Chinese state television is gaining influence in Africa. But while the media outlets involved officially claim their journalism is independent, those who work for the companies tell a different story.
An interview? Or perhaps just a discussion on background? “We have no interest in speaking with you,” Liao Liang writes in an email. And, thank you for understanding, but a visit to his television broadcaster in Nairobi isn’t possible either, he writes. Indeed, the rejection is so complete, it’s as though he is protecting a state secret.
Yet Liao Liang’s mission in the Kenyan capital is hardly confidential: As a senior editor of the China Global Television Network (CGTN), a subsidiary of Chinese state television, his task is that of shining a positive light on his country’s ambitious activities — particularly those in Africa, where China’s reputation has suffered as its footprint has grown.
The broadcaster occupies three floors in the K-Rep Centre, a mirrored-glass high-rise in the upscale neighborhood of Kilimani. The first security check comes right at the building entrance, including a pat-down and questions from the suspicious receptionist. After that, though, there’s no getting by the next receptionist on the third floor. “To be honest,” she says with fake regret, “there is no chance you’ll be allowed to see Mr. Liao.”
Liao Liang is top dog at the broadcaster. He was allegedly an army officer in a previous life, but little else is known about him. CGTN employs around 150 people, including journalists from China, South Africa, Britain, Nigeria and Kenya, yet even when promised anonymity, nobody initially agreed to speak with DER SPIEGEL. “They’re afraid of Liao,” an employee would later say.
Here is the new 2019 World Press Freedom index from RSF, with the United States down to No. 48 (!) and France and the U.K. at 32 and 33 respectively. Namibia at 23, Ghana at 27 and South Africa at 31 lead SubSaharan Africa. Burkina Faso at 36 and Botswana at 44 also outrank the United States.
Thus, five African nations are ranked above the United States for press freedom this year according to Reporters Without Borders. The United States continues to rank above all of the East African nations.
Here are the East African Community member rankings:
South Sudan 139
Elsewhere in the East and Horn Region: Ethiopia 110; Somalia 164; Djibouti 173; Sudan 175.
And other “development partners”: Norway 1; Germany 13; Japan 67; UAE 133; Russia 149; Egypt 163; Iran 170; Saudi Arabia 172; North Korea 179
1. I cannot and have not defended New York Times’ use of the particular photograph of victims that has angered Kenyans.
Using that photo, especially while the attack was ongoing, was bad judgment in a number of respects that have been well explained by others.
2. My personal inclination from my own circumstances is usually to be somewhat defensive of the Times when they get attacked . . .
. . . as they frequently do, not because they are not regularly frustrating and imperfect but because they have been and continue to be a critical part of the wider media firmament in the United States. And newspaper journalism in the United States is suffering to our detriment and all professional news reporting is contested in our Trump era. (More about this later).
3. But, apologies are easy.
I understand that if the Times turned over editorial judgment to social media responders they would quickly be lost in the internet sea and cease to exist or be snatched up by a hedge fund and/or an ideologically motivated billionaire and/or have to publish listicles and soft porn to survive. Likewise they can never willingly let themselves be bullied by authoritarian governments so the grandstanding demands and threats from the Media Council of Kenya make the situation harder to address constructively and are not in well considered good faith in my opinion. But apologies are still easy. (And surely taking down or swapping out the one photograph would be a “correction” not some actual editorial diversion.)
4. Thus, I come around to seeing and feeling a humility and empathy problem.
Especially as time has gone by. The Times is not the Daily Mail nor The Sun and does not deserve to be the poster child for historical imperialism/colonialism devaluing black and brown bodies even if it has its own limitations and faults. But the Times made a mistake here and it was unforced and not anyone else’s fault. The tone deaf lack of responsiveness makes me more appreciative of the perspectives that I have picked up from friends in academia and journalism and other fields over the years that are more critical of the Times.
5. The individual reporter did nothing substantively professionally wrong.
The complaint is with the photo placed by the editors in New York not with the reporter’s story. The photo was by a Kenyan photographer through the Associated Press. So it is simply not her fault. In the moment of anguish with the attack it seems that she received a lot of the grief associated with this situation which was not her doing or in control. Having arrived at an understanding of the facts, there is apparently still a broad sentiment among many Kenyans, including many that I admire and respect, to deport her for being insensitive and seemingly a bit flip in responding. In other words, to me more of a moral question as to whether we think from Twitter that she has the personal traits we approve of as opposed to her actual writing.
