Is the African media capable of telling an African narrative amid the competing interests of the US and China?
By Dr Gregory Gondwe
Despite years of earnest research, a simple or definitive answer to the question of whether China’s presence in sub-Saharan Africa is aiding the constructive reporting of Africa still eludes scholars. The question has become more complex as the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration in the US embarks on resetting policies targeted towards Africa and China.
The Trump administration frustrated bilateral relations with most African countries, therefore, allowing China to extensively take strategic positions in Africa. For example, the Zambian government reached an extent of commissioning Chinese nationals into the police force (the decisions was rescinded after a public outcry). Further, the Chinese media conglomerate, StarTimes, funded the migration of the Zambian government media to a new digital TV signal. It now controls more than 60% of the joint venture and will collect all the advertising revenue for the next 25 years since 2017. Against this complex backdrop, African journalists are inevitably faced with difficulties in their practice. First, there is the problem of how to navigate and report the trilateral relationships of the US, China, and Africa. Second, there is a complexity around whom one should align with, since both the US and China exert great influence through financial support and journalism training offered to practising journalists. Third, there is the question of whether African journalists can tell their own narratives amid such influence.
Scholars argue that the conundrums facing the African media are not new (Umejei, 2020; Madrid-Morales & Wasserman, 2018). This is because the African media is defined within a larger framework of the British vs French media (Nothias, 2015) who, due to colonisation by their respective countries, have informed journalism training and how journalists ought to report the West vs Africa. The problem was exacerbated when the US, and especially Hollywood, began to depict African journalism narratives as inept and anachronistic. Essentially, African journalism was perceived as competent if it aligned its reporting with Western values and strategies. As a result, most scholarship has been characterised by statements such as “muffled drum” (Hatchen, 1971); “Watchdogs in chains” (Sturmer & Rioba, 2000); and “Corrupt journalists that are dependent on brown envelopes (Skjerdal, 2010). Overtly, dominant studies present the African media and its journalists as “incompetent and corrupt” (Asante, 1999) and therefore needing redemption with the help of foreign influence.
Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the feeble attempts made by other African scholars in their quest to advance the authenticity of African journalistic narratives. Particularly, the 1980 and 1990s witnessed a boom in scholarship and symposia for the importance of an African oriented journalism practice. For example, Traber (1989) called for due respect of the African cultural values rooted in truth, equality, social justice, and the supernatural principle. This chronicled a series of research including Kasoma’s (1996) Afri-ethics, which called for a collective approach to ethics as quintessential to African values. Further, other scholars were inspired to advance the ideas of ubuntu and communalism in the African media (i.e., Tomaselli, 2009; Moemeka, 1998).
African media scholarship and practice amid US and Chinese influence
The new and reformed era of US versus Western influence has led the efforts of African scholars to a nadir. The euphoria that accompanied the hope for an African media narrative has proven evanescent. And the so-called democratic postulate (the contention that the media are independent and committed to discovering the truth amid Chinese’s purported constructive reporting of Africa) is increasingly called into question.
First, there is a question of whether it is necessary that African journalists be vested with the US and Chinese policies for the purpose of reporting the trilateral relationship. Ironically, there is little or no emphasis on whether the US and Chinese journalists reporting for Africa are also mandated to understanding African policies and values. More worrisome is that African journalists are not even required to understand the policies of their own countries. As indicated in a statement made by the Communication University of China president, Hu Zhengrong, regarding training African journalists in China, “training foreign journalists in China allows them to experience the country’s full complexity, thus ensuring more objectivity and consideration when they portray China to their audience” (China Daily, 2016). This statement alludes to the fact that the main purpose is for African journalists to understand Chinese policies regardless of whether they understand their own policies. It is little wonder that most controversial journalists would ask questions about the Western contracts without asking the role that their governments play. In other words, how often do we see journalists asking their own governments to reveal the contracts signed?
Second, the African media should not gloss over the ethical underpinnings that often accompany the financial support received from either the US or China. Zambia is a textbook example of how financial support can turn into soft power. First, China owning more than 60% of the joint venture is unprecedented. As a government media, it is inevitable that there is a transfer of influence to the private, community, and even religious media. This is because the government media sets the agenda, and because of the lack of funds to report their own stories, most media in Zambia collect news from ZNBC and report it as their own. Currently, the news in the Zambian media is peppered with stories about China (Gondwe, 2021). Even children’s programmes carry with them some symbols of Chinese culture, like dragons, which are very foreign to Africa. The biggest question is, how will the Zambian media look in the next 10 years amid such an influence? A hydrid, as Umejei (2020) suggests? The prospects are not promising.
Third, there are questions around how an African narrative should look. Overtly, the call for an African narrative is still unfounded. This is particularly true in a case where most African journalists still grapple with defining their values within the larger framework of Western and now Chinese journalism training. Because of financial dependency, Africa has not yet defined its journalism curriculum. As a result, local journalists are trained not to tell their local narratives, but the narrative of their sponsors. To tell an African journalistic narrative amid the trilateral relationship, the African media should home in on at least appreciation of African epistemologies and emphasise African journalistic training outside Western influence, focusing on issues-based reporting strategies. To achieve these objectives, the African media should begin by reinforcing the importance of African values. This does not mean deifying African values, as Tomaselli (2003) suggests, but appreciating them and understanding that they have the potential to improve journalistic practice in Africa. Local African journalists should be trained to value African epistemologies and culture. There is a tendency among journalists to devalue African epistemologies and culture in their reporting. Most journalists tend to value information emerging from foreign cultures even when it has less relevance for the local people.
For Wasserman (2010), the above statements imply that what most local people consider as important should characterise the news as opposed to the stories that simply focus on government leaders and other public figures. Djokotoe (2004) calls this, “issue-based” journalism, which is opposed to the kind of journalism that is characterised by big names and character assassination, thus lacking in-depth content.
Overarchingly, the media and its journalists should always endeavour to ask the question of how they are empowering the local people through their narratives. It is then that the media, regardless of whether it is Western, African or Chinese, can claim that it is constructively telling an African story.
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