New Trends in African Media: The Growing Role of China

Dec. 19, 2012

The Oxford University China Africa Network hosted on 9 November 2012 a conference on “New Trends in African Media: The Growing Role of China.”

Dr. Iginio Gagliardone and Dr. Harry Verhoeven prepared a brief conference report that pointed out speakers and audience members underscored China’s intentions to cast Africa and Africans in a more positive light. Other participants questioned the motives behind the spectacular expansion of CCTV and Xinhua News Agency, suggesting the effort may constitute a propaganda offensive.

The report is pasted below.

By Dr Iginio Gagliardone & Dr Harry Verhoeven

OUCAN Conference Report: “New Trends in African Media: The Growing Role of China”

*The conference offered an unprecedented opportunity for Chinese, African and Western media actors operating on the continent, such as CCTV, Xinhua, and the BBC, to share and confront views on the role and functions of international journalism in Africa and on Africa. The event was strongly attended by academics, representatives from civil society, graduate students and media professionals and a large presence of Chinese and African participants. Participants welcomed the timeliness of the conference and underlined, in several interventions, the importance of taking the
China-Africa debate in new directions, not focusing only on trade and investment, but asking new questions on culture, identity and discourse.

* In recent years, many countries in Africa have witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of media platforms and a widening of the access to sources of information. This “media revolution” has built not only on technological innovations, but also on the strong youth bulge many countries are experiencing and on the growing presence of a middle class that is willing and able to pay for a wide range of media products that cater to its desires. Rapid technological progress is thus a catalyst for broader changes on the continent, strengthening social change and the distribution of ideas; increasing the pace of economic expansion; and giving citizens more options to make their voices heard. Many at the conference implicitly and explicitly subscribed to a paradigm of technological
optimism, seeing the media as a force for good.

*Several speakers and members of the audience expressed a strong appreciation of the rapidly growing interest of Chinese media for Africa and their entry into an increasingly competitive media market on the continent. This drive seems to have gathered speed after the 2006 FOCAC meeting, as an integral part of China’s public diplomacy and the interest of the Chinese people in communicating their culture, worldview and curiosity to Africans.

*Speakers and audience members underscored China’s intentions to cast Africa and Africans in a more positive light, stepping away from stereotypical coverage of the continent’s woes and suffering –the image of the starving Ethiopian child as the undoubted archetype- and bringing in new angles, which focus on African opportunities and aspirations. This emphasis on positive reporting and positive journalism was contrasted with more traditional Western approaches. It was noted by many that at a time when Western newspapers, radio stations and press agencies have been cutting
budgets for correspondents, in-depth coverage and foreign language programmes, Chinese actors like CCTV seem to be doing the opposite thereby enriching the coverage of Africa on channels targeting both local and global audiences.

*China’s rapid scaling up was received critically by other conference speakers and participants, with many questioning the real motives behind the spectacular expansion of CCTV & Xinhua News Agency in terms of staff, budget and continent-wide media coverage. For many, these operations reek of political white-washing, a PR or propaganda offensive rather than honest attempt at letting Africans tell their own stories in a multitude of ways. The real test, to paraphrase one critical media watcher, is whether CCTV is willing to cover political scandals, violent conflict and questionable business deals, in which important Chinese interests are at stake, with the same kind of scrutiny as cases where no Chinese actors are implicated. A vigorous debate ensued in several panel discussions about the ethics of journalism: should journalists just report “the facts” as they perceive them and present them intelligibly to their audiences, or should journalists actively seek out to bring alternative (“positive”) views to the public arena?

*A handful of attendees made the important observation that it would be a mistake to overstate the degree of coherence in Chinese foreign and media policy, questioning the received wisdom as to the existence of a “China model” or a perfectly concerted effort at boosting Beijing’s soft power through a combination of media presence, soft loans, technical cooperation and initiatives like the Confucius Institutes. There is a considerable amount of chaos, confusion and doubt that characterises China’s engagement with the world, not least with Africa, and both enthusiastic supporters of Beijing’s growing influence on the continent and detractor often overlook these inconsistencies, questions and problems.

*Many of the audience’s African participants stressed the importance for both traditional media giants (e.g. BBC, RFI, CNN) and the energetic newcomers (Al Jazeera, CCTV) of investing in local knowledge and local partnerships, going beyond the token presence of African faces on television screens and engaging in greater depth with local worldviews and unusual perspectives on the developments reshaping Africa*Overall the conference created a platform to better understand how China’s increasing role in Africa is changing the tone of the debate on the function of the media in and on the continent. While speakers representing different cultural and philosophical traditions challenged each other’s views on the role of the media in society, the “positive style” of reporting promoted by Chinese media outlets emerged more as a complement rather than a replacement of the type of “watchdog” journalism” championed by international broadcasters such as the BBC and Al-Jazeera. Speakers and participants alike also stressed how in many countries the local media are increasingly diverse and vibrant and it is increasingly challenging for international broadcasters to compete for attention.