Keep in mind that she is a corporate employee presumably. Without knowing the details of her individual situation with the Times, in general terms most American employees are subject to being fired at will, for any reason or no reason, without any legal right to severance as in Kenya, much less “due process”. I am a corporate lawyer [my experience in the world of Kenyan media and politics (and especially the New York Times) that has been the basis for this blog was “on leave” from that corporate career] so I know something about how things work. For a remote employee to say unilaterally to the public on social media that her bosses back in New York screwed up something that is in their job description and discretion and not hers is problematic.
The reporter/correspondent is supposed to say “I am sorry but I personally think my bosses have made a terrible mistake with the company product back in New York”? I do not know what I would have done in her shoes, and I can sit back at home and imagine doing better but realistically she was in a losing position.
I had a slightly analogous situation as an NGO employee in Kenya when my bosses back in Washington put out a press statement that the exit poll I supervised in the 2007 election showing an opposition win was “invalid”. I was in a lose/lose situation on my own in Nairobi. My threading of the needle in dealing with that situation has never been fully satisfactory to anyone so far as I know but not fully “toeing the line” has been life changing in some respects. I objected strenuously in private. In public when I was pressed by a reporter for Nairobi’s Star on whether the statement from Washington “reflected my personal opinion” I explained that “it was’t intended to reflect my personal opinion”–no surprise that the reporting when it hit the paper was that I had said that it “did not reflect” my own opinion. When it was faxed to Washington the president of my organization “hit the roof” per a phone call from my boss who had heard it from him. After I explained the exact choice of words, she ran interference for me and got him “calmed down” on the basis that I had been “misquoted”. Of course I knew when the reporter called me that I was likely to get get fired for diverging from my superiors and I did not have an opportunity to go ask my wife and kids.
I did some things privately during the interval to keep the exit poll from “going away” before it was ultimately released publicly in July but that was closely held and I have never written about that part of the story yet.
It was only post-employment that I felt that I could publicly express my own opinions related to my work. Ultimately I was quoted from published interviews in The Nation magazine and The New York Times itself (and written about by Kenyan media and and The Weekly Standard and RedState.com without being contaced or interviewed).
Fortunately, my temporary duty in NGO-world was ending in a few weeks anyway. My law job was waiting for me at home. I decided not to resign to keep the office together and I did not get fired. But I was on a short leash until my return to the States and I avoided being out and about or meeting politicians so I would not have to be chose between being openly insubordinate or dishonest. I am grateful that I had some room to maneuver in that pre-social media era.
7. Where do my Kenyan friends want this to end up?
Is “the Kenya we want” one in which foreign reporters for foreign newspapers get deported because they are perceived to be insensitive on social media? What are the ramifications of that? Just reporters? Etc.
Remember that the Times of London correspondent was detained at the airport and expelled by all appearances because he was investigating the Eurobond mysteries. No one filled those shoes. You are still on the hook for the debt and it turns out there seems to have been a secret problem with the SGR financing from 2014 that you are just reading about now.
This deserves to be reflected on and discussed–perhaps mediated–offline and in person, with a little space from the anguish of this attack, and this photo.
6. The peak of this for me is someone on Twitter who wanted to deport the photographer.
Fortunately the Courts in Kenya have now clearly and explicitly ruled against the Executive Branch’s power to deport a Kenyan in the Miguna Miguna cases. We all know the application of the law to the actions of Executive Branch is difficult and often contested as a matter of power rather than right–here in the United States also–so I think Kenyans would be wise to think carefully on this.
Twenty-and-a-half years after the al-Queda bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, a small team of gunmen and a bomber hit a hotel and office complex in Westlands, reminiscent of the 2013 Westgate Mall attack. With the “known missing” fully accounted for now, the death toll stands at 21. Many more were injured and the trauma is compounded by the uncertainty of many who were trapped and/or missing.
There is so much news coverage now from Nairobi that I really have nothing to add, other than condolences. Here is a good straight news story from NPR’s Eyder Peralta on the photography/reporting imbroglio.
On Sunday and Monday a governance and economy controversy was escalating in Kenya after the Sunday Nation published an expose on “Hidden traps in SGR deal with China“. Sadly, unlike a terrorist attack, this is new bad news. If true it poses serious challenges to the credibility of those who have known the actual terms of the as yet undisclosed deal between the Kenyatta and Xi governments dating back to 2014, as well as to the viability of “Big Four Agenda”, “Vision 2030” and the overall public version of Kenya’s economic development aspirations.
Update: I am not much of a consumer of television news, but I thought this online “print” story from CNN’s Sam Kiley was a good quick overview of the Westlands attack for general international audiences (as opposed to readers of this blog): “Nairobi attack shows attempts to neutralize Africa’s terror threat have failed“.
