What Kenya tells us about the influence of Chinese media in Africa

Chinese companies and investments are becoming increasingly relevant in Africa’s media sector. This trend is consistent with Beijing’s broader strategy for enhancing its soft power in the African continent

For the purpose of investigating the Chinese growing influence in Africa’s media sector, Kenya represents the perfect place. The country is today a crucial partner for China in Africa and one of the most vibrant media industries on the continent. The involvement of Chinese state media in Kenya began in 2004 when Xinhua, China’s news agency, decided to establish its African bureau headquarters in Nairobi. In 2006, it was the time for China Radio International (CRI) and for China Global Television Network (CGTN), China’s most important state-run television, which also settled down in Nairobi. Today, the presence of China in the continent is multi-platform: the China Daily is printed in Kenya and then distributed as an insert by local newspapers; on the radio, there is a partnership between the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and China Radio International to share studios and programs; concerning the television, CGTN is a major player and has steadily improved its reach across Africa.

The increasing engagement of Chinese media in the Kenyan landscape testifies how this sector is considered crucial for improving mutual understanding and friendship between the two countries. But does this partnership involve more positive or negative aspects for Kenya?

Positive and negative consequences for Kenya

On one hand, due to huge resources, equipment and facilities and high-level technical expertise at its disposal, the Chinese media might be an important contribution for improving the quality of Kenyan media, for instance by delivering timely coverage of events occurring in real time. This represents an important opportunity for the Kenyan people, not only for the public but also in terms of job opportunities and training for local journalists. According to the International Federation of Journalists, the CGTN is today a relevant source of employment for local journalists, who can enjoy salaries that are two to three times higher than those provided by local media companies. In addition, an increasing number of Kenyan journalists visit China every year as a result of different sponsored training programs.

Besides representing an opportunity in terms of work, the most relevant aspect lies in the fact that the Chinese media provide local people with an alternative to the western news agenda, helping the country to diversify its information sources and balance the western narrative about the continent and China's profile. Western media have often been accused by the public of depicting Africa through a negative narrative, detrimental for the reputation of the continent, which focuses overwhelmingly on conflicts, crisis, poverty and poor governance. Differently, The Chinese media approach is shifted towards building a more positive narrative about Africa, which emphasizes the continent's rise and development. This narrative is well appreciated by the Kenyan public and students who consider the content of Chinese media a more positive portrait of Africa to the world.

On the other hand, despite the positive aspects, the alternative and persuasive Chinese approach to news coverage raises more than one concern. This is because its version of journalism might be incompatible with the notion of “watchdog journalism”, the model where the media are in charge of keeping the power accountable. It is well known that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) exercises a strict control over Chinese media; consequently, media are shaped by the party propaganda and built for supporting the action of the government. The risk is that the Chinese influence might make Kenya’s media less vigilant and, for instance, less critical of the government action. So, the huge state influence and control experienced by Chinese media might represent a threat to the freedom and independence of media in Kenya, pushing them to support the political stability of the country rather than its democratic structure.

In addition, there is another additional risk related to the strict ties between the Chinese government and media that deserve some attention: China might gain influence over the perception of Kenyan people using its media as a soft power tool to achieve its geopolitical objectives. The result could be to shape the opinion of the public on very delicate issues that are sensible for Beijing's interests, such as the Taiwan issue.

The presence of Chinese media in Kenya represents an ambivalent scenario. On one side, they contribute to the diversification of news sources in the country, allowing Kenyan people to have access to a different narrative about their country and also about China, which is very often portrayed by western media through a sinophobic lens due to the shared western anxiety towards China’s rise. On the other side, there is the risk that an increased presence of Chinese media might promote a biased narrative about certain issues due to the strict control of the CCP over media. This dynamic becomes even more relevant considering that Kenya is just one of the many countries of Africa where Chinese media are acquiring a growing share of the media sector.

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