withdrawing journalists and pulling back from Africa due to budget cuts. CNN has recently closed many of its international news bureaus, for example, while the BBC World Service has been making considerable cuts to jobs and its international coverage.

"If the US [and other Western] media keep conceding opportunities, the world media scene will become more and more diverse, and China will have a much bigger role to play – especially in Africa", Bruno Sergi, an international economist, told Think Africa Press.

Furthermore, Sergi pointed out, “The internet has greatly reduced the monopoly powers enjoyed by major Western outlets. This will help China's media industry to find more and more room, thereby penetrating foreign markets.”

In need of a retune?

But as Chinese media penetrates Africa, the challenge ahead is for China’s state-owned media houses to retune their models for non-Chinese markets. This is particularly essential in Africa, considering the divergent journalistic practices and media landscapes across the continent.

Furthermore, the outlook of African journalism could contradict that of Chinese media. Much African media views itself as a watchdog and guardian of public interest while the Chinese model arguably seeks primarily to defend the state and its interests. Indeed, Xinhua is subordinate to the state and has previously been described as being ‘the eyes and tongue’ of the China Communist Party.

“The incompatibility of operational cultures could deter Chinese media growth in Africa”, Robert Wekesa, a Guangzhou-based journalism lecturer, told Think Africa Press. “This calls for Beijing to adapt its operations to be in tandem with where they operate from.”

Additionally, there are fears that an expanded Chinese media could be detrimental to freedom of the press, especially in fragile and undemocratic nations. The Ethiopian government, for example, received a $1.5 billion loan from China’s EXIM bank for a telecommunications system that allegedly contains technologies which would allow the Ethiopian government to block voices it does not like.

Whether or not Chinese media expansion can benefit Africans, the relentless progress of China on the continent seems unlikely to abate any time soon. This attempt to dominate African media, alongside more traditional economic aspects, reflects China’s increasingly political, long-term and holistic approach to Africa.

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