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Opinion
Adapt or Disappear
Cooperation between Chinese and African news outlets is essential in today's highly competitive media environment
By Cheikh Thiam | NO.31 AUGUST 2, 2018
Aly Diouf, a journalist with the Senegalese newspaper Le Soleil, covers the Ninth BRICS Summit in Xiamen on a China-Africa media exchange project in September 2017

Since 2012, China has risen from being Senegal's 24th-ranked trading partner to its second, with a trade volume of $2.19 billion in 2017, according to China's Ministry of Commerce. This increased cooperation between the two countries was made possible by a strong mutual political will at the highest level.

It is undeniable, however, that to better maintain and benefit from sustainable cooperation, the partner countries need to establish mutual trust, especially since they have different cultures. The media have an important role to play in this; they can assist in deepening the friendship and partnership between China and Africa as a whole.

For example, after a year in Beijing, Modou Mamoune Faye, former head of the Editorial Board of the Senegalese daily Le Soleil, said he admires the Chinese media. They have diversified themselves, anticipating the crisis in which many Western media outlets are now bogged down in as a result of fierce competition from the Internet and social media networks. This lucrative diversification strategy has allowed the Chinese media to financially strengthen their operations.

Faye's stay in Beijing was made possible thanks to one of China's cooperation programs which enabled a dozen senior African journalists to undergo a formative stay in the country. Two years later, Aly Diouf, also from Le Soleil, benefited from the same experience. The African journalists who spent time in China returned home with a different understanding and a more objective view on the realities of the country, which often receives negative publicity in the Western media.

Seeing is believing

The experiences of the Senegalese journalists in China allowed them to closely follow how relations between China and African countries are evolving. The trade volume between the two has experienced an extraordinary boom due to key and huge Chinese investments particularly in the infrastructure sector. The increase in Chinese investments in Africa has not escaped the criticism of the Western media, relaying the words of European and U.S. leaders who are apparently worried about the rise of this dynamic new cooperation.

Some Western analysts even go so far as to accuse China of "recolonizing" Africa. The Western media have become the mouthpiece of these attacks, forgetting that cooperation between China and Africa has led to achievements that the continent has not been able to reach for over 50 years while working with Europe and the United States. One only has to take a look at how China is covered in the Western media to be convinced of this.

In China, the media are mainly owned by the state. Due to important economies of scale, the circulation of major Chinese newspapers usually exceeds 1 million copies, generating sizeable revenues from advertising. This is apart from the additional resources derived from the diversification policies.

On the other hand, the Western media are mainly owned by large financial or industrial groups and are experiencing a sharp crisis in the face of increasingly ferocious competition on the part of social media.

In Africa, for its part, media companies are often entities run by former journalists converted into media owners. The most stable media are state-owned enterprises, partially financed by public resources.

To overcome the global media crisis that only the Chinese media seem to have been able to avoid, it is necessary to imagine and implement a pragmatic cooperation program to assist Africa's media houses. Since the early 1990s, these media have played a greater role in the consolidation of democracy, the strengthening of freedom and the promotion of economic development on the continent.

Options to explore

Unfortunately, in Africa, the small size of print media companies and their overabundance in each country are not conducive to a consistent policy in support of the media. Any cooperation with China in the media sector must, therefore, take this into account. Since the media are operating in a sector that is overly competitive, with a weak readership and an advertising market that favors other forms of communication media, China and Africa, and especially Senegal, should find a new media cooperation dimension.

In fact, cooperation should focus on several points: sharing content between the Chinese and African media, organizing study tours of African media owners and journalists in China, strengthening the status of foreign correspondents with a work period of at least three years in Beijing, and investing in young African media companies or setting up dedicated financing support cooperation. To date, China has donated computer hardware to Senegalese media outlets such as Le Soleil and facilitated visits of media delegations to both countries.

As for content sharing, El Hadj Hamidou Kassé, minister in charge of communications of the president of the Republic of Senegal, made an eloquent plea. During a seminar organized by the Chinese Embassy in Senegal last year in Saly Portudal, a seaside resort south of Dakar, he argued, "Content sharing should feature prominently in the cooperation between the Chinese and Senegalese media." Kassé explained that this approach would strengthen mutual understanding and trust and "promote values ​​of friendship, openness and solidarity between the two countries."

Today, the partnership must find a new dimension, a relevant dynamism and further options to explore. Already, the French monthly ChinAfrique has spearheaded a new form of partnership with Le Soleil by printing its magazine in Senegal. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement, very similar to the one made by its English edition, ChinAfrica, in South Africa.

In a world in perpetual change, it is critical for the African media to follow the example of the Chinese model, under which the media have been able to modernize and adapt to a difficult environment. To adapt or to disappear, this is the lesson to be learned from China's media.

The author is an economist, journalist and former head of the Senegalese daily Le Soleil

Copyedited by Francisco Little and Rebeca Toledo

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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