China-Kenya relations have weathered a tumultuous year. Anti-China protests, Chinese hacking allegations, and billions of dollars of debt owed to China have strained Kenyan public opinion. In order to address the problem, Chinese media and diplomatic officials spent their summer securing media cooperation agreements with their Kenyan counterparts, taking advantage of the 60th anniversary of China-Kenya diplomatic relations and the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In the months that followed, there has been a significant rise in Chinese state-media content in several prominent Kenyan media outlets, which shows largely positive, uncritical coverage of China and its relations with Kenya.
This week, Xinhua’s Sub-Saharan Africa Bureau Chief in Nairobi Lee Xin visited the state-owned Kenya News Agency (KNA). Noting the “crucial stage” of collaborations between both state news agencies, KNA’s Joseph Kamolo described how Xin encouraged KNA to “build the image of China in Kenya and around the world”:
Xin said this when the New Director of Information, who is also Head Kenya News Agency, Mr. Joseph Kipkoech, led a team of officers drawn from the department on an informal familiarisation tour at the Chinese Xinhua News Agency Sub-Saharan Africa Bureau in Nairobi on Saturday.
The Chinese Xinhua News Agency extended an invitation to their Kenyan counterpart, KNA, to spearhead countering fake news and propaganda by reporting facts based on research to build a true image of the two nations that were victims of western colonial masters.
[…] The partnerships and collaborations between the two state news agencies are at a crucial stage when final touches are underway to renew the agreements for news and information exchanges ahead of President William Ruto’s visit to China before the end of the year. [Source]
Over the past few years, KNA has written a growing number of articles about China. According to a search for articles on its website that explicitly mention “China” in their title, there are only two articles from 2021, three from 2022, and eight from 2023, thus far. Among those eight, one appeared in February and one in June, followed by three in August, two in September, and one in early October. Those written since August are about Chinese scholarships for lecturers and tutors from East Africa, and economic, educational, security, and media partnerships. Another article touts the unveiling of the new Swahili edition of Xi Jinping’s book, “The Governance of China.”
The state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) has shown an even more marked shift towards Chinese state-media content. A search for articles on its website that mention “China” in their title reveals an increasing number of pieces authored by Chinese state media (as opposed to in-house journalists) over the past four months. CGTN and Xinhua have gone from authoring zero articles in June to authoring a total of 14 articles in September. (Among the three articles published in October thus far, two are credited to CGTN and one to Xinhua.) During that same period, KBC’s in-house bylines on China-focused articles dropped from 16 to five.
Almost all of the articles under these bylines present a positive image of China. CGTN and Xinhua touted China’s commitment to peace and friendship, and even the KBC articles syndicated from the BBC focused on more upbeat coverage, such as this one about the Chinese economy. Among the bylines by KBC’s in-house staff, correspondent Eric Biegon has written copiously for China Radio International and was affiliated with the China-Africa Press Centre, which sponsors African journalists on training programs in China. His articles tend to describe Chinese engagement with Kenya through a positive lens. Other local bylines have critiqued the West while praising China. One KBC contributor, Stephen Ndegwa, is also a prolific contributor to CGTN.
|Authorship of KBC Articles That Mention “China” in Their Title|
|Byline||June 2023||July 2023||August 2023||September 2023|
|Other in-house staff||4||4||3||1|
The popular Kenyan radio station and news site Capital FM has displayed a similar transformation in its China coverage. A search for articles on its website that mention “China” in their title shows that the Chinese state-media outlets China Daily, CGTN, and Xinhua authored a total of five articles in June, and 33 articles in September. (At the time of writing, five out of the six articles published in October are by China Daily, and the sixth is from a contributor who praises the BRI.) Meanwhile, in-house staff authored only four articles in September, and bylines by AFP and other agencies hit zero in September after remaining below three articles during the other months.
The CGTN and KBC contributor Stephen Ndegwa also wrote five articles for Capital FM during this time. Another Capital FM author, Adhere Cavince, has also written for numerous Chinese state-media outlets. The Capital FM articles by both of these contributors paint China in a very positive light. Other articles by Capital FM in-house staff offered effusive praise for Chinese scholarships and investments.
|Authorship of Capital FM Articles That Mention “China” in Their Title|
|Byline||June 2023||July 2023||August 2023||September 2023|
|Other in-house staff||0||1||3||4|
|Kenyan government press release||0||0||1||0|
|Other news agencies||0||1||2||0|
Kenyan outlet The Star has also been producing highly flattering content about China, in correlation with official Chinese media-related partnerships. Two weeks ago, The Star announced that one of its editors was selected for the inaugural Kenya Editors Guild-Chinese Embassy editorial fellowship. In August, The Star wrote that another one of its journalists was participating in a four-month media exchange program in China run by the China International Press Communication Center. Since then, that journalist has written flattering, uncritical articles about China: one appeared under the headline, “Setting the record straight: Negative perceptions by West alarm China envoys.” Some of his articles also rely heavily on Xinhua images, or images whose source simply reads “HANDOUT.”
