JOHANNESBURG—During the past decade, China has cemented its position as the biggest economic and political partner of many African countries, and is now following that up with rapid expansion of its media presence to promote its influence on the continent.
Radio China International and the StarTimes multichannel TV service now carry “good news” stories about China and Africa to potentially millions of people. The Chinese state-owned TV broadcaster China Global Television Network, or CGTN, has a production center in Nairobi, Kenya, to bolster this objective.
But Beijing’s expanding media footprint in Africa isn’t as benign as it appears, international press freedom watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) warns.
A Friendly Face
The Chinese regime often jails its critics, including journalists, and Chinese media are severely restricted in terms of what they can report on.
RSF stated that Beijing is now trying to export its repressive media model globally, with the aim of stopping journalism that would investigate its activities abroad.
“It is also to create a new world media order, in which journalism would be replaced by state propaganda,” said RSF researcher Cedric Alviani, who authored a recent report on China’s attempts to legally and illegally influence how it is portrayed by international media.
His report, the product of information gathered from RSF sources worldwide, including 150 correspondents, states that the Chinese regime is investing in foreign news organizations and buying vast amounts of advertising in international media to prevent negative coverage of it.
Alviani said Africa is on the “frontline” of this strategy, as Beijing sees huge potential for development, and thus profits, on the continent.
According to RSF, the Chinese Communist Party needs “friendly” media in Africa to present a good image of it and its projects to the public, which would, in turn, give it easier access to continental resources.
Alviani said the Chinese regime doesn’t want journalists to probe anything negative associated with its pursuits in Africa, such as pollution of local environments caused by its industrial activity.
Taking Over Media
In line with its massive investments in infrastructure projects in Africa, China is building radio and TV stations across the continent, and funding African media.
“It is not impossible that in one or two decades, China would actually be the major owner of African media and African broadcasting networks,” Alviani said.
Many African journalists have gone to China for state media training, where they’re encouraged to tell positive stories about the Chinese in Africa.
Alviani said the growth of CGTN on the continent, with headquarters in Nairobi and bureaus in Cairo, Johannesburg, and Lagos employing hundreds of African journalists and many more freelancers, is “particularly worrying.”
“CGTN has the flavor of Africa; it looks like it is made for the good of Africa. But actually, it is a propaganda channel that obeys the Chinese [regime’s] interests. You will never hear any voices opposing anything the Chinese are doing in Africa on CGTN. Everything that viewers see on the network puts China in a good light,” he said.
Resistance and Control
Professor Herman Wasserman, of the University of Cape Town’s media studies department, said Beijing’s media model is “clearly not well-suited to Africa, where democracies are in many parts of the continent very fragile.”
Wasserman, a former visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, has published extensively on how China and its activities are reported in Africa.
He said the Chinese media presence in Africa is big, “and getting bigger,” but its products aren’t popular, at least for the moment.
“In some countries like South Africa and Kenya and other places where there is a more vibrant media industry, there’s also quite a strong, ingrained bias against Chinese media,” Wasserman said.
Wasserman is watching Beijing’s expansion of its media interests in Africa closely.
“It’s maybe not in the first instance directed at stamping out press freedom in Africa, but it is aimed at trying to create a more positive picture of itself, and, yes, trying to limit criticism of itself in Africa,” he said. “As it embarks on greater economic and political influence on the continent, it seeks to promote a positive image of that influence through a greater presence in the media sphere.”
But RSF stated this greater presence includes financial support for African media, who obviously won’t bite the hand that feeds them.
The watchdog uses the example of South African writer Azad Essa, whose column for the Independent Online was ended in 2018 shortly after he criticized Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim community in China.
A Chinese group has a 20 percent stake in the Independent.
Wasserman said China’s influence could be subtle. He explained that African media owners funded by China would practice self-censorship, cutting anything they think might offend Beijing.
RSF stated that more overt attempts by Chinese authorities to repress African journalists include training local officials to spy on them and providing equipment for surveillance of the internet and cellphones.
Wasserman said, however, that the role of African media and civil society shouldn’t be ignored in the resistance of attempts to influence media on the continent.
“I think there’s a great deal of resistance in Africa against any attempts to stamp out press freedom, whether those attempts come from Beijing or wherever,” he said.