Nigeria is ‘vulnerable’ to Chinese media influence, say experts

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Tuesday, 11 October 2022 17:30, updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2022 12:26

People stand next to a newspaper stand after Nigeria government announced the lifting of Twitter ban, in Abuja, Nigeria January 13, 2022. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

The latest report from Freedom House on Beijing’s 'Global Media Influence' paints a dark picture of freedom of the press, of how underhanded deals, censorship and propaganda are engulfing local media in countries susceptible to weak journalist protections.

Chinese investment is evident in many countries on the continent. In Madagascar, for example, walls with numerous satellites are marked with crudely painted flags advertising that network access is, ‘sponsored by the Republic of China’.

In Nigeria, China has invested heavily in infrastructure and large-scale construction projects, ​​including railway and road projects as well as the rehabilitation of the main four airports in Abuja, Lagos, Kano and Port Harcourt.

For the past decade, China has amped up its diplomatic, military, and economic influence on the continent under the guise of what it calls “independent foreign policy”.

Between 2001 and 2018, China loaned approximately $126bn to African countries, with investment on the increase and an estimated one million Chinese people moving to work in Africa in the past decade as economic ties between the two countries deepened.

In the first six months of 2022, ​​trade between China and Africa reached a value of $137.4bn, which is a 16.6% increase from last year.

In recent years, the availability of Chinese mobile technology and features like WeChat and digital television services has expanded access to information and communication for millions of people, particularly in the Global South.

Growing level of influence

The level of influence is only growing, says Emeka Umejei, one of the writers in the report, which labels the situation in Nigeria as “vulnerable”.

“When people do not have a certain level of skill, this can be used to violate people’s freedom and freedom of movement,” Umejei says.

Attitudes towards the media in Nigeria are hostile, with frequent harassment and arrests of journalists compounded by stringent defamation laws. Although attacks on journalists have decreased in recent years, local news sources still report increased acts of violence on the media from state actors.

If China can control over 1.3 billion people on social media, I see no reason why Nigeria cannot attempt [to] control[…] only 180 million people

In June 2021, Nigeria banned Twitter after a post by President Buhari threatening punishment for attacks on government buildings was deleted by the social media platform. At the time, Buhari’s wife Aisha even publicly said: “If China can control over 1.3 billion people on social media, I see no reason why Nigeria cannot attempt [to] control[…] only 180 million people”.

Freedom House believes this air of hostility facilitates “surveillance and censorship” on the continent, mirroring the Chinese government’s trajectory towards an increasingly limited human rights era in Nigeria.

‘Uneven playing field’

A report published by USAID in May on China’s “influence on democratic norms and values”, speaks to this “uneven playing field” between the global power and African nations. The report states that China is “strategically influencing African media in an effort to build soft power and challenge Western influence in the media”.

One of the easiest ways the People’s Republic of China does this is by offering content “free or at a low cost” as well as providing entertainment and news to many across the continent who cannot afford paid channels.

Beijing also offers journalism training as part of its China-Africa media cooperation network through the China-Africa Press Exchange Centre program (no site available, but mentioned here), which has been described as the most widely reported form of Chinese outreach.

An op-ed in China Daily in July by Dennis Munene, the executive director of the China-Africa Centre at the Africa Policy Institute, says “the greatest existential threat to China-Africa cooperation is the weaponisation of post-truth narratives packaged as fake news, misinformation or propaganda”.

Outlets whose editors or publishers have a relationship with the Chinese embassy tend to censor reporters when they produce unfavourable articles

“The program[me] aims to train and build capacity for African countries’ news officials and reporters, promote more exchanges and mutual visits between Chinese and African journalists and press professionals, train 1,000 African media professionals each year, and support exchanges of reporters by more media organisations,” he said.

Angeli Datt, a senior research analyst for Freedom House, believes this training scheme is a worrying sign. She says: “The examples that stood out in Nigeria related really to the adoption of CCP governance norms, so you had Nigerian government officials talking openly of wanting the Chinese state media to train Nigerian journalists in sort of the CCP model of journalism, which really de-emphasises independence and holding powerful people accountable.”

