African agency crucial in China-Africa media coverage

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On 10 November 2016 Wits’ Africa-China Reporting Project hosted the Africa-China Journalists Forum at which the project’s new branding was launched. Among the prominent themes that featured were the critique of the good-bad binary which has dominated coverage on China-Africa, the need for African agency to emerge in international media, and the expansion of target audiences of China-Africa coverage beyond the elites to include civil society.

Dr Bob Wekesa commenced the forum by addressing the current tensions between the USA and China related to the developing China-Africa relationship. The west has been very critical of the relationship, perceiving China as harmful. Therefore China has launched a type of offensive against the West, in which they are pushing anti-West agency. “If there is an information war between China and USA, Africa is the battleground”, Wekesa said, noting that “the West will try to win at all costs.” Ultimately China’s soft power efforts aim to persuade Africa to forget the West, as a clear western hegemony still exists. China questions how Africa has
thus far benefited from the West’s involvement on the continent.wp_20161110_15_07_30_pro

Regarding journalistic values and practice, Wekesa maintains that there are two opposing poles – critical or watchdog journalism from the West, and positive or constructive journalism from the East – and Africa is wedged right in the middle of these two poles. According to Wekesa this means Africa “has the best type of journalism.” Though currently most African journalists have been trained according to the Western style of journalism.

Gerard Guedegbe, a journalist from Benin, expressed grave concern over the concept of constructive journalism, as he firmly believes the key function of journalists is to be watchdogs. He added to this concern that journalists were under pressure, and didn’t know much about China-Africa in West Africa: “They don’t know what FOCAC is.” He attributes this partly to the fact that many journalists in Africa don’t have a journalistic educational background. “If you can write, someone will hire you, but with no contract and low salaries,” to which he added: “Training and mentoring is very important.”

Critical perspectives on China-Africa media coverage

Regarding African perspectives on China-Africa engagements, Batswana journalist Baboki Kayawe found that mainstream media is overly critical of the China-Africa relationship, frequently implying neo-colonialism. Since African reporting focuses mostly on economic partnerships, she believes that African mainstream media’s target audience is the elite, which results in most issues being covered with a diplomatic undertone. She argued that China and western countries were portrayed in the “big brother role” in which Africa is only seen as the passive recipient. Additionally, regarding natural resources and wildlife, China is generally portrayed as greedy, while the poor Africans have nothing left. Her solution to the problem of good-bad binary coverage of China-Africa is to strive for balance, to include low socio-economic groups, and also to make space for investigative journalism.

Richard Poplak, referring to Trump’s election as the president of United States, encouraged communication workers to “reflect on the journalistic project, that is in crisis,” Poplak said, adding that “yesterday was the death of the liberal press in the USA.” Poplak and Kevin Bloom’s latest book found that China played a huge role in Africa’s growth, and according to Poplak, China and Africa is a prime example of concurrent growth, though not necessarily concurrent development. He urged the audience to take these linkages seriously, and for media coverage to evolve accordingly. “These narratives are stuck in China colonial and bad, and Africa sad and broke,” he said. “The Western perspective always defines the African condition.” South African media is also to blame, as Poplak claimed that parochialism in SA media has deepened, and our interest in China has shrunk. According to Poplak the China-Africa engagement has become more complex since 2013, and the journalistic practice of perceptions adds to current insufficient coverage of China-Africa.

Kevin Bloom stated, hopeful, that in every crisis there is an opportunity. He highlighted China’s importance in South Africa by pointing to the strong statement China made by building its embassy in Pretoria, an almost-replica of the Forbidden Palace, just down the road from the USA embassy. He claimed that while China had a coordinated on-the-ground strategy in Africa, the Americans didn’t know what was going on. “Africa has to tell its own story,” Bloom said, especially as audiences are turning less and less to west for reflection.” He also advocated African agency, similar to how the Batswana government kicked out SinoHydro in 2013 because their infrastructure projects were late and subpar. He believes that this changed the African narrative, saying that “you can’t do this to us.”

Cobus v Staden argued that we’ve seen some progress in China-Africa coverage – less of the ‘what, China-Africa?”, but Africa still falls short of receiving nuanced coverage in this relationship. China remains flattened into good or bad, while the complexity of Africa is underestimated. The Africa-gap occurs in three ways: First through erasure – Africa is seen simply as a “lack of”, less of a place but more of a set of problems to be solved, and decontextualized as if it is essentially a blank slate. Second, through ventriloquism – where even though African voices are included, they are meant only to speak for certain opinions, aimed to fill an external narrative, which indicates that these articles play into the construct of whiteness.

