Monday, April 23, 2012

Africa's Free Press Problem: Is China Causing It?

Source: Henry Hall's China Africa News
On April 15, 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Mohamed Keita on Africa's free press problem, arguing that press freedom was getting worse in Africa -- because of China.

Keita's piece makes a lot of good points. Investigative reporters have a very tough road in many parts of Africa and there are many examples of courage under impossibly tough conditions.

However, his opinion oversteps his evidence in linking increased Chinese economic activity in Africa with increased repression of the media.

Asking "Why this disturbing trend? (of media repression)" Keita points to (inter alia) "the influence of China, which surpassed the West as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009."

As an example of this causal linkage, Keita wrote: "The volume of trade between Rwanda and China increased fivefold between 2005 and 2009. During the same period, the government has eviscerated virtually all critical press and opposition and has begun filtering Rwandan dissident news Web sites based abroad."

I had to bite my fingers to stop them from typing something snarky after this statistical analysis.
Keita actually does make a good point in his observation that with growing trade, "China has been deepening technical and media ties with African governments to counter the kind of critical press coverage that both parties demonize as neocolonialist."

Rather than training African reporters to be like Xinhua reporters, the Chinese goal in stepping up training and PR activities is to present a different picture of Chinese activities in Africa to counter the negative reporting eminating from "the West". Here's where Keita gets it right:  
"More than 200 African government press officers received Chinese training between 2004 and 2011 in order to produce what the Communist Party propaganda chief, Li Changchun, called “truthful” coverage of development fueled by China’s activities." (emphasis added).
It is easy to understand why both the Chinese and African governments might want a more balanced picture of their activities. Cambridge (UK) academic Emma Mawdsley has written the classic piece on negative media coverage of China in Africa, juxtaposed with positive reporting on the west's engagement: "Fu Manchu Versus Dr. Livingston on the Dark Continent? Representing China, Africa, and the West in British Broadsheet newspapers" Political Geography 27 (2008).

And the fun continues. See the new report on "China's Global Media Image," launched by Renmin University and Sweden's 21st Century Frontiers (and spearheaded by Dennis Pamlin) which analyzed 100 major media magazine covers featuring China -- more than 60 percent clearly pictured China as a threat, and not open to dialogue.

While Keita rightly emphasizes many African governments' reluctance to hear criticism, it is also clear that Africa has long been presented to outside audiences as the dark continent of chaos, child soldiers, famine, etc.

It's not just 54 African governments that are tired of outsiders determining their global image. France is also tired of Anglo domination of the TV media, hence they've launched their own English media service: France 24. A perception of Western bias in coverage of the Middle East, Islam, etc., in part underpinned the launch of Al-Jazeera.

As a Chinese reporter put it, "Although they are geographically far apart, China and Africa have long learned about each other through Western media." Farooq Sulehria, a Pakistani writer added, "We largely view the world through the media. It is our window on the world. If we see the world through the eyes of the West, we will be siding with Tarzan instead of blacks without asking: what is Tarzan, a white man, doing in African jungles?"

IMO, this"media balancing" is far more important for the Chinese than any effort to get African reporters to modify or soften their reporting on African governments, as impled by Keita. In fact, with their reluctance to intervene in internal affairs of other countries, I would be surprised if the Chinese do training focused on anything to do with African journalists vis a vis their coverage of African governments). But who knows? He wasn't reporting. He was giving an opinion.

Instead of these general op-eds that are only, after all, opinions, wouldn't it be better to have some actual investigative reporting on this issue? What about doing an indepth study of the Chinese media training programs, or interviewing a random sample of the press officers and African journalists that have attended them?

For those who are interested, I have written about this topic earlier, in a piece "Comments on Winds from the East," a National Endowment for Democracy study. My comments were published at Pambazuka in January 2011.


Anonymous said...


Mohamed Keita is advocacy coordinator for CPJ's Africa Program. The "committee for the protection of Journalists" that I use a lot (the last year especially for Libya and Syria) and I never noticed that they reported something inaccurate.
The same is true for the article of Keita (that I had read and now did re-read ). This seems to me as particularly mild and balanced if you take into account the reality in Africa. Moreover, these assertions are further documented on their website.
Reporters Without Borders mentions it a lot sharper: "The influence of China in African affairs has been very toxic for democracy,"
That Keita explicitly compares Rwanda and China is evident for several reasons, but let it suffice to say that both countries, that have an analog economic growth in recent years, are victim of a remarkable and analog fallback in every pressfreedomranking over the last years. And this while the classic black beast, Cuba, no longer is in the bottom 10 countries ranking.
Nobody will deny the censorship in China but few are aware of its size (censorship and self-censorship). Why f.e. the word "Jasmine" is censured is quite obvious. Via the CPJ website you also get to know why it is the same for the word "tomato". Is the CCP paranoid? No, China is possibly the only country in the world that has a bigger budget for internal security than for defence and you may therefore assume that the CCP can correctly assess why these words really are a threat to them.
You don't need to be an Africa pundit to know that many African elites also see a free press as a threat .
Then it is logic that at this intersection the CCP and these African elites would find each other, "Brown envelopes" … are in both regions already a well known phenomenon … and if social harmony is a must to protect the privileges of the elite there is a readymade outlet for the Chinese Great Firewall jamming technology … (the US is still leading, but as always; watch the trend!).
If I want to know how the US. standards and values are disseminated in my country I only have to switch on the TV and see what children can see now and what I myself got served for half a century. Amazing that I never or never in such US serials saw a mom or dad who were industrial workers, who were afraid to lose their jobs, who were union representatives…
And yet we can easily identify us with all these unrealistic heroes …
How important this is for the US I could see at the end of last century: Nato ally Turkey wished to impose a quota for all those US productions and the US threatened to stop its military aid immediately. And as we are now in that region, I could speak about the US involvement with the censorship under the Shah in Iran. STOP! This was not caused by the US! Indeed, just as Keita in his article does not asserts (but that the title of the above post suggests) that China caused the African press censorship!
Let's limit us to Africa.
Since 2007, 2008 "Houston, we have an image problem" messages were reaching Zhongnanhai….
China discovered to its great frustration that, in the countries where its economic presence is greatest, public opinion turned the strongest against China. This was extremely frustrating for them because they believed, echoing the US economic presence and influence,their economic presence would enhance their cultural appearance and acceptance. A bit like they were expecting this also in Tibet.
see part II