The Freedom House report also accuses some Nigerian media of corruption, stating that “outlets whose editors or publishers have a relationship with the Chinese embassy tend to censor reporters when they produce unfavourable articles”.

Cold and determined

Journalists in Nigeria say China’s attitude towards the media in the country is decidedly cold. Eniola Akinkuotu, a Nigerian journalist with The Africa Report, says: “They’re not particularly press-friendly. [Chinese media] usually work with consultants between themselves and [the] government.”

In 2012, The Guardian charted the launch of China-Daily’s Africa edition, covering countries like Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Ghana. At the time, a source told the newspaper: “The aim is to promote China’s interests in Africa, particularly mineral exploitation and easy immigration policies, and to counter what is seen in some countries as a negative reputation.”

“China sees Africa as the ultimate source of the minerals it needs for economic growth,” the newspaper said.

Chinese television, powered by StarTimes Ltd and sponsored by the Chinese government, now broadcasts in 25 countries on the continent, free of charge.

Initially, Gao Anming, China Daily‘s deputy chief editor said he expected the paper to sell 10,000 copies on the continent. However, exact figures on any of the major Chinese-African papers, including the China Global Television Network (previously CCTV) are elusive, meaning determining their reach, and therefore the influence is difficult to pinpoint.

Akinkuotu believes this is intentional. “You will never find it,” he says. “Sales are down and they don’t want advertisers to know. I can tell you though no paper sells more than 40,000 copies a day nationwide.”

Umejei says: “They’re not looking for advertisers. They don’t even think about advertising, because it’s made to promote state propaganda. I also think they don’t want influences from external people, so that’s why they’re not taking advertising.”

CGTN was launched the same year as China Daily, with both papers funded and run by the state’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP), marking 10 years of a targeted campaign to spread their message to Africa.

New agreements

“[CGTN is] basically the same propaganda, promoting Chinese messaging platforms,” says Umejei, “Recently, the model has changed […] It used to stipulate that the Chinese will not have partnership agreements with local organisations. Now, ​​you have partnership agreements with local television organisations, [who] also want to survive – they’re struggling so they need support.”

John Momoh, chairman and CEO of Channels Media Group, is also concerned about the industry. His op-ed in the Premium Times in February says: “​How can the Nigerian media survive?… Many media houses cannot pay salaries as and when due, or meet other equally pressing obligations. They groan under dwindling advertising revenues, prohibitive licence fees and many other exorbitant fees in between.”

[China is] kind of exploiting the vulnerabilities that media houses have: that they are struggling to pay journalists, that they’re financially vulnerable, and they’re given content to disseminate

Datt believes this current state of Nigerian media leaves it vulnerable to influence. “It’s kind of exploiting the vulnerabilities that media houses have: that they are struggling to pay journalists that they’re financially vulnerable, and they’re given content to disseminate,” she says.

Temitayo Lawal, a freelance writer based in Lagos, is confident that Nigeria’s close relationship with the Chinese government will only get stronger. “Nigeria has found a partner with the Chinese government. So that means that some of the things they do, some of the practices that [the] IMF or the West would not accept from them, the Chinese government will accept,” he says.

Keeping quiet

The response from China has been to keep quiet in response to the allegations of propaganda and overt neocolonial activity on the continent. In response to a question from Bloomberg about the report from Freedom House, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said: “[Freedom House] has a long track record of making false allegations on China-related issues. This report is not fact-based and is driven by ulterior motives.”

“Chinese media abide by press ethics and uphold the principles of objectivity, integrity, truthfulness and faithfulness. The report you mentioned pins labels on the normal reporting activities of the Chinese media on the grounds of their so-called affiliation while turning a blind eye to the false reporting of some Western media. This is [a] typical double standard.”

For Umejei, and many journalists in Nigeria, this trend is indicative of a greater problem. “The truth of the matter is that the African people don’t even know what to do because we need money, we need to get roads, but they’re not asking – at what expense?” he says.

“How does this affect things in the long run, around democracy, and freedom of religion? How does this influence decision, nobody’s talking about that. No one cares about the long-term effects of it.”

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