Africa’s Free Press Problem

In the New York Times, Mohamed Keita, Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, writes about declining press freedom conditions in many African countries and the increasingly influential role of Beijing:

In the West, cynicism about African democracy has led governments to narrow their development priorities to poverty reduction and stability; individual liberties like press freedom have dropped off the agenda, making it easier for authoritarian rulers to go after journalists more aggressively. In the 1990s, leaders like Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia were praised by the West as political and social reformers. Today, the West extols these men for achieving growth and maintaining stability, which they do largely with a nearly absolute grip over all national institutions and the press.

Then there’s the influence of China, which surpassed the West as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. Ever since, 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.

In January, Beijing issued a white paper calling for accelerated expansion of China’s news media abroad and the deployment of a press corps of 100,000 around the world, particularly in priority regions like Africa. In the last few months alone, China established its first TV news hub in Kenya and a print publication in South Africa. The state-run Xinhua news agency already operates more than 20 bureaus in Africa. 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.

China and African governments tend to agree that the press should focus on collective achievements and mobilize public support for the state, rather than report on divisive issues or so-called negative news.

Read more about China’s trade relationship with Africa and about Beijing’s efforts to export censorship via CDT.