This month, China hosted two major media forums aimed at promoting synergy between Chinese and foreign media organizations. Both forums highlighted the importance of training programs for journalists in the Global South. These forums also signal the growing reach of Chinese state media narratives in African participants’ respective coverage of China.
The first event was the 5th Forum on China-Africa Media Cooperation, co-hosted by China’s National Radio and Television Administration, the Beijing municipal government, and the African Union of Broadcasting (AUB). The gathering, held last Thursday and Friday in Beijing, brought together over 240 delegates from 140 countries to celebrate the forum’s ten-year anniversary. Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory letter urging the media from both sides to tell better stories about China-Africa cooperation. PR Newswire summarized the contents of the forum, including sessions on “content cooperation” and “digital convergence”:
Themed “New Vision, New Development, and New Cooperation,” the Forum held sessions on media development policy, content cooperation and innovation as well as new technology application, and digital convergence.
The Forum published a joint declaration that reviewed the decade of achievements of China-Africa media cooperation. In mapping the prospects and plans for future media development, it proposed five initiatives, including deepening cooperation and communication, supporting global development, telling stories of China-Africa friendship, promoting digital media development, and strengthening youth exchanges.
In addition, the Forum featured events such as the first broadcast exhibition of African programs in China and a short video collection on the topic of “my story of China-Africa friendship.” It also published 12 cooperative achievements in terms of program co-broadcasting, documentary creation, program innovation, and new media cooperation. [Source]
One prominent theme of this media collaboration is supporting Chinese training programs for African journalists. Referencing these at a follow-up meeting to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) the week prior, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said he supported media organizations “in enhancing exchange and cooperation to deepen friendship between the Chinese and African peoples.” At last week’s forum, AUB CEO Grégoire Ndjaka praised China’s training programs, which “[intend] to expose African journalists to Chinese culture and lifestyle” and regularly send scores of groups of African journalists to China each year. Speaking at the forum on behalf of the 40 African journalists currently participating in one such program in China, a journalist from the state-run Somali National News Agency (SONNA) described his experience:
“I was here in Beijing for the 2019 Media Exchange Program together with other 33 fellow African brothers and sisters mostly from public media institutions and I do recall all events I attended, visits and tours made and what impressed us during our stay in China at the time”, he stated.
“We visited ten provinces in China such as Hainan, Xi’an, Shanxi, Hunan, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Hubei and Zhejiang and Shanghai. We saw amazing and tangible achievements made and on-going development projects throughout the provinces. Advanced technology in place, high speed trains and better infrastructure impressed us during our exploration for the ten months’ period”, he recounted.
[…] Notably, these journalists covered their governments’ support for Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy and expressed solidarity during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019 [as] well. [Source]
As it turns out, SONNA runs a substantial amount of pro-CCP news content. On Sunday, it published an article describing praise for the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang from an official of the Somali embassy in Beijing, who was interviewed by “a visiting journalist from [SONNA],” likely the same individual who spoke at the forum two days prior. Another SONNA article on August 10, penned by the Chinese ambassador to Somalia, praised China’s Global Security Initiative. On August 4, the ambassador published another article in SONNA defending China’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan. Three days later, SONNA published a separate, lightly edited version of the ambassador’s article without a byline. Also on August 4, SONNA ran another article from Xinhua. Only two other articles about China were published by SONNA in August.
Earlier this month in Xi’an, the People’s Daily and the provincial government of Shaanxi hosted the 2022 Media Cooperation Forum on Belt and Road, drawing over 120 media representatives from over 40 countries and international organizations. Huang Kunming, head of the Publicity Department of the CCP Central Committee, urged participants to highlight their nations’ joint BRI efforts, stating that media exchanges and cooperation are essential to building the BRI. The Global Times noted that the forum’s push for media cooperation was an attempt to “battle hegemony” by the West, and cited the vice president of Ethiopia’s state-run Ethiopian News Agency (ENA), present at the forum, who also urged greater cooperation.
ENA has heeded Huang’s call by covering China favorably and praising China-Africa media exchanges. One of its journalists, currently participating in a Chinese media training program, published an article in ENA this month praising China’s cooperation with Ethiopia, using language such as: “The Chinese approach toward Africa […] involves upholding friendship and equality.” On Sunday, ENA published an article relaying a call by the Ethiopian ambassador to China to “further enhance and strengthen our [media] collaboration through co-production of programs,” specifically those regarding news coverage, content creation, channel building, staff training, and other exchanges. All eight of the articles about China in ENA this month praise China-Ethiopia cooperation: affirming China’s Taiwan policy, praising Chinese projects in Ethiopia and Africa, and parroting Chinese embassy press releases.
Reshaping narratives is an explicit motivation for China-Africa journalist exchanges. A CGTN op-ed published on Sunday argued that media plays an important role in “shaping the right discourse” about China-Africa cooperation, and that “[e]nhancing in-depth media exchanges between the two sides can also assist in fact checking and debunking myths.” Another recent op-ed in China Daily argued that China-Africa media collaboration can help “fight post-truth narratives” wielded by “anti-China critics.” In a report published this month by the Atlantic Council, Kenton Thibaut explained that a primary way that the Chinese government advances its global discourse power in the digital realm is by leveraging media platforms to shape local information environments by spreading pro-China propaganda:
China’s view of the utility and timeliness of this approach is spelled out plainly in an April 2021 guiding policy document released by the [Central Propaganda Department] on shoring up China’s “external public opinion work.” The document stated that “the rapid development of the internet has accelerated the process of networkization and digitization of the international mainstream media. The internet is reshaping the international public opinion pattern and the international media ecology and has increasingly become an important battlefield for major powers to compete for discourse power.
[…] In a document examining China’s external propaganda activities released in June 2021, the [Central Propaganda Department] praised the strides China has made with international media in recent years, stating, “relevant key foreign propaganda media have made great strides to go overseas, deeply implemented localization strategies […] from topic selection to language and style, external reports are closer to overseas audiences, and the originality, speed, view count, and citation rate of news reports have greatly increased. [Source]
Such leverage comes partly from Chinese training programs of African journalists and the pro-CCP narratives they publish in their respective outlets. Zambian media scholar Gregory Gondwe analyzed this leverage in a July 2022 academic paper that compared the impact of Chinese, American, and British short-term training programs on African journalists. His findings revealed that while American and British programs exhibited comparably less direct ideological influence on their participants, Chinese programs attempted to directly control journalistic autonomy and incentivize positive reporting about China:
China’s media expansion to Africa provides a unique phenomenon to the African media and its journalists. As noted in the findings, China’s journalism training programs were encapsulated by open and direct control of journalistic autonomy, and subsequently cultural and institutional autonomy. Most respondents indicated that the Chinese training programs were all about orienting African journalists to the Chinese culture – and especially with the statement, “this is how China looks”. By so doing, African journalists were expected to report China in a way that China considered accurate – that is why there were follow-ups throughout the publication process. An incentive meant that a journalist had the standards and should continue reporting in the way China wants. [Source]
Updated at 10:40 on Aug 31, 2022 to clarify the publication dates of the August 4 and August 7 SONNA articles.