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Chinese ‘Soft Power’ Expands in Africa with CCTV

Chinese government state-controlled media, China Central Television (CCTV), launched its African regional bureau in Nairobi, Kenya on January 11, 2012.

While its presence has diversified the media landscape in Africa, media watchdogs and foreign media outlets – such as CNN and the New York Times – have been rather skeptical of its journalistic independence given the media organization's close ties with the government.

Background of CCTV Africa

According to its official website, CCTV Africa produces a daily one-hour news program, a weekly talk show, a weekly documentary series program. The channel has recently produced a special documentary program to introduce Kenya. CCTV Africa has about 100 employees, many are Kenyans.

A screenshot of a promotion trailer of CCTV Africa from YouTube.

A screenshot of a promotion trailer of CCTV Africa from YouTube.

The new entrant “raid[ed] a number of local TV stations for notable broadcasters and other staff”, according to eXpression Today, a magazine published by The Media Institute, a media-watch non-governmental organization in Kenya.

Since the decision to establish CCTV in Nairobi was made in the 2006 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the NGO watchdog speculated:

Although details of how the Chinese TV (that is, CCTV) network gained entry remain ‘top secret’ because of the opaque nature with which China cuts deals with partners, sources at Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Information say that CCTV’s entry into Kenya was crafted during the Africa-China summit of 2006 (that is, FOCAC), when President Mwai Kibaki led a Kenyan delegation to Beijing to join more than 40 other African heads of state and government in establishing a new platform of co-operation between China and Africa. Apart from deals on infrastructure development, other areas of cooperation included capacity-building in media and ICTs (information and communication technologies).

CCTV and China’s soft power in Africa

The presence of Chinese media outlets in Africa can be traced back to as early as 1950s, when Xinhua News Agency and China Radio International (CRI) started broadcasting. During that time, the goal of these outlets was to disseminate propaganda and support the African liberation movements.

Nowadays, many western media and observers believe that the presence of CCTV in Africa is to expand the Chinese government's soft power and compete with media giants in the West, such as CNN and BBC.

Tom Rhodes from the Committee to Protect Journalists comments that:

The expansion comes as other, predominantly Western media houses are shrinking their media presence in East Africa; BBC has been forced to cut a number of correspondents and France 24 announced a merger with Radio France Internationale to contain costs, for example.

Wu Yu-shan [pdf], who published a research paper in June 2012 on the rise of China’s state-led media dynasty in Africa recently, points out:

Its soft power is about not only promoting international status but also making Chinese values and culture attractive to a public grown weary of traditional ideology. Therefore China needs to inspire its own public before it can offer anything beyond economic growth to the world.

Wu [pdf] also argues that China wants to counter the negative portrayal by Western media giants, an observation confirmed by CCTV Africa bureau chief Song Jia-ning in July 2012:

The Western media’s treatment of China and its expanding role in Africais one of the most obvious examples. Common themes in Western media coverage are China’s negative impact on Africa and its dealings with corrupt governments. They regularly report on China as a monolithic entity, criticize China’s colonial ambitions and emphasize present circumstances – with little socio-historic explanation of the China–Africa relationship.

Objectivity of CCTV in question

Wu's paper also questioned the editorial objectivity of CCTV [pdf] given its state-owned nature:

At the same time, the Chinese media have state objectives to meet. When covering Africa, where competitors tend to comment on the controversial areas of China–Africa relations, the Chinese media emphasize the easier narrative of positive stories, friendship and sincerity, avoiding any grey areas.

Media Watchdog NGO eXpression Today also points out:

…China rarely comments on the political affairs of other countries publicly. In this regard, CCTV’s entry into Kenya is unlikely to have any significant impact on Kenyan politics because ‘toxic’ politics is a no-go-zone for Chinese media.

By keeping off serious political issues, CCTV will be no different from KBC and will, therefore, not pose any serious competition to local TV stations and other international networks in any significant way so long as politics remains the preferred media content.

Journalist Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi believes that money can't buy credibility:

The success of China’s global media effort may depend on whether its media can identify that big story when it arrives, and then let the coverage prove their journalistic mettle to the world in a way that declarations from well-meaning editors and officials never will. If CCTV can become the go-to channel for everyone in the world, even if only for a few days, it could change the game for good.

And when such a moment does arrive, journalists must be able to ask tough, relevant questions, even of the Chinese leadership. Does the leadership have the stomach for that?

Media exchanges between China and Africa have become more frequent since the 2000s (see Wu's paper [pdf]), ranging from technical support, content provision, exchange between officials, and journalistic training. However, the journalistic training programs has been under scrutiny.

There is a story in Shinn and Eisenman’s new book, China and Africa: A Century of Engagement, written by Gideon Nkala and originally published in Mmegi Online:

After returning home from the June 2008 African journalist training program, Gideon Nkala of Botswana’s The Reporter newspaper published his firsthand account providing a rare glimpse into China’s multilateral journalist training programs through African eyes. He notes that the African journalists were all looking forward to the lecture on Tibet, during which, the CPC instructor said, ‘Tibet has always been a part of China and greater Tibet is a media creation that never existed.’ The Chinese people ‘see all the lies and fabrications of the west, [which] tells of the atrocities committed by the Chinese and says nothing when the Monks in Tibet kill and maim people.’ The instructor also ‘brought pictures to show that even pictures are cropped to cover the atrocities committed by the Monks and their supporters'. He made the whole class burst into laughter when he said, with a straight face, that a new entrant into Chinese street lingua for anything that is untrue and fabricated is now called CNN. ‘If someone is telling a lie in China, we now say “you are CNN.”‘

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