Reporting on Africa, the US and China: The challenge for African journalists to evaluate the trilateral relationship in the face of bilateral big power competition
By Amukelani Matsilele
Relations between the US and China are slipping into a state of geopolitical and economic polarity, which is simultaneously complicating their dealings with African countries at a time when Africa is seeking to assert its agency in confronting the Covid-19 pandemic. This amid growing terrorism, pervasive conflicts, and its long term socio-economic structural and political challenges.
While Africa would benefit from cultivating good relations with the two biggest economies and global powers in the world, journalists face serious challenges in objectively unpacking the overlapping conflictual and competing interests and policies from both countries in dealing with Africa. African agency and voices are muted amid the combined lack of capacity to unpack the issues as well as packaged biases aligned with the diplomatic and foreign objectives and agendas of the two big powers. African countries are having to choose between the US and China, which sometimes undermines their own national interests. Although African journalists could objectively report and provide information and awareness that could buttress African policy choices, the complex relations on a widening range of issues have made it more difficult.
Relations between Africa, China, and the US constitute a complex, contradictory web of intricate engagements and issues that require high-level reporting skills and strategies, as well as a good understanding of the many contentious issues to allow critical Afrocentric, objective reporting and analysis of news and current affairs. However, the polarised relations between the US and China filter down into African governments, think tanks and the academic, international and national electronic, broadcasting, print and social media, deeply dividing opinion among journalists and opinion makers while in other cases triggering emotive, unbalanced and barely researched reporting. This in turn feeds into and further sustains the geopolitical and ideological divide between the US and China, and their competition for influence in Africa.
For many reasons, African media has not done much to change the flow of news into more favourable Afrocentric objective reportage that reinforces continental and national interests. National media in many African countries tend to be owned by the government, instead of the public. While in some cases the national media is owned by the public, operationally it is controlled and propagates the agenda and interests of the government of the day, turning such media and its stable of journalists into government mouthpieces and propagating partisan propaganda.
The polarity of public and private media in many African countries has also reduced the ability of media practitioners in Africa to objectively engage in complex matters of public interest given their implications for economic growth and development in many African countries. Where the government-owned or public media has cultivated closer relations with the administrations of the day, and with China, through closer media relations and media convergence, the private media has taken a critical view, more of a watchdog posture to criticise such governments and Chinese relations.
The national private media in many African countries tend to have closer relations with Western media institutions, hence their ability to report objectively is constrained. In the manner of global Western media, the private media tend to be very critical of Chinese interests in Africa, parroting Western global media views about Chinese-Africa relations without scrutinising Western policies in Africa. Given that much of the global media flows originate from the West, and recently, also the East, the African agency and voices are under-represented and muted, hence global media frames and news are basically perpetuated as fact. There is little coverage and outflow of information from African public or private media in Africa which filters into global media either in the global West or the East. Africa No Filter has evidenced how 80% of news and current African affairs comes from either CNN or CGTN, which is then picked up by African media. The news accessed by African media houses ends up not benefitting African audiences as the US or China prefer to drive their own agendas and promote their interests and not that of Africans. There is an under-representation of African media practitioners in major global media houses, and their agency is filtered through technocratic gatekeepers by non-African senior media practitioners who set the agenda and determine the news and current affairs framing, including which issues are broadcast and how they are mediated.
Public media in many African countries are state-owned and produce mainly state propaganda, for example the ZBC, the Herald and the Sunday Mail in Zimbabwe. In China, all forms of media are tightly owned and controlled by the government and play an important foreign policy role to propagate and defend Chinese interests abroad. The Chinese government’s control of and influence over its dense and extensive domestic and international media is similar to that of African state-owned media houses.
China has embarked on these initiatives to strengthen its political power as a rival to the US. China has moved to forge closer relations with media houses in Africa, stitching collaborations with both private and public media through which the Chinese government promotes its domestic and international agenda. An example is how the Chinese government fosters perspectives about the country through highly sophisticated CCTV and CGTN initiatives, an African edition of the China Daily, and the China-Africa press exchange programme, which recruits about 1000 journalists annually from Africa for journalism training in China. However, the exchange seems to be one-sided, as journalists from China do not seem to visit Africa.
While the media convergence at policy, technology, and business level between China and Africa could have mutual benefits, there is a high risk of the African agenda being subordinated, and the creation of media pockets oppositional to US policy within Africa, without necessarily serving the national and public interest in Africa. China employs a state-funded, highly regulated media strategy based on massively funded television, radio, and online social media disseminating news and current affairs programmes from China and within Africa. The US has tapped into global Western media, propagating its foreign policy goals through such powerful media houses as CNN. On the other hand, the nature of US relations with Africa is that the US is always eager to challenge Africa’s Chinese developmental project. An example is how the US counters China’s debt-led development project. In terms of approach, many domestic private media houses in Africa have adopted a kind of media freedom framework usually associated with the West, more critical to their governments.
Domestic private media in Africa takes its cue from US private media, which is rooted in the view that the government has business in the media or information dissemination, and therefore, should create a conducive environment for a flourishing free market of ideas. However, in some cases, this has also created a problem of rapidly oppositional media whose role endangers or compromises political and governmental stability while promoting interests and agendas viewed as hostile by African governments. African journalists tend to be stuck in the polarised public-private media divide in terms of their work ethics, professional expectations, and to an extent, their aspirations.
Both China and the US are very competitive when it comes to Africa and they rarely cooperate, even when it comes to sensitive and critical political matters. China presents a crucial challenge to the US as both have interests in economic, political, military, and technological developments in Africa. Most of these issues are inherent in a power contest between the US and China. Quite often, in institutions like the United Nations, China will support certain African countries while the US will ally with European countries, and there will be a conflict. Given the geopolitical context of Africa, China, and the US, we can infer that when it comes to the global stage and the role that African media should play, it has to be an objective and informative role in interrogating the trilateral relations between the continent and the two countries.
There is room and possibility that African journalists can be critical of the relations between the US and China and how separately the US relates to Africa and how China relates to Africa. We need to have an African media common interest to deal with various matters by creating our own African media institutions to guide news flow. African journalists need to look at the value that Africa will get from the attention given to growth initiatives. They need to engage more in meaningful debates surrounding the trilateral relationship in terms of the economic, security, and critical issues that Africa is facing, by examining and evaluating developmental projects happening in Africa. African journalists should protect the interests of the continent as well as the separate nations, and be willing to oppose where state activities contravene these.
A good starting point is looking at the Belt and Road Initiative, which focuses on Africa’s Chinese developmental strategy. The Chinese government is using it in a bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future.
The Agenda 2063 blueprint is a good starting point for inquiring how Africa can be turned into an inclusive and sustainable development project with the help of both China and the US. The aim is to focus on projects that will reposition Africa to become a dominant player. There is a need to identify essential flagship programmes that can boost Africa’s economic growth and make sure the public knows about them. There is also a need to look at the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) to see if it serves Africa’s interests.
In conclusion, the trilateral flow of news and information is dominated by the two competing powers, the US and China. In spite of their growing interests in Africa, and the prospective opportunities, the agency, voices and interests of the African countries are generally muted, and buried in the polarised coverage and reporting of US and China’s competing relations and interests in Africa. The role of the media to critical interrogate US and China relations with Africa in ways that situate Africa at the centre of such relations, remains a major challenge for African journalists.