Anonymous said...

Part II
To counter this trend, from 2009 on, a whole series of measures were taken involving the promotion of "soft power" wich is the most important in this context. And internal and external media management are an important chapter in there. According to the South China Morning Post a 6.6 billion USD budget was ready for this but in the meanwhile it could be up to 10 billion already ….
The US sphere of influence is never far away with Kagame but when it comes to the governance of the country he refers explicitly to the Singaporese/Chinese examples. First the economic development and democracy comes later. Press freedom is a luxury we cannot afford and just as small children must be educated the population must be educated by a state-controlled press. In both countries, "negative" news is out of the question. In South Africa, there's already a new word for this: developmental journalism, positive reporting …
Where the state takes the lead on the private sector … and dissidents are silenced ...
In South Africa, the ANC is on the point make any form of investigative journalism a criminal activity by the law. No surprises when you see their business deals!
The Tarzan story is also nicely found but is mainly due to China itself; it neglected African studies for a long time because Africa was unimportant for them. And this story makes no sense for the Middle East where China also launched an Arabic language channel years after Alarabyia and Al Jazeera were created.
Incidentally, there is a little problem with this Chinese soft power also. I saw how Cubans made fun of all those Chinese serials on their different TV channels. They looked at them like it was science fiction and as a matter of fact, identify yourselve with Dr. Spock is not so obvious. Definitely not when the real Chinese managers in Africa are using working methods as in China as "default mode". Just because this is the only way they know to maximize their ROI. You must already have a state with good governance in the interest of the whole population, with an extensive state infrastructure and the necessary control means to enforce compliance with your own legislation … Defenitely the exception in Africa.
But in the meantime, the Chinese press in both China and Africa do their best to explain any failure of democracy in Africa as inevitably because democracy is unsuitable for developing countries such as China and Africa, to deny any population the right to revolt and to use the concomitant disorder and chaos and economic decline in a scaremongering way. All that forms a treat to the status quo, stability, harmony in which agreements can be win/win deals but at the same time it creates the climate in which it suggests the superiorty of the authoritarian Chinese model.
What Chinese sources such as CCTV or Xinhua who work "to beef up the confidence of the market and unity of the nation" can bring to Africa remains to be seen. But then it must in any case do better than just show the Chinese delegates intervention during the UN Security Council debate on intervention in Syria or just put the emphasis on the Chinese contracts and the big losses on this contracts during the Libyan uprising.
Can this succeed? Oh yes, just in the same way as the US did in Europe; you sell your stuff at dumping prices (or sometimes for free as China does now). Very important in times that the Western and African mediabudgets are shrinking.
And Yes, we all know of at least one succesfull example; admiral Zheng He, portrayed as a kind of Santa Claus who discovered Africa, but in reality the organizer of military expeditions compared to wich those of Columbus looked like the work of military amateurs. And strange for China, they just forgot half a millenium of Africa/China contacts. A period in witch Africans were ued as slaves, mainly in the Canton region..

Anonymous said...

Part III
The Chinese media may nowadays be stiff and wooden and a little bit annoying, but you may be sure that they once will become good. When? Maybe on the day that Xinhua no longer needs to make a special edition with "sensitive" Western news for the Chinese leadership?

Deborah Brautigam said...

@Anonymous, thanks for your comments. Reporters without Borders has called China one of "three countries that seem to have lost contact with reality as they have been sucked into an insane spiral of terror." (the other two are Syria and Iran.) Things are getting worse for the media in China, but "an insane spiral of terror?" Now, really!

Iginio said...

Thank you for the very much needed rebuttal to Keita's piece. I personally admire the work CPJ and similar organizations do to raise the profile of cases where journalists and free media are under threat. But strong experience in advocacy does not always lead to blanaced analyses, which I believe are very much needed in this phase when China is stepping up its media efforts on the African continent. I tried to provide a snapshot of China's experience in Ethiopia and Ghana in a piece for the Huffington Post (see link below) indicating how different actors can engage, and not just compete in the African mediasphere.