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February 26, 2018 | 12:07 PM
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23.07.2013China's Media Investment In Africa Shows Leadership And Raises Questions

Their leadership is a challenge to other countries to step up the game in soft power


The Berlin School Of Creative Leadership, Forbes.com

Note: This opinion post by a member of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership community of students and faculty does not represent the view of the school or everyone in the school.

By Paul Glader

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It’s a media paradox when countries with the deepest pockets to hire journalists and open new Radio and TV stations also don’t see press freedom as a virtue.

Yes. We are talking about China. And others.

But let’s suspend judgment for a moment and take a look at the leadership and strategy that China is exercising in media. Their leadership is a challenge to other countries to step up the game in soft power. It also brings a challenge to China of producing independent, quality journalism that people will respect.

Yu-Shan Wu has been tracking the rise of Chinese media companies in Africa as a researcher at the Global Powers and Africa Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg South Africa. She has compiled a telling list of 45 instances where Chinese media companies (link or attached) are expanding their presence in emerging markets such as Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia but also in media hubs such as New York and Washington DC.

A Kenyan in Nairobi can now get news from – in addition to the BBC and Al-Jazeera – China Radio International and the China Central Television, or CCTV. In 2012, CCTV built it first international broadcast hub in Nairobi. A Kenyan might also see articles from the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, showing up in their local newspaper (at no charge to the local newspaper).

Many countries try to expand their global reach and influence with think tanks and cultural organizations such as China’s Confucius Institute and Germany’s Goethe Institute. University exchanges function as a way to share points of view. But increased media investment from nation states is a newish development. More nations such as Brazil, Russia, Venezuela and others are also stepping up their media operations abroad.

Why are these countries, particularly China, getting more into the TV and radio business in foreign markets now?

  • Ms. Wu suggests the global context of the 2008 financial crisis is one reason. “While traditional players are cutting back on spending, emerging countries are able to spend and send journalists” abroad, she said during a panel discussion at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum in Bonn, Germany, in June.
  • A second reason is that Beijing was surprised by criticism it faced over its policy in Darfur, Africa, at the time it hosted the Olympics in 2008. This backlash caused it to start spreading media operations worldwide the next year. “They realized the public and world are more sympathetic to narratives that they know,” Ms. Wu said.
  • In Africa, in particular, China has worked on media engagement since the 1950s. But that presence is more important now as Chinese companies are scouring the continent for investments, partnerships and projects to extract oil, iron ore and other natural resources.

Session moderator Patrick Leusch, an executive with the DW Akademie in Bonn, notes that cable channels in much of the world used to be dominated by brands like CNN and the BBC. Now, however, CCTV from China and Al Jazeera from Qatar are fixtures on cable TV in hotel rooms around the world.

Ms. Wu says China realized it was being perceived as a “mystical player, a rogue donor.” Operating media is one way to communicate the country’s “point of view to the world.” She notes that CCTV and other Chinese media have poached dozens of leading African journalists from African outlets to report for CCTV, often sending the journalists back to China for training.

Deng Yanting, a researcher at the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in an opinion piece in the China Daily in February of 2012, writes that the Western countries worry about the decline of their traditional hegemony as China steps up industrial and media development in Africa. ‘’To make the rest of the world aware of China’s role in Africa, the Chinese mass media have to break the monopoly of their Western competitors in Africa and spread the facts, as well as the views, of the Chinese government and think tanks across the world,” he wrote.

From my viewpoint (that of an American journalist and journalism professor living in Europe), this trend has two sides. In one sense, it’s great to have more media infrastructure investment taking place in countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe in Africa. A wave of Chinese media poaching top talent from local stations means a doubling of the journalism jobs in the countries. More channels and foreign money also means perhaps more technical training, platforms for advertising and more possible ad revenue in the emerging media market. And, to some degree, one cannot fault China for trying to show its viewpoint to the world via the “soft power” of the media. In fact, the US, Germany, Russia and other countries have had media outlets that present a government perspective on the news for some time.

If anything, the US seems to be losing the war in soft power abroad, spending more money on militaristic actions rather than media, good journalism and cultural exchange. Perhaps US leaders believe Hollywood and private foundations like the Gates Foundation do a fine enough job to merit any additional governmental spending. Previous US efforts such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty had incredible impact but now seem to be quaint relics. Taxpayer-funded National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) are domestically-focused (non-players abroad). And, since its hay day during the first war in Iraq, CNN appears to have become a less relevant journalistic player both in the US (last in the rankings of 24-hour cable networks) and abroad.

Meanwhile, Fox News, MSNBC and Comedy Central are so busy carving up the right, left and youth audiences in the US that their owners don’t realize the government-sponsored CCTV from China and Russia Television (RT) from Russia are growing more ubiquitous globally. RT has hosts such as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and American malcontent Abby Martin hosting programs that Noam Chomsky would applaud for their criticism of American hegemony. To be honest, some (not all) of the production quality I see on RT and CCTV appears clean, crisp and more aesthetically pleasing than the garish colors and cartoonishly-loud sets on American cable TV. And one could argue that RT and CCTV are merely expanding ambitiously and globally on the slanted nature of FOX News and MSNBC.

The more concerning aspect of this trend, of course, involves independence and transparency. Say what you want to about corporate and government interests in US broadcast media, hosts like Martin and Assange would probably be off the air in a Moscow minute if they started championing the cause of the imprisoned female protest rock band Pussy Riot. Similarly, Chinese-owned media are censored. Expanding to markets where China has industrial holdings and ambitions, therefore, may not guarantee thorough reporting on business dealings, safety practices, environmental stewardship and other important issues related to these investments. Independent media, meanwhile, do report on these kinds of issues.

Good quality journalism should and will win out. That’s why government-spending on “soft-power” should aim for funding a press or broadcast that is committed to high ethical behavior and is as free, fair and independent as possible. It’s why the BBC and NPR are highly respected for their journalism. It’s not propaganda. They are free to (and do) criticize and report on the very governments that give them funding.

“The African governments themselves will fully exercise their positions regarding press freedoms,” said Mark Kaigwa, a media entrepreneur in Kenya, also speaking on the panel in Bonn. “The Chinese engagement won’t fully disrupt this.” He thinks that because of mobile phone penetration, radio and other forms of communication in Africa, press freedom should thrive in the future.

While that may be true, the trend demands creative leadership from officials, journalism and media organizations in Africa to make sure local media professionals are not kowtowing to their new corporate or government overlords, whether those masters are based in the US, Russia, China, Germany or elsewhere. Although more journalism of all types and stripes, not less, is better for societies, independent journalism is almost always more fair and truth-seeking than government-sponsored media.

As China aims to build a world-leading industrial economy, why not also aim to build a free, ethical and robust culture of media and journalism? Its pocket book is already in the game.


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