Nkosana Dlamini

Harare–Stereotype, polarisation and general inaccessibility of investors and related information are key factors that have tended to influence how the Zimbabwean media is framing Chinese investments, according to a recent survey.

Reporting on Sino-Zimbabwean relations and local Chinese investments has for a time invoked acute emotions, amid accusations and counter-accusations of disinformation, bullying, threats and intimidation as well as manipulation of the media.

Just recently, the Chinese embassy used the public and social media to publish a long and angry statement that accused The Standard—which has been running a series of critical investigative news reports on Chinese investments with support from Information for Development Trust (IDT), a non-profit media outfit—of peddling falsehoods meant to tarnish China and its local investors.

The Standard denied the allegations, insisted that its investigations were factual and balanced and, in turn, accused the embassy of making serious threats against the publication.

The embassy also accused IDT of being hired by Beijing’s adversaries to undermine Chinese investments and the long-standing bilateral relations between Zimbabwe and the Asian country.

This forced the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) to issue a statement of complaint.

“The Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) is deeply concerned with the heightened threats against The Standard, a privately owned local news weekly, by the Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe.

“The Chinese embassy, in a statement issued on July 11 2022 threatened to take ‘strong counter measures’ against the newspaper and a local media development agency, the Information for Development Trust (IDT),” noted MAZ, which advised the embassy to take “professional towards seeking redress”.

A survey conducted with joint support from IDT and the Africa China Reporting Project (ACRP) mainly through in-depth interviews and online tracking explored the factors shaping local media reportage on Sino-Zimbabwean relations and investments.

Interviews were carried out with mostly mid-career journalists who had produced stories on China, editors, senior staff from media-focused civil society organisations who provided analyses on the reportage and one media lecturer from a State university.

All the journalists who were interviewed spoke on record, an editor from a provincial publication and another from a national stable as well the media studies scholar requested anonymity while all the media CSO representatives had no problem being named.

A senior manager from a pro-China institution—the China-Africa Economic and Cultural Exchange Research Centre (CAECERC) that is running a media awards project in conjunction with the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ)—also gave his views, but all the editors and reporters from the public media who were approached were not forthcoming. 

Similarly, there was no joy from Xinhua, a trans-border Chinese media house, amid off-record concerns of “conflict of interest” and “politicisation” of media coverage of Chinese interests in Zimbabwe. 

Reporting focus

The interviews that were done and the complementing online tracking show that coverage of Chinese interests spans a broad range of issues.

These include foreign direct and bilateral investments in the extractive sector, with mining featuring prominently in this regard.

Infrastructure development receives high-profile attention too, together with health that also included responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Zimbabwean media has also tended to focus on agriculture involving actors from China, tourism, Sino-Zimbabwe foreign relations as well as Chinese global activities, diplomacy as well as policy. 

Related to these areas of focus are issues of corruption and crime, labour and human rights violations, environmental transgressions, socio-economic vulnerabilities of host communities affected by Chinese investments, official favouritism and deliberate exclusions of non-Chinese investors.

Economic vulnerability, international isolation of the Zimbabwe government, non-accountability, corporate social responsibility, militarisation of Sino-Zimbabwean relations, political manipulation, quality of service and products, cultural disruptions as well as aid and loans also recur in local reportage relating to China.

Bias and stereotype

There was near-unanimity among the analysts interviewed that reporting on China is largely shaped by the personal perceptions and stereotypical tendencies among journalists.

Journalists tend to choose story pitches and angles on the basis of how they perceive of China, said media analysts. The perception is determined by what the journalists have read or personally experienced.

And there is an underreported factor that also tends to frame the perceptions of journalists—the kind of formal education they have received in Zimbabwean and other schools, one editor opined.

“Almost all the journalists that we have, have received western—especially British—education owing to our colonial history. That means the media practitioners are west-centric, so to speak, and they see China through western lenses,” said Kelvin Jakachira, the editor in chief at ABC Communications that owns ZiFM, a commercial radio station owned by a former cabinet minister from the ruling Zanu PF party.

Kelvin Jakachira

Kolwani Nyathi, the editor of The Standard weekly newspaper, also agreed that Zimbabwean journalists tended to stereotype Sino-Zimbabwean relations.

And all the independent newsroom-based and freelance journalists that were interviewed admitted that that they held their own personal perceptions regarding China and—especially—Chinese investments in Zimbabwe.

In the eyes and minds of the journalists, Chinese nationals and investors are over-protected and favoured by the Zanu PF government, which has upgraded Beijing from being an “all-weather friend” to a “strategic partner” as it faces intense western condemnation for alleged human rights excesses, low democracy marks and bad governance.

In the extractive sector and other forms of investments, the journalists said, Chinese actors are responsible for unchecked environmental damage, human and labour rights violations, racism, socio-economic vulnerabilities such as enforced displacements and the attending impoverishment of host communities, disregard for local laws and cultures as well as illegal projects, among others.

The interviewed journalists also said they were of the view that Chinese investments were opaque and the investors deliberately inaccessible as they bribed and colluded with public authorities.

But, again, all of them insisted that they did not allow the way in which they perceived Chinese actors and interests to influence their reportage.

“It’s human and sometimes inevitable to have your own perceptions,” said Kenneth Matimaire, an international freelance journalist who has extensively investigated Chinese investments in Manicaland province.

“But that doesn’t mean you will throw away the ethics and professional standards because of personal views. When I go out to write on Chinese investments in the extractive sector, I make sure that I’m factual, objective, impartial and balanced. Notably, my investigative and other stories have never been challenged because they are accurate and well-researched,” added Matimaire, who has won an award from the Chinese-funded CAECERC for a report on diamond mining in Manicaland.