Over the past two months alone, numerous contributors to Chinese state media have written op-eds for The Star: there were nine from Stephen Ndegwa, one from Adhere Cavince, and one from Dennis Munene. The latter argued last year in China Daily that Chinese training programs for African journalists can serve to counter Western “fake news” about China. Chinese Ambassador to Kenya Zhou Pingjian also authored two opinion pieces for The Star. None of the China-related opinion pieces or columns in The Star during that time contained any criticism of China.
In Kenya’s Daily Nation, the only op-eds about China over the past two weeks were published by some of these Chinese state-media contributors. Adhere Cavince extolled the benefits of the BRI and called on Kenya and China to “forge a new front in development cooperation.” Dennis Munene urged Kenyan President William Ruto to align his agenda with the BRI and “embrace the power of partnership” with China. Ambassador Zhou Pingjian listed China’s development accomplishments and promised “win-win cooperation” for the China-Kenya partnership. (Two weeks prior, Ambassador Zhou was given another op-ed in the Daily Nation that glorified China-Africa cooperation.)
The Chinese embassy in Kenya has also had a recent uptick in engagement with local media. Its website boasts that Ambassador Zhou placed an identical op-ed in KBC, Capital FM, The Star, and the Daily Nation on September 28, and another one in The Star and the Daily Nation on September 12. The most recent opinion piece before that, according to the embassy website, was published back in September 2022.
This surge in Chinese government- and state-media content in Kenyan media may have been motivated by rising Kenya-China tensions over the past year. In March, hundreds of Kenyans protested against a Chinese-owned shop in Nairobi that they alleged undercut local businesses by selling cheap “fake goods,” as part of what they described as a broader “China invasion.” In May, Reuters reported that a Chinese state-linked hacking group known as “BackdoorDiplomacy” had hacked into several ministries of the Kenyan government. Kenya’s ballooning external public debt, approximately 17 percent of which is owed to Chinese creditors, has recently forced President Ruto to raise taxes to avoid default. None of these issues has improved Kenyan public opinion of China.
Chinese expats have also complained. Earlier this year, Han Zhen at the China-Global South Project translated a post from popular Africa-based WeChat content creator Nie Shaorui (聂少锐), who argued that Chinese citizens in Kenya are becoming scapegoats for these issues and urged Chinese media in Africa to support them by “amplifying [Chinese] perspectives”:
Ultimately, our country is not yet powerful enough, and we still lack influence in Africa. We face various forces suppressing and defaming us. […] It is crucial for authorities to enhance their publicity and adopt the right attitude, rather than constantly seeking to appease others. Effective communication and dialogue are essential. Chinese media organizations stationed in Africa should fulfill their role by amplifying our perspectives and opinions. [Source]
Perhaps in order to control the situation, Chinese actors began a flurry of diplomatic and media engagement with their Kenyan counterparts over the summer. On July 9, Ambassador Zhou met with the Kenya Editors Association (“one of the most representative and influential media industry associations” in Kenya, according to a readout by the Chinese embassy). In attendance were the heads of the Africa sections of Xinhua and China Media Group. Zhou said that he “hoped that the two sides will strengthen exchanges and communication and create a friendly public opinion atmosphere favorable to China-Kenya cooperation,” and discussed information sharing, personnel training, and institutional exchanges. On July 22, President Ruto also met with China’s chief diplomat Wang Yi and agreed to deepen their countries’ cooperation and exchanges in a number of domains.
More initiatives followed in August. On August 14, the Swahili version of Volume One of “The Governance of China” by Xi Jinping was launched at a seminar in Nairobi. The same day, the China-Kenya film festival was launched in the presence of Chinese and Kenyan government ministers. On August 17, Xinhua president Fu Hua met with Kenyan Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua and Director of Information at the Ministry of ICT, Innovation, and Youth Affairs Esther Wanjau in Nairobi, where both sides pledged to strengthen media cooperation. Later that day, Fu led his Xinhua delegation to a meeting with KNA. On August 25, senior members of President Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance party were scheduled to meet with CCP leaders in Beijing, but the trip was reportedly called off at the last minute; it is expected to be rescheduled in October.
One initiative in August encapsulates the China-dominated nature of Chinese media “cooperation” with Kenya. On August 18, the Chinese embassy launched a “Shared Future” photo and video contest soliciting content that highlights Chinese-Kenyan cooperation and friendship, with almost $4,000 worth of prizes. One of the judges for the contest was Joan Pereruan, the visual and syndication editor at the Nation Media Group, which owns the Daily Nation. The first-place winner described in the Xinhua article announcing the winners last week was Enock Sikolia. The article omitted the fact that Sikolia is a Kenyan journalist who has been working at CGTN for the past three years, and who previously spent over six years working for Nation Media Group, according to his LinkedIn profile. Also omitted was any mention of the other first-place winner, Han Xu, who appears to be a photojournalist for Xinhua in Kenya.