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Policy Brief: African perspectives on Africa-China journalism

In this brief, Bob Wekesa trawls rapidly expanding academic literature on Africa-China media and communications engagements to offer perspectives on points of convergence and divergence in the reporting.

African, Chinese and global media are important avenues through which we peek into the exponential Africa-China engagements. It is therefore important to understand the work of journalists and how they shape and are shaped by the Africa-China story.

Many perceptions about China formed by African journalists come from myths, stereotypes and prejudices that spread globally about the China and the Chinese. Among others, one such rumour – which has been found to be untrue – spread by journalistic means, is that China sends convicted prisoners to work on African infrastructure projects.

China is seen as a distant and remote place incomprehensible for journalists, let alone the general populace. There is a level of disinterest in “softer” Chinese themes such as culture, tourism, sports and history by African journalists. Misreading and prejudices by African journalists often make their way into content because of the location of journalists within their countries’ cultures which though they similarities inherent in the communitarian cultural values such as Ubuntu and Confucianism, are nonetheless different from Chinese culture. The exception is when African journalists report on culture first-hand from China with such reporting often turning positive for China’s image. Africans journalists reporting from China, often on all-expenses-paid sponsored by Chinese organizations, seem to “see the light” and undergo a change of attitude towards China.

In contrast to lower levels of interest in matters cultural, “bread and butter” economic tropes dominate African journalists’ coverage of China. As rule of thumb, the surfeit of optimistic coverage by African journalists is on Chinese projects considered to be contributing positively to African countries’ economies. Often, this is based on the journalists’ firsthand experience of the projects. This is not to say that there is no negative journalistic reporting on Africa-China economic issues. China Inc. has suffered negative reporting in a number of economic events and issues across the continent. The point of departure is that there is more positive reporting on matters economic across the continent on matters economic than there is negative reporting.

Media outlets such as newspapers and magazines focused on elite business and finance-inclined audiences are more nuanced than general media. From a financial data perspective, tracking of Chinese economic interests in Africa proves difficult for journalists because of low levels of press freedom a problem multiplied by the dearth of journalists with investigative data journalism expertise as well as dwindling investigative budgets in newsrooms.

While journalists’ disinterest is discernible with regards to culture as economic ties are generally welcomed, skepticism is expressed with regards to Africa-China political ties. The worry is that African countries could start emulating the communist-socialist Chinese political system. Some of the pessimistic political reporting is thanks to African journalists relying on opposition figures opposed to African states’ links with China.

A good number of African journalists have joined Chinese media operating in Africa – CCTV Africa (China Global Television Network), Xinhua News Agency, China Daily African edition, China Radio International, China Africa magazine, People’s Daily and StarTimes. Feelings are often split about African journalists who joined Chinese media. On the one hand there is a feeling of betrayal based on the perception that Chinese media are not free and independent. On the other hand, some journalists welcome the competition that the Chinese media presence brings. Often African journalists working for Chinese media see their association as an employment opportunity and lay aside issues of professional principles.

The arrival of Chinese media in Africa as well as other “soft power” projects directed at African media triggers questions around the potential cultural influence of China on African journalists. For instance, animated debate has been touched off as to whether African journalists should emulate the positive reporting genre of Chinese media or follow the Western, critical journalistic approach that values speaking truth to power. Some have argued that African journalism is, well, “African journalism” and not Chinese or Western journalism.

There is fear that journalistic freedoms in many African countries are still tenuous and the borrowing of a Chinese journalism culture could contaminate the “free” journalism regimes on the continent. This is attributed to normative professional journalism values of “objectivity” and “balance”. Indeed, there is a feeling that in some African countries, the journalism culture and tradition is not only strong enough to fend off Chinese journalism influences but attempts at introduction of Chinese journalism ethos could increase vigilance over independent journalism.

Granted, Western journalism still has a huge sway on journalistic practice in a large swathe of the continent. However, consider the fact that, while Western wire services are mostly negative about China in Africa, reporting by African news agencies as well as in-house African media journalists tends to be more positive than negative. These and a plethora of other aspects convince us that there is such thing as African journalism in the Africa-China engagements.

The writer is a post-doctoral fellow at Wits University and Research Associate at the Wits Africa-China Reporting Project (job.wekesa@wits.ac.za).

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