How China reset its image via foreign media during the pandemic
By Jesusemen Oni, Adrianna Zhang, Milan Nesic, Jonathan Muriithi
In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, China sought to block news of the rapidly spreading virus, detaining those who tried to speak out. But in the months that followed, as the pandemic ravaged families and economies around the world, Beijing sought to reset its public image through foreign media, according to a study released Wednesday by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). .
A survey of 54 journalists’ unions in 50 countries found an increase in the number of countries reporting a visible Chinese presence in their media, from 64% to 76% in one year. In countries where China has offered support and training to local media, a higher percentage said coverage of Beijing was more favorable, according to the IFJ report.
“The story of the coronavirus over the past 12 months has been used successfully by China to create a more positive image of China, in several countries,” Jeremy Dear, IFJ Deputy General Secretary, told VOA.
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Respondents were asked to rate China’s coverage since the start of the pandemic on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the most negative and 10 being the most positive. The survey found that the continent whose coverage of China saw the most positive change was Europe, with a score of 6.3, while North America experienced the most negative change, with a score of 3.5.
Beijing’s influence was viewed more positively in Africa, where half of those polled described it as beneficial, and all said China was a visible presence in their media.
Cher said China was “spending a lot more effort and resources trying to shape the media narrative,” including pressure from ambassadors and diplomats, media training offers or more lucrative employment contracts, and free content for press organizations in economic difficulty. A decline in advertising revenue during the pandemic further contributed to the contraction of newsrooms globally.
At the same time, Beijing has sought to limit foreign media inside China, denying journalists visas or expelling them. The measures came in response to the United States imposing visa caps on staff at five Chinese-run agencies, including the Xinhua News Agency, and the UK media regulator Ofcom (Office of Communications) removing the China Global Television Network (CGTN), declaring the license. the licensee did not have editorial responsibility for the content of the network. Ofcom regulates the television, radio and video-on-demand sectors, as well as fixed and mobile telecommunications.
Despite these “sometimes contradictory attempts by China to influence the global media,” Dear said, “all have their purpose, to try to support China’s growing economic and political power and… (tell) a story, very directed. centralized. “
China’s foreign ministry defended its media action at a May 11 briefing. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that as the world’s second largest economy and the largest developing country, “of course we should have, and we deserve, a place in the media landscape. international.”
“The United States has launched a disinformation attack on China under the pretext of media freedom,” Hua said, adding that China never targets other countries.
Hua noted that the United States “authorizes the allocation of $ 300 million for each fiscal year to” counter the malignant influence of the Chinese Communist Party in the world. ” Hua was referring to the proposal Strategic Competition Law of 2021, a Senate bill “aimed at resolving issues involving the People’s Republic of China.”
Media analysts, however, have pointed to differences between state-run media such as CGTN and government-funded but editorially independent media such as the BBC in the UK and Deutsche Welle in Germany. . VOA and its sister networks, including Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE / RL), are funded by the US Congress, but an editorial firewall protects them from political interference.
All countries, to some extent, “try to use soft power, which the media very often is, to improve their political and economic position in the world,” Dear said. “This is what China is doing and it is a reflection of its growing economic and political power.”
The pandemic has given Beijing the opportunity “to promote the socialist system and the leadership of the Communist Party as superior to the Western system of democracy, universal values and freedom,” Dan Garrett, a former intelligence analyst at the United Nations, told VOA. Pentagon. “You certainly have an aspect of Beijing’s current information campaign that is geared towards discrediting the Western media as biased, racist and anti-Chinese.”
In all but three of the countries included in the IFJ’s research, China has donated pandemic aid, medical supplies and personal protective equipment. The IFJ report found that often supplies described in local media as donations from Beijing were bought from China by governments.
In Serbia, the government has aligned itself with China since Beijing supported it during the Kosovo conflict in the late 1990s and the NATO bombardment of Serbian positions in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo.
At the start of the pandemic, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic traveled to Beijing saying: “You were not afraid of NATO bombs. My visit shows that we are not afraid of the virus, ”says the IFJ report.
China also provided supplies and most of the vaccines for Serbia. In April, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said Serbia had received around 2.5 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine produced in China and just under a million vaccines from all other manufacturers combined.
China’s influence and its support from Belgrade “definitely exists,” said Dinko Gruhonjic, editor-in-chief of Serbian media VOICE and program director of the Association of Independent Journalists in Vojvodina.
“This is just official propaganda, claiming that the European Union and the West have abandoned needy Serbia. And that the country would be doomed without the help of “Chinese brothers” who provided sanitary supplies, vaccines and other means of aid, “Gruhonjic told VOA.
“It was one of the dominant narratives in most pro-government media, including the billboards placed around Belgrade to support the alleged friendship between the Serbian and Chinese peoples,” Gruhonjic said.
Billboards appeared in Belgrade last year saying “Thank you, Brother Xi.” They were reportedly funded by a pro-government tabloid, according to RFE / RL.
The Serbian government owns or controls almost all of the country’s media, IFJ reported.
“The Serbian public accepts these stories and this propaganda. The majority consume state and pro-government media and are convinced that Serbia’s allies are from the east of the globe and the enemies are from the west, ”said Gruhonjic.
In addition to noting an increased Chinese presence in their media, more than 80% of those polled around the world voiced concerns about growing disinformation in the national media.
Garrett, of the non-governmental organization Securing Tianxia, said that China, Russia and others “are relying on the inability or lack of time of citizens and individual newspaper readers to scrutinize exhaustive media sources to get the full story from several different sources.
“I think this is a very difficult problem for your average media consumer,” he added.
The IFJ report revealed that Beijing’s influence was viewed more positively in Africa than on any other continent.
China has offered media content, training and resources to several African countries where local news outlets face economic difficulties.
“China has really invested in its media in Africa, and especially in Kenya, so that they can have their own media houses to tell Chinese stories,” Eric Oduor, secretary general of the Union of Chinese, told VOA. journalists from Kenya.
An earlier IFJ report found that in Kenya most of the biggest outlets have content sharing agreements, including the Kenya Broadcasting Cooperation, which has a state-of-the-art studio built with Chinese funds.
The state-run CGTN and Xinhua News Agency are headquartered in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, where they develop and share content with local media.
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“I don’t believe there are any expectations that journalists (are) supposed to live up to,” Oduor said. When officials are in Kenya, like during President Xi Jinping’s visit, “they try to lobby and work with journalists and also media officials so that they can have space for their own stories.”
For the IFJ, its findings underscore the importance of independent news and media education and help news managers understand the ethics of receiving free content from China.
“What we see here is a very central narrative, whether it’s the Belt and Road initiative, whether it’s the coronavirus, the Uyghurs, the South China Sea. All of these issues that are politically or economically important for China, ”said IFJ’s Mr. Dear. “This is why journalism is so important. … He doesn’t just accept what any government says. He is asking questions of this government. This allows other points of view to be obtained. “(VOA / Ko)