China Central Television (CCTV) has set up shop in Nairobi, sending shockwaves in newsrooms by raiding a number of local TV stations for notable broadcasters and other staff.
So far, NTV and KTN have been top casualties of CCTV’s raid, with some of the biggest names in Kenyan media, including KTN’s Beatrice Marshall, leaving their stations to take up lucrative deals with CCTV.
Others who have been poached include Robert Soi (KTN), Citizen TV’s Terryanne Chebet, and NTV’s Mark Masai and Peninah Karibe. Former People Daily editor Douglas Okwach and veteran TV news manager Ondeko Aura (formerly at KBC and KTN) have also joined the CCTV network based in Nairobi’s Hurlingham area. While authorities who have commented on the issue say that this is part of strengthening and expanding the new-found friendship between Beijing and Nairobi, there are still questions about CCTV’s agenda. Who is behind it and what are the implications of its entry into the Kenyan market where Western networks already have a strong presence and influence?
All media in China is state-owned and, to a large extent, controlled by the powerful Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party through the Department of Publicity and Propaganda (Agitprop). This, therefore, gives no answers about who is behind CCTV’s entry into Kenya.
Although details of how the Chinese TV network gained entry remain “top secret” because of the opaque nature with which China cuts deals with partners, sources at Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Information say that CCTV’s entry into Kenya was crafted during the Africa-China summit of 2006 when President Mwai Kibaki led a Kenyan delegation to Beijing to join more than 40 other African heads of state and government in establishing a new platform of cooperation between China and Africa. Apart from deals on infrastructure development, other areas of cooperation included capacity-building in media and ICTs.
The Kenyan delegation, through the Ministry of Information and Communication, is said to have entered into mutually beneficial deals that would see the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) host selected Chinese radio and TV channels — this is how China Radio International (CRI) ended up putting up two state-of-the-art radio studios at KBC thus becoming the first Chinese FM station abroad.
The deal has also seen the Chinese donate broadcasting equipment to the national broadcaster, with KBC reciprocating the gesture by allocating airtime for a CCTV broadcast through a direct feed from Beijing.
The 2006 summit also culminated in enhanced exchange programmes between Kenya News Agency (KNA) and its Chinese equivalent, Xinhua News Agency. So far, the partnership between KNA and Xinhua has seen the latter donate equipment like cameras and computers to the former, in addition to KNA and Ministry of Information officials occasionally getting invitations for exchange programmes in China.
CCTV is the predominant state television broadcaster in mainland China, commanding a network of about 30 channels broadcasting different programmes and is accessible to more than one billion viewers and reaching 96 percent of Chinese territory.
Most of its programmes are a mixture of documentaries, comedy, entertainment, and drama — majority of which consist of Chinese soap operas.
Given that China’s public affairs are run on a performance-contracting model, government agencies and departments like ministries, the police and the military have been given channels on CCTV through which they run promotional documentaries and news about their activities. It is, therefore, possible to tune in to a channel hosted by CCTV dedicated to the Beijing Metropolitan Police or the People’s Liberation Army.
CCTV falls under the supervision of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, which is in turn subordinate to the State Council of the People’s Republic of China with a Vice Minister of the state council serving as chairman of CCTV. The network’s principal directors and other officers are appointed by the State, and so are top officials at local conventional television stations in mainland China.
Since the network is under the control and supervision of the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party which issues directives on censorship of programmes, CCTV’s editorial independence is subject to government policy considerations — a factor that has caused Western media analysts to condemn it as “propaganda aimed at brainwashing the audience”. As CCTV enters the Kenyan market, there are no prizes for guessing whose agenda it will be pushing.
However, although government censorship of media content in China is non-negotiable, authorities in Beijing have over the years been taking seriously criticisms from the free world, and in an attempt to appear democratic, the Communist Party adopted new standards for CCTV during the “reform” era of the 1990s by clothing censorship with “affordability” and “acceptability” — thus loosening the previous government control but retaining a significant oversight role.
According to Chinese authorities, affordability refers to purchasing ability of programmes while acceptability requires that a programme has acceptable content, preventing broadcasts of material with inappropriate content or against the Communist Party.
A good example of “acceptability” according to Chinese standards is captured in a study by Anne-Marie Brady published in 2008. The study cites a series of items reported factually by CCTV on coal mining disasters in China. But soon after, the channel’s leaders received a warning from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that its reports were harming China’s international image; senior editorial staff and journalists were forced to denounce their own reports and write self-criticisms in apology.
However, despite the Communist Party’s grip on CCTV’s editorial policy and administration, the network’s equipment is state-of-the-art, with most departments going digital as early as 1998.
On its 50th anniversary, CCTV moved to an ultra-modern headquarters in Beijing in September 2008, and in July 2009 the network expanded its coverage and target audience by launching its international channel in Arabic language. Today, CCTV has 22 national channels, most of them airing 24 hours a day.
But as CCTV enters the Kenyan market, its impact will largely be determined by a very notable declaration made on the day of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
In October 1949, the Chinese government solemnly declared that, “this government is the sole legitimate government representing all the people of the People’s Republic of China. It is ready to establish diplomatic relations with any foreign government that is willing to follow the principles of equality, mutual benefit, respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. There is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is an integral part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China. Any country that intends to have diplomatic relations with China must recognize the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China and sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan authorities.”
This declaration, therefore, disabuses the notion that Chinese foreign assistance is without conditions — all countries enjoying diplomatic relations with China are required to denounce the independence of Taiwan, and Kenya is no exception.
Bound by this declaration, China rarely comments on the political affairs of other countries publicly. In this regard, CCTV’s entry into Kenya is unlikely to have any significant impact on Kenyan politics because “toxic” politics is a no-go-zone for Chinese media.
By keeping off serious political issues, CCTV will be no different from KBC and will, therefore, not pose any serious competition to local TV stations and other international networks in any significant way so long as politics remains the preferred media content.
However, CCTV is likely to have a huge impact on Kenyan media in terms of entertainment and financial news because of the technological capacity of the Chinese network to produce quality programmes and documentaries. This is where CCTV poses a big threat to local media because of its capacity to run away with the massive youthful audience that is more interested in entertainment than politics.
If CCTV manages to grab this audience, then local media stand to lose a huge chunk of advertisement revenue that comes from suppliers of goods and services that target the younger generation — mobile phone service providers, car manufactures and other ICT-enabled service providers are, therefore, likely to advertise on CCTV than other local networks
because of the youthful audience that would have switched to the Chinese network. Despite censorship, Chinese media are quite advanced in financial and development journalism, and even Western media networks have great respect for the authenticity of financial and development news by Chinese media. This is, therefore, likely to hurt local TV networks because CCTV is also likely to run away with the development- oriented audience which also commands a huge chunk of advertisement revenue.
Besides, given that the broadcasting industry in Kenya is expected to make a digital migration by July 2012, CCTV will have an edge over other local networks in terms of generating content to feed the huge spectrum created by digital technology.
The digital migration issue, therefore, explains the timing of CCTV’s entry into Kenya. Chinese authorities believe that whenever the world needs to consume, China should be that one to supply.
And since the authorities in Beijing know that Africa’s consumption needs, especially in ICTs, are rising rapidly, they have positioned themselves strategically to ensure China supplies everything Africa needs. CCTV will, therefore, be the platform to ensure that Africa’s appetite for Chinese products expands and is sustained. Above all, Chinese authorities are always hungry for good publicity and journalists working for CCTV-NEWS, the network’s English-language international channel, are always under pressure to present a positive account of China. We, therefore, expect CCTV to use the likes of Beatrice Marshall to do what all Chinese media are preordained to do— touting China’s economic development.