14 December 2012

Africa: China Daily Launches Africa Edition

China's media presence in Africa steps up a gear, with the launch of a state-run newspaper focused on Sino-African relations.

To date, the story of China's growing presence in Africa has been mostly narrated by Western media, African newspapers, and a universe of blogs, websites and social media outlets. Often, it is framed in the context of land-grabbing, resource-snatching, neocolonialism, and invasion

So what impact will today's announcement - that state-run China Daily is launching a weekly Africa edition - make to all that? "The relationship between China and the African continent is one of the most significant relationships in the world today. It is growing and complex and not always understood - not just by those in other parts of the world but Africans and Chinese, too," said Zhu Ling, China Daily's publisher and editor-in-chief, of the launch.

China's media presence in Africa has been growing for some time. Kenya's national papers carry copy from the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, which last year entered a partnership with The Daily Nation, Kenya's main paper. Chinese broadcasting outfit CCTV is already present, as is China Radio International.

This media footprint gives the political elite a seat in the debate. They know the narrative matters, because China's presence in Africa is spreading well beyond extractive projects, with entrepreneurs trying their hand at everything from chicken farming and street trading to digital education.

Tensions are, however, rising over issues from illegal mining to the undercutting of local textiles businesses. Relationship management might be in order, as Chinese elites try to smooth the road for their businesses and entrepreneurs venturing abroad. They have already used China Daily to tell their side of the story - one of solidarity and co-operation. A weekly edition gives them a regular presence on street corners. What to expect from its pages?

While China Daily does not entirely avoid critical engagement with state policy, it tends to report on the topic within very narrow bounds. Don't hold your breath for much in the way of speaking truth to power. China ranks sixth from bottom in the Freedom of Information index 2011-2012, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Iran, Syria and Turkmenistan. At home, media carrying scandalous stories are shut down by the country's enormous online security team. In October, China's state agencies interrupted sites from the New York Times and the BBC after the NYT's report on the family wealth of Premier Wen Jiabao. The Ethiopian government is reported to have taken $1.5bn in Chinese loans for training and technology to help its own efforts to block websites, according to the New York Times.

China Daily's backers might retort that the current China-Africa narrative, beset by hyperbole and inaccuracy, hardly shows journalism at its best. And they would be right. Talk of 'floods' of Chinese migrant labourers, for instance, might apply to Algeria, but not Ethiopia, where nationals are well represented in the payroll of Chinese firms. China's government has done business both with sanctioned states like Sudan, as well as stable and democratic ones like Mauritius and Ghana. Talk of China's building 'hundreds' of dams in Africa have little firm evidence to back them up as yet.

One thing is clear: China Daily's launch mirrors the broader story it will report on. With Western media struggling against falling revenues, their international news coverage is failing to keep pace. African newspapers are operating on a shoestring, and many journalists in the likes of Sudan, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea face hostility from their governments. A deep-pocketed new Chinese outfit, working under the umbrella of the Chinese government, will likely have an easier life.

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