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BEIJING — The killing of a South Korean coast guard officer by a Chinese fisherman should have been tailor-made for China’s CCTV News as it embarks on an ambitious plan to become a global network with assertive international coverage.
Instead, according to CCTV employees, the story languished for hours as editors awaited political guidance from above, while would-be competitors such as Qatar’s Al-Jazeera reported extensively on December’s attack.
In charting its growth, CCTV is closely studying other models, especially Al-Jazeera, which rolled out a global English language 24-hour news network five years ago and quickly made a name for itself.
Qatar’s government bankrolled the station as part of its ambitions to parley its massive energy wealth into international influence, much as China is seeking global media stature behooving its booming economy, which now ranks second largest in the world behind the U.S.
But while Al-Jazeera’s access and deep knowledge of the Middle East — and a hands-off approach by its masters — have been its greatest assets, state-run CCTV’s emphatic allegiance to the authoritarian communist state and the party seem to be its biggest liability.
This greatly challenges CCTV’s credibility and agenda to influence and channel global public opinion, said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project website at the University of Hong Kong.
“The role of the media as defined by the (Communist) Party is to serve the party’s interests,” Bandurski said.
A longtime CCTV program producer who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic said virtually everything in the news report is decided based on political considerations. The issues are discussed at meetings, but the decision always lies with the top bosses while the journalists have no say in the outcome, she said.
Still, CCTV is gearing up to supersize its global footprint this year in pursuit of swaying a foreign audience to China’s views and confronting what Beijing considers the Western media’s inate anti-China bias.
The network is opening studios in Washington and Nairobi, Kenya, each employing as many as 200 staffers. Worldwide, it will increase numbers of foreign correspondents from 66 to 80 by the end of 2012, with more to come, according to people familiar with the plans.
In Africa, CCTV has linked up with major satellite TV operator MIH Group and plans to operate upward of a dozen offices, according to Martyn J. Davies, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa who has discussed the expansion with CCTV officials.
“China is a major player in Africa but its media has been very low key,” said Davies, who in 2004 helped set up Africa’s first Beijing-sponsored Confucius Institute for Chinese language studies.
Yin Fan, spokeswoman for CCTV’s international department, said the station was withholding comment until a formal launch of the expanded service. Individual employees said they had been told not to speak to the media about the expansion plans.
Many of the reporters, cameramen and technical staff are being lured away from other news organizations with the offer of high salaries and attractive perks. One freelance reporter in east Africa said CCTV recruited him aggressively and agreed to almost doubled his fee from $350 to $600 dollars per report. It also offered him the chance to present his reports in front of the camera instead of just passing the footage on to others. The reporter asked not to be identified by name.
Veteran U.S. foreign correspondent Jim Laurie, hired to help in Washington, said on his website he was looking for experienced news professionals and that plans call for the U.S. operation to produce four hours of programming daily by June. Laurie declined to comment for this article.
At a time when budgets are tightening in news rooms, China’s government appears willing to pour billions of dollars into expanding its international media footprint. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper has reported the total budget to be as high as 45 billion yuan ($7.1 billion), although no official announcement has been made.
Expansion plans found support after 2008, a year in which China’s image was walloped by protests among Tibetans and chaotic scenes accompanying the Beijing Olympic Torch on its journey around the globe, said Zhong Xin, a professor of mass media at Beijing’s elite Renmin University.
Many Chinese opinion makers also felt let down by much of the coverage of the Olympics that praised China’s organization but also shed a spotlight on political repression and stifling security, Zhong said.
CCTV was already broadening its overseas offerings to include programing in Russian, Arabic, Spanish and French, along with Chinese and English, claiming to reach 219 million households in 156 countries and regions. Programming is distributed on cable and satellite carriers in the U.S. as well as over the Internet. The Associated Press distributes a selection of CCTV news content to broadcast subscribers and also provides content and other services to the Chinese state broadcaster.
Many of the biggest stories emerging from China in 2011 are off-limits, including arrests of lawyers and dissidents and the detention of internationally famed artist Ai Weiwei. Reports on the much-criticized response to a deadly high-speed rail crash hewed to the official line, while unflattering stories such as December’s stabbing in the Yellow Sea that sparked anti-Chinese protests in Seoul can be downplayed or ignored entirely.
Still, even that marks an improvement from years past, says Renmin University’s Zhong.
“CCTV is basically trying to follow the model of CNN and BBC in delivering balanced information and reporting swiftly and from all angles,” she said. “We’ve seen major changes in the reports over the past few years, both in their content and the way they’re presented.”
Slick production values have been embraced, along with varied reports on sports, the economy, travel and culture.
Notwithstanding the cosmetic changes, the fact is that CCTV is controlled by the state.
Its head is appointed by the party and the latest pick, longtime Communist Party newspaper editor Hu Zhanfan, seems intent to cement its control. Shortly before his appointment in November, Hu upbraided journalists who placed the truth above loyalty to the party, saying news must always reflect “our party and country’s political stance.”
“It takes a lot more than very smart looking programs to overcome perceptions about China and the Chinese government,” said Anne-Marie Brady, who teaches at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury.
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