Will China's quickly expanding media presence in Africa result in a fresh, alternative, and balanced perspective on the continent--much as Al-Jazeera altered the broadcast landscape with the launch of its English service in 2006--or will it be essentially an exercise in propaganda?
Beijing's soaring investments in Africa, which rose 87 percent last year according to China Radio International, include a heavy concentration in the media, especially in Kenya. This year China launched CCTV in East Africa with its headquarters in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. The state broadcaster has 50 local staff here and 14 correspondents across the continent in South Africa, Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Senegal with plans to expand to 150 staff, according to operations manager and Editor Robert Soi. Since January, Kenyans have been able to hear a daily one-hour broadcast of CCTV's "Africa Live," and the channel plans to become an all news, 24-hour channel similar to France 24 or CNN by 2015.
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. In addition to competitive salary offers being welcomed by many journalists looking for work, many locals hope CCTV's heavy investment will allow more detailed, nuanced reporting. Some local journalists in Nairobi tell me they grow weary of the West's often limited, negative coverage of East Africa. A local Nairobi radio presenter once referred to the West's media coverage of Africa as 'burning-tire journalism' -- since only a handful of foreign correspondents are based on the continent and are reduced to covering only major disasters due to funding and logistical constraints.
According to Soi, the new broadcaster strives to be objective. "We cannot avoid the key stories in Africa so we try to be very objective. Just because China is interested in Khartoum, Sudan, for instance, does not mean we only cover this country -- we cover the whole story and that includes South Sudan." But Soi admits there are subjects that generally aren't touched, such as criticism of local Chinese investments. Instead, "We try to portray more positive news," Soi said. "You can't talk badly about Chinese interests in Africa."
CCTV has made no effort to disguise its public-relations aims. "Many media do not give Africans a correct image of China, its culture and its plans in the continent," Beijing's ambassador to Kenya, Lui Guanguyuang, said during the broadcaster's local inauguration in January. The ambassador called on CCTV to portray "a success story that is development for our partners." Indeed, according to a 2010 Oxford study, China's media investment in Africa is primarily designed to improve foreign and economic ties and counterbalance the negative reporting of both China and Africa found in Western media.
Now, African journalists at CCTV, especially Kenyans at the heart of China's operation, will have to navigate the delicate path between reporting these "positive news stories" and censoring their own coverage. The challenge is particularly acute given increasing media training and exchange programs offered to African journalists by China.
Indeed, China's poor press freedom record at home is reflected in some of its media investments in Africa. Chinese media investments tend to support state broadcasters over private media; including those state broadcasters with poor press freedom records such as the national radio of Equatorial Guinea and the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcast Holdings Company. Also, the Chinese telecom giant ZTE is conducting a major overhaul on Ethiopia's telecommunication system with a US$ 1.7 billion investment, according to the Oxford study. Both China and Ethiopia have a track record of imprisoning journalists and bloggers as well as blocking critical Web sites; no doubt this investment will allow the Ethiopian censors greater reach to silence their critics.
But Africa's political elite, even in places like Kenya with a fairly robust free press, will not oppose China's media advancements in Africa. China is the continent's leading trading partner and nearly all African governments tend to agree with their Chinese counterparts that the press should focus on collective achievements and mobilize public support for the state, rather than report so-called "negative news." During January's launch of CCTV, Kenyan Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka called on the new station to "cast a new image of the continent [since Africa] is often shown as the continent of endless calamities."
"It will be here for the long haul," Soi told me. "Just as the BBC Africa has sold very well over here, CCTV will also leave a footprint."