China is rapidly accelerating its presence in Africa's media landscape, with the state-run Xinhua News Agency boasting the largest correspondent network on the continent. Is Africa's free press at risk?
But how has China been winning the so-called 'war of hearts and minds' of more than one billion Africans?
"For China, propaganda has positive connotations, it is seen as a proactive tool in educating and shaping opinions to contribute to a 'harmonious society,'" Ivana Karaskova, an expert on Chinese foreign and security policy, said during a virtual panel discussionon Friday. The event, dubbed 'Telling China's story well — Beijing's attempts to reign into media in Africa and Europe,' was organized by the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).
Unknown to many, China has been investing massively in Africa's media as a strategy to achieve its longer-term ambitions.
Chinese media houses including China Central Television (CCTV) are continuing their efforts to engage with African journalists
The Asian giant aims to positively shape its image by offering free content to local news outlets. By employing state-funded TV, radio, online, and social media outlets, Beijing has successfully built the largest network of correspondents worldwide through its Xinhua News Agency, according to Joseph Odindo, a former editorial director at Kenya's Nation Media Group (NMG), and Standard Group.
"China's efforts to gain influence in local media started around 2004-05," Odindo noted. This closely coincided with the transfer of Xinhua's regional office from Paris to Nairobi in 2006. "There seemed to have been a realization that Nairobi could be used as a launching pad," the veteran east African journalist explained.
As the former editorial director of Nation Media Group, Joseph Odindo observed China's early efforts to break into Africa's media sphere first-hand
According to Odindo, Xinhua's then-head developed a very close relationship with Kenyan journalists and influential media stakeholders. He eventually managed to convince Odindo and others to install a Xinhua satellite dish so the agency could begin broadcasting television content.
"He pushed very aggressively for the use of Xinhua content," said Odindo. Reuters and AFP correspondents thoroughly debated the issue. "But his [Xinhua Kenya head] line of argument was always, 'must you be held captive by the western perspective of news? You need to give this other perspective a chance'."
Soon afterward, Odindo's media house started rebroadcasting two or three Xinhua stories each week. "Just to represent the other perspective and show that we are fair, we don't have anything against China," Odindo said.
Having assembled one of the largest foreign correspondent networks in Africa, Xinhua has managed to outmatch other international broadcasters as far as grassroots journalism is concerned.
But Xinhua is not the only Chinese media company based in Nairobi. The African bureau of the China Global Television Network (CGTN) is headquartered in Kenya's capital. China Daily also publishes content from their offices in Nairobi and Johannesburg. China Radio International has a station in Nairobi — CRI 91.9 FM — which broadcasts across the East African nation. Finally, there's Star Times, a Chinese privately-owned pay television enterprise.
"The point about their presence is that consolidated, it is a very powerful weapon for projecting the Chinese perspective," Odindo said.
Chinese investment in Kenya's media industry has created 500 jobs — up to 300 of those are journalists on television and radio. They have also introduced state-of-the-art technology and trained many budding journalists.
Odindo was one of the journalists who benefited from this training. Many in his cohort were given the opportunity to undertake training in China.
"When I was at the Standard Group, we had to draw up a chart which would enable us to see who was out on a Chinese training at any given time, who was due to come back, and who was next — otherwise you could find half of your newsroom is in Beijing undergoing training," he said.
China also took the opportunity to help some media houses out of a financial slump. Media companies across much of sub-Saharan Africa have been feeling the pinch brought about by the digital disruption, the flight of audiences, and advertisements. China offered The Standard Group a supplement every fortnight, which would leave them open to publishing Chinese commentaries and other stories. But things didn't work out as planned.
"We had a serious disagreement with them when we published an investigative report on Kenya's SGR railway project funded by China," Odindo noted.
The investigative story examined the difficult process of building the railway and how it cost vast sums of tax-payers money to simply maintain it. "The Chinese Embassy and their communications manager canceled all their advertisements with The Standard and withdrew the supplement," Odindo said.
"They demanded that we had to stop negative coverage."
The Konrad Adenauer Foundation's (KAS) Media Program for Sub-Saharan Africa has spent the past few years observing China's growing influence in the media. That's according to Christoph Plate, the director of the KAS Media Program for Sub-Saharan Africa in Johannesburg.
Plate gave an example of a journalism lecturer in South Africa who pursued his PhD. in China. "He is now being reminded time and again which country enabled him to go for a PhD," Plate said. "Chinese institutions are pressuring another lecturer at Addis Ababa University to start a media hub in Ethiopia's capital to invest in it," Plate, a former Africa correspondent, added.
Christoph Plate, the director of the KAS Media Program for Sub-Saharan Africa in Johannesburg, says China's media influence in Africa is difficult to shake
"The bottom line when it comes to China is that the sheer economic power that the Chinese bring in the media field on the continent is very hard to fend off," Plate explained. "This starts with the possibility of using Xinhua wires free-of-charge, offering scholarships, further technical assistance to broadcasters and regulatory boards, and buying media houses and setting up their own media enterprises in Africa."
For Odindo, however, the mainstream media in Kenya remains secure in its indepdendence.
"It has a very strong tradition of independent reporting," Odindo said. "I don't think that attempts by China to penetrate local media, such as The Nation, The Standard, and Royal Media Services, has in any way undermined our journalism or the way we look at things."