1. First, admit the scope of the problem. Birtherism has in fact done significant damage to the United States and our national interests, and to our character and moral fibre, from it’s beginning in 2008.
2. It has done great harm to the Republican Party as an institution, not just to Obama and the Democratic Party against whom it was directed. Because we only have two parties that control essentially all political power in the United States and have established themselves in a semi-official role in a “two-party system,” the distortion of debate and behavior in the Republican Party by the widespread influence of Birtherism at the grassroots, radiating up, has been and continues to be a problem that impacts every American and weakens our country.
3. Disagreements based on a bizarre and untenable conspiracy theory are a diversion from our ability to properly respect each other and discuss/debate substantive issues, solve policy problems and do the business of self-governance.
4. The price of paranoia accumulates over time. It morphs in ways that we cannot rationally predict. It preys not just on prejudice, but also to an extent on the lack of education and lack of experience with and exposure to the world, taking advantage of people who are vulnerable. Otherwise responsible Republican elected officials who “ducked” having the courage to repudiate Birtherism in its early years probably assumed it would fade away, not anticipating that Donald Trump would rejuvenate Birtherism as a key tool for his successful insurgent campaign for the presidency.
5. Americans of both parties and none will have to “grow up” enough to be willing to voluntarily re-build guardrails for democratic competition that “re-norm” truthfulness and erring on the side of caution when it comes to the amplitude of vitriol in the “permanent campaign” between Republicans and Democrats, as well as related ideological contests.
6. In particular, Republican Senators and Congressmen and state level elected officials and Party officials who shrugged their shoulders or said the equivalent of “well, you never know” should have a “come to Jesus”, take responsibility and make affirmative steps.
Below is a draft post I wrote but did not publish back on May 10, 2017:
Uhuruto re-election and Cambridge Analytica coverage in The Star: why now?
Today, the Star, Nairobi’s previously opposition-leaning third daily newspaper (a must read together with The Daily Nation and The Standard) ran a story announcing the arrival of a team from Cambridge Analytica for the Uhuruto/Jubilee re-election campaign.
Note the attribution to “well placed sources in the Office of the President.”
Generally speaking the Kenyan media declines to cover the foreign firms working the Kenyan election campaigns, especially for an incumbent president. That type of thing is in the category of “we are a ‘free press’ but not free like that”. For the “foreign correspondents” the Western campaign operatives are fellow habitues of the expat “circle of trust” or omertà or whatever you want to call it: sources not subjects of reporting.
So why this story today? If I can put myself in the loafers of an Uhuruto campaign operative rather than just a bystanding fan of “truth, justice and the American way of life” I might want this for a couple of ressons that I can think of: 1) this could be what has been famously termed a “limited modified hang out” – if information is starting to leak you might want to seize control to misdirect attention by putting out a shaped half-truth version; 2) this could be a way for the Uhuruto campaign to “signal” the idea that it has powerful support in Washington and London in response to the black eye received in the form of the USAID suspension of Ministry of Health funding due to corruption which went public Monday. Of course, this is all just hypothetical/conjectural “thinking out load” from someone who is not involved.
One of many fruitful questions for further review now is the extent to which these operations were run by Government of Kenya officials out of Government offices.
Was Cambridge Analytica given access to Government of Kenya data? On the pattern of use of State resources for the Jubilee campaign, beyond running the campaign through office holders and out of the Office of The President and State House, note this from The Star story;
Aspirants who won nominations in the just-concluded Jubilee primaries will be expected to campaign for Uhuru in their home areas.
A deal has been offered to nomination losers to stick with Jubilee and be rewarded with state jobs after the election.
Here is yesterday’s Reuters report with the first “on record” confirmation from Jubilee after the now-infamous Channel 4 undercover expose and leaks regarding Facebook that it used SCL/Cambridge Analytica in the campaign.
And please remember as well the role of the American firm Harris Media: “Don’t Mess From Texas: disturbing Privacy International report indicates Uhuruto re-election campaign bought Texas-based negative propaganda campaign.”
Lots of good journalism out today, but this story from Peter Fabricus in my evening Daily Maverick Weekend Thing strikes me as hitting many of the right notes: “Kenya’s courts step up to electoral plate.”
One of the most important lessons from today is how cowed Kenya’s media really is by the Government. This decision did not have to come as quite such a suprise if Kenya’s media had felt free–or been brave enough–to just cover the polling stations and constituency tally centres. But we went through this in 2007 (when results were broadcast then taken down), and 2013 when self-censorship was the order of the day.
Today, Kenya took a big step forward on the rule of law — a sign that perhaps the press can become in the future in fact as free as the Constitution provides and the West pretends.