Another freelance reporter, Brenna Matendere who has also investigated Chinese investments in the Midlands province, indicated that he witnessed, first hand, and also read or heard about extensive environmental damage and labour rights violations caused by the Chinese in the mining sector.

“This I what I have been seeing and knowing, so I write on it, too. That’s how journalism works. You report the truth and do not do PR (public relations) for anyone. It’s not a crime to report on what is negative, but you must adhere to the ethics of the profession,” said Matendere.

It was clear during the survey that the manner in which the reporters perceived Chinese interests in Zimbabwe tallied with the choice of what they reported on; none of them chose a story that highlighted the positives of Chinese investments, but a scrutiny of the content they produced demonstrated accuracy, deep research and an anxiety to be balanced.

Editorial influence

All the editors gave their own views on Chinese interests in Zimbabwe. Four out of the seven were of the opinion that Chinese investments had benefited Zimbabwe amidst isolation by the west.

“Chinese investment has been helpful in keeping the Zimbabwe economy alive since the west sanctioned the country as far back as 2001, said Nevanji Madanhire, the associate editor at the Independent.

But he acknowledged that there were “bad apples” among Chinese investors, a view that was shared by Faith Zaba, the publication’s editor who said that the Asian companies “are playing a positive role in…agriculture, infrastructure, health and mining” even though some of them were “contributing to environmental degradation” while also failing to plough back into host communities. 

Three of the editors interviewed agreed that some Chinese investors disregarded local labour and other laws while two said that the investments have been helpful but admitted there were bad apples among the companies.

Two of the editors said the west was active in creating indignation against Chinese investments because of the global polarity pitting the USA against China, and a similar number insisted that the Zimbabwean government, ruling Zanu PF officials and some influencers in local government and line ministries were acting in collusion with Chinese officials and national to fix contracts and investment licences.

All the editors said they had no written or implicit editorial policy relating to Chinese coverage, with the exception of ZiFM’s Jakachira, who said they encouraged positive reporting on Chinese interests to foster local economic development.

“Our editorial policy derives from our belief that Zimbabwe has lots to benefit from Chinese programmes. We highly regard the economic and political relations with China,” said Jakachira, whose radio station is widely seen as being sympathetic to the sitting establishment.

However, all the other editors insisted that whatever views they had did not affect their attitude towards the stories that came to their desks or the story ideas that reporters proposed.

“It’s extremely unprofessional to let your personal opinions sway your reportage,” said Faith Zaba, the editor of The Independent.  “That’s the reason why we have tended to run stories that are both critical of Chinese investments and others that highlight the positives.”

Faith Zaba

In April, The Independent ran a story that investigatively highlighted the contributions made by Chinese nationals in responses to Covid-19, and it also won an award from CAECERC.

All of the independent reporters said editors and publishers did not influence their choice of stories.

Investigative reporting on Chinese interests is virtually non-existent in the public media while the independent media has carried in-depth and fact-checked content over the years, with most of it being critical.

Stone walls

Public media normally get press statements and conference prompts from the Chinese embassy and business community as well as Zimbabwean government departments, together with documents, but this favour is generally not extended to the privately media unless for propaganda purposes, it was observed.

Journalists who were interviewed pinned this on mistrust of the independent media and the fact that the embassy and Chinese actors are more comfortable with the public media that gives them ready space for propaganda at the instigation of the ruling elite.

Only one of the 8 journalists said it was easy to get information and comments from Chinese investors.

In the opinion of the rest of the reporters and all but one editors who participated in the interviews, Chinese players were inaccessible, so it was difficult to obtain some information that would have enhanced story balance.

“In most cases, it seems the opacity is deliberate because the Chinese investors want to mask their operations,” said Matimaire.

Chinese investors are uncomfortable engaging with the predominantly English-speaking journalists because they cannot speak the language.

“Language is the problem” that partly causes the disconnect between Zimbabwean media and Chinese investors, some of who struggle to understand local laws and expectations, said Steve Zhao, a Chinese business leader in Zimbabwe during a workshop in Harare in April.

Reyhana Masters, a former journalist currently working regionally and internationally in promoting media freedom and access to information, linked local media coverage of China to its nationals’ failure to integrate with Zimbabwean communities.

Reyhana Masters

“Chinese conduct is not helping the situation. They are a closed community. They live inside high walls and are not willing to learn local languages. Their engagement with locals is purely commercial and that invites resentment which then reflects in the reportage,” said Masters.

While it was hard to get information from Chinese actors, most of the journalists said it was relatively easy to access communities affected by Chinese investments for first-hand information and observations, even though one reporter indicated that suspected security agents trailed him when he went out into the field.

Diplomatic relations between Harare and Beijing have tended to influence how the Zimbabwean media reports on Chinese interests. Above, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa with Chinese president, Xi Jinping

And a significant portion of sources preferred to speak anonymously for fear of victimisation by ruling party functionaries, perceived to side with the Asian investors, and Chinese employers.

Polarisation

“Reporting on China is exaggerated on both sides (public and private media). It’s mostly pro-China for the public media and anti-China for the private media,” says Rashweat Mukundu, a media development expert.

As the survey established, public media outlets have tended to act as mouthpieces of the government and ruling party, both of which have strong political connections with the Chinese Communist Party and its dispensation.

Desk research revealed that the independent media tends to be predominantly critical of Chinese investments and interests and made sufficient efforts to reinforce the content with facts and verified information.

The public media, which is often closely watched and controlