EDINBURGH — The Chinese government has a reputation for having a heavy hand when it comes to censoring freedom of speech at home. It routinely imprisons government critics and pays a large army of spies to identify individuals who are critical of Chinese leaders on social media platforms. Its reach extends beyond the Middle Kingdom. In addition to pumping out Chinese propaganda through news wire services and the English language version of China Daily, it also turns the screws on its partners in media projects elsewhere in which it has a stake. This is evident from a case involving the Independent Media group, which is controlled by Iqbal Survé – an unpopular boss whose credentials as a doctor are often questioned. – Jackie Cameron
By Thulasizwe Sithole
The Independent Media group has attracted global attention for its blatant pro-China government editorial decision-making. A regular columnist for the group, Azad Essa, was axed after producing a piece on a topic the Chinese government deems highly sensitive. Essa is not surprised, because the Independent group is owned in part by Chinese entities.
Controversial Mandela doctor and Jacob Zuma acolyte Iqbal Survé runs the group. He has allowed a range of astonishing editorial decisions to be taken, ranging from having pictures of himself published in prominent positions on a regular basis to bizarre editorials that rant about Survé critics. This latest revelation lends weight to concerns that Survé is undermining the independent media in South Africa.
Azad Essa wrote for US-headquartered Foreign Policy: “It is official. After more than a decade of planning, setting up, and bankrolling African media, the Chinese are finally ready to cash in on their investment.
“Last week, I decided to dedicate my weekly column in a South African newspaper to discussing the persecution of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.
“A day later, my weekly column on neglected people and places around the globe, which I have been writing since September 2016, was immediately canceled. I was told the “new design of the papers” meant that there was no longer space for my weekly venting.
“Given the ownership structure of Independent Media, with Chinese state-linked firms holding a 20 percent stake, I understood when I wrote the column that it might rattle the higher-ups. I didn’t expect the exorcism to be so immediate and so obvious. I had, it would appear, veered into a nonnegotiable arena that struck at the very heart of China’s propaganda efforts in Africa.
I had, it would appear, veered into a nonnegotiable arena that struck at the very heart of China’s propaganda efforts in Africa.”
Essa outlined how, in 1999, China embarked on an economic and social outreach program to the continent, known as its “Going Out” policy, in which it injected millions of dollars of investment into the African media.
“To counter the rampant negative perceptions of China in Western media, the project looked to take back control of the country’s image in a continent where its interests were only set to grow. This meant investing heavily in China’s own state media presence, including expanding bureaus; supporting privately owned Chinese media that set up offices on the continent; purchasing stakes in private African media; and conjuring up partnerships or organizing sponsored trips to China for cash-strapped African newsrooms,” continued Essa.
“As the soft diplomacy of China’s agenda has been propelled by the state-owned Xinhua press agency, China Global Television Network, the African edition of China Daily, and the monthly magazine ChinAfrica, based in Johannesburg, it is yet unclear whether African audiences have been accepting Chinese versions of their own reality,” noted the journalist.
“It is private media companies that have most effectively become vehicles for forwarding the interests of the Chinese state, in cahoots with local elites.
It is private media companies that have most effectively become vehicles for forwarding the interests of the Chinese state, in cahoots with local elites.
“So, in Kenya, press junkets at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation or special Beijing-sponsored seminars for Kenyan journalists have turned the Nation Media Group into a spectacle of press release rewrites promising an injection of Chinese collaboration into the continent,” added Essa.