China’s Media Training for African Journalists Favors Authoritarianism, Experts Say
Kenyan journalist Bonface Otieno visited China in 2017 as part of a program intended to expose African journalists to Chinese culture and, more important, to the Chinese style of journalism.
Otieno, a reporter at Business Daily, was part of a group of 200 journalists from across the continent sent to China for the weekslong all-expenses-paid visit. Their tour was led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of China’s global campaign to change its image in the world’s media.
Otieno said he went on the trip with an open mind but left disappointed.
“We wanted to understand why the media in China does not ever criticize the government,” Otieno told the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). “We said, ‘What kind of journalism is this?’ But I felt their answers were not here and not there, they were not satisfactory.”
According to the International Federation of Journalists, China has offered to sponsor journalists from 70% of low- and middle-income countries for media visits. The offer has found wide acceptance in Africa, which, experts say, has been the proving ground for China’s approach to media manipulation.
The visits, portrayed as training in critical thinking, have been part of China’s media policy in Africa since at least 2015, when Chinese officials announced they planned to bring 1,000 African journalists a year to China for such training.
The training focuses on what China describes as “constructive journalism,” which emphasizes putting a positive spin on news and siding with the government. This is a marked departure from traditional media ideals that emphasize objective reporting and holding the government to account on behalf of its citizens.
China’s growing influence over Africa’s media landscape is part of its “borrowed boat” philosophy, by which it uses African news outlets and African reporters to publish stories favorable to China, Dani Madrid-Morales, a professor at the University of Houston and expert in China’s media machinations in Africa, told ADF.
That strategy includes buying ownership stakes in African media companies, providing other media companies with expensive equipment, providing its own Xinhua news service for free to African media companies, and hiring African journalists to report for Chinese media companies such as CGTN.
While ownership and hiring practices have an immediate impact on China’s media footprint in Africa, experts say China’s training sessions are part of its long game to shift African new outlets away from traditional “watchdog” journalism and toward its own pro-government approach.
“In the spirit of the Beijing regime, journalists are not intended to be a counter-power but rather to serve the propaganda of states,” Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, wrote in the report, “China’s Pursuit of a New Media World Order.”
Madrid-Morales cites the example of a Burundian editor whose commentary on China went from highly critical to completely favorable after his media training visit.
“What China has been able to do is establish these relationships at the personal level,” Madrid-Morales said. “By creating these links at the personal level, China helps gate-keep what information goes out.”
Alpha Daffae Senkpeni, an editor at Liberia’s FrontPage Africa, spent six weeks working at China Daily.
“It was interesting seeing how their media works, but it was also difficult, because in Liberia democracy is real and journalists do what we like to do,” Senkpeni told CJR. “In China, the state controls what the media say, and there is not a space to express grievance with policies.”
Despite journalists’ efforts to resist China’s influence, its financial leverage over cash-strapped publications or governments can pressure them to self-censor on sensitive topics.
In 2020, Kenyan journalists told the BBC World Service that their reporting on the Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway provoked a warning from their editors that Chinese companies might stop buying advertisements in their newspapers as a result.
In Malawi, government authorities have pressured journalists to produce stories favorable to China, according to a report by Madrid-Morales.
China’s media visits and training programs emphasizing cooperation rather than confrontation with government authorities are part of the country’s deliberate messaging strategy in Africa, Kenyan journalist John-Allen Namu, CEO of Africa Uncensored, told a conference hosted by DW Akademie and Reporters Without Borders.
“China’s policy … makes its journalism much less free, less independent and much more pliable to the interests of an authoritarian state,” Namu said.