According to Van Staden, Africans are frequently seen as merely blurred outlines – either the conservationists or the poachers, mouthing opinions of NGOs. Third, African leaders are meant to stand in for Africa as a whole, leading to the conflation of leaders and publics. Such portrayals of African leaders as voices for the people, erase the tension and complexities that exist between these two groups. Van Staden advised journalists to make greater use of social media to engage African publics, to report on NGOs rather than via NGOs, to facilitate deep collaboration with academics, and most importantly to spend time on the ground in Africa. Journalists should “report from the basis of similarity between Africa and elsewhere, rather than fetishizing Africa’s difference,” he said.

James Wan focused on humanising the China-Africa relationship, particularly in regard to Chinese migrants in Africa. He encouraged the use of collaborations with teams, coming from different perspectives and advantages or disadvantages. “Migrants will inevitably affect that place, making the stories worth telling,” and Wan pointed out that we don’t know how many Chinese migrants there are in Africa. He added that coverage of Chinese migrants is difficult because it takes time to build trust, and there are language barriers to overcome. Additionally, Wan believes that journalists don’t have to subsume every story into the bigger Africa-China narrative.

Nuanced coverage is limited because these stories are enormously expensive and South African media lacks the resources for in-depth coverage. According to Bloom, investigative journalism would never be funded again by the traditional advertising model, and as such this type of journalism has increasingly been funded by non-profits such as Crisis Watch and Global Witness. Van Staden addressed the issue of distribution, stating that we should develop African markets, as currently media focus on foreign audiences and therefore erase the African voice. Because storytelling and consumption are linked, Van Staden urged the audience to think innovatively about distribution and promotion models.

A view from the ground: Journalists in Africa speak

Shi Yi has tried to write more humanising stories on Chinese poachers through her coverage on wildlife crime in Africa. She shared the story of Gao, who worked closely with locals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to export Rosewood to China. While these workers were earning twice as much as before when they sold charcoal, they were unaware of the sustainability impact of cutting down these trees. According to Shi, the workers’ perspectives were different from that of the NGOs in the area that completely denounced logging. She encouraged responsibility from Chinese businesspeople to provide education to the locals about environmental management.

John Grobler, a freelance journalist from Namibia, equated the current situation of Chinese migrants in Africa, with that of the historical move of the Italian and Irish immigrants to America, during which these groups did what they needed to sustain themselves. Grobler focuses on rhino poaching in Namibia, which has been less of a conservation success story than the media had claimed. He’d found proof that the trade of ivory was far more widespread than previously believed – with involvement from Chinese syndicates and local businessmen. Such businessmen used a familiar strategy of operating unsuccessful businesses, and to solve their financial problems would commission a hit on a rhino. Importantly, Grobler noted that poaching in Africa is an age old phenomenon, and only the players seem to change.

According to Phillip de Wet of the Mail & Guardian, South Africans’ number one reason for suspicion of China is the apparent Chinese exploitation of natural resources in Africa that “we hold dear.” “Particularly as we are pummelled by poaching stories in the media,” he said. He claims that South Africa is so suspicious of China because of perception coverage vs reality. “We’ve done research, our readers are naturally suspicious when we don’t report negatively on China,” he said. Politicians have pushed the agenda of the “big red menace”, both in America, and South Africa. According to De Wet, South Africa is a bit of a neo-colonial power in itself, “yet we are terrified of China’s neo-colonialism.” South Africans are suspicious of soft power, because, according to De Wet, we’ve experienced our own issues of the use of language and propaganda for oppression. China’s launch of Confucius Institutes therefore often leads to instinctive revulsion, as South Africans don’t trust authoritarian regimes.

Former BBC journalist Vivien Marsh is currently doing her PhD, focusing on African news programmes on CCTV Africa, and BBC World News TV. Thus far she has found that both BBC and CCTV Africa ignores the African view, portraying China as “responsible for”, while Africa is simply the passive receiver. Both BBC and CCTV focuses on China as the main actor, and the stories are conducted from China’s perspective. CCTV’s coverage focuses more on the official processions, with interviews of CEOs, and generally a large number of stories of men in suits, for example during Xi Jinping’s visit to Africa. African individuals rarely get the soundbyte, and the stories do not necessarily contain grassroots coverage.

Quartz Kenya’s Lily Kuo, aims to counter that approach in her reporting. “There’s a real intolerance for one-dimensional or simplistic narratives on Africa, and on China.” She noted that media outlets have recognised the importance of African readers, thus incorporating a bigger diversity in voices. “We try to incorporate voices, and our organisation is diverse in itself,” she added. Quartz Africa launched in 2015, and tries to include African agency in their stories, and generally gives their reporters a longer amount of time to focus on certain topics. In essence, Kuo noted that readers do care about the China-Africa relationship and they reward originality, depth and nuanced reporting.

China-Africa Reporting Project’s roundtable, made the call for nuanced and complete reporting very clear. Acknowledging the lack of resources and training some African journalists experience, it was echoed throughout the conference that African agency need to have more prominence in the coverage of the China-Africa relationship.