For Kenyan must reads, start with Nanjala Nyabola, “Why I’m proud to be an African today,” at IRINnews.com.
Kiai has taken note of a transparently fake “NGO” that has been playing in this years’ campaign space to sell in advance whatever results are going to be announced. As you would expect in Kenya this “group” does not even seriously try to be subtle enough to be plausible to sophisticated observers, but gets picked up in the Kenyan media in pari passu with bona five organizations without scrutiny (at least until Kiai’s column).
Let’s hope international reporters who “fly in” for Kenya’s election do their homework this time.
Here is Kiai on where things stand as time winds down for election preparation:
. . . .
Something smells really fishy here, verging on being “fake news” meant to influence us with false information.
We clearly have not seen the end of that and we should all try to verify whatever is presented in the media.
And we have been here before. In the lead-up to the 2013 elections, the IEBC was polling as one of the top two institutions that Kenyans had confidence in, together with the Supreme Court, at the time led by Chief Justice Willy Mutunga.
But with all the shenanigans around procurement, gadget malfunctions, “server crashes” and a return to the discredited manual system for voter identification, tallying and transmission of results, the IEBC quickly lost its credibility.
The “chicken-gate” scandals involving the then chairman of the IEBC and the CEO further damaged the IEBC, even if the politicised Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission eventually “cleared” the chairman.
I am not holding my breath that this IEBC will deliver credible, free and fair elections with the way it is operating.
It blames the courts for its unpreparedness, but this is more than about competence.
Like 2013, there is an emerging sense of willfulness in the way it is making decisions, short-cutting steps that could mitigate some of the emerging worries.
Incredibly, many of the key staff members who were involved in the previous mangled elections are still in place!
I am baffled that despite the court ruling that declares results final in the polling stations, the IEBC has not yet announced plans to ensure that returning and presiding officers are not only recruited transparently, but are based outside their home areas, to reduce ballot stuffing, especially given that we will probably use the easy-to-manipulate manual identification.
Now more than ever, these officials on the ground will determine the veracity of the election.
Rigging of elections has three basic strands.
The first is ballot stuffing, which is done at the polling stations by all sides (which then effectively balances out); the second is the changes by returning officers of results from polling stations under the guise of tallying, verifying and confirming the votes; and the third and most significant, is the massaging of figures done at the National Tallying Centre in Nairobi.
Note that the Krieglar report refused to go into the rigging at the National Tallying Centre, claiming that the evidence of ballot stuffing from both sides was enough to conclude that the 2007 election was irretrievably flawed.
Privately, Judge Krieglar was afraid that investigating the tallying at the KICC would present a different result from that announced and he did not want to be held responsible for more tensions when different results emerged.
OFFICIALS WITH INTEGRITY
Second, the argument that the National Tallying Centre should be retained to “correct” anomalies from the ground is facile and disingenuous.
It falsely assumes that the commissioners and senior staff are the only ones competent and with integrity, and should be trusted with “rectifying” obvious mistakes like more votes than voters registered.
It is the responsibility of the IEBC to recruit competent persons of integrity at all levels, rather than hire people whose work would need “rectification”.
Every time there is “rectification”, we simply get more rigging.
It is not harder to count the votes in Kenya than in other countries . . . it is just that so much goes in to obscuring those counts, done only at each polling station, so that freedom of action remains at “the center” in Nairobi.
I ordered this book through the University of Chicago at the African Studies Association meeting in Washington last month– newly published in the U.K. and released in 2015 in South Africa:
For fifty years the South African government spent an estimated $100 million annually on a campaign of disinformation, much of it in the US and UK.
New York Times journalist Ron Nixon provides a lively and shocking account of how power and influence were used to buy media coverage and create extensive support networks. These included an unlikely coalition of anti-communist black conservatives, religious organizations and global corporations.
With all the current buzz about Russian involvement in U.S. and European elections and political controversies, and since I knew some of the people who played a role in this story through my work in the Republican Party during the later years of Apartheid, I was naturally glad to see this and anxious to read through and see what new I learn about this fairly recent era in US and African politics and relations.
See my post Abramoff’s Africa and Obama’s America from 2012.
Update: I’ve finished it and highly recommend. Here is a review from The Daily Maverick. Of personal interest, some events took place in familiar locales in Mississippi, and Jack Abramoff gave an interview with the author in 2014 in which he claims, amazingly, that he didn’t know that the International Freedom Foundation which he helped found with South Africans in 1986 was a front for South African intelligence. (Jack was in relevant news this week sharply criticizing Senator Marco Rubio for his questioning of Trump Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson during confirmation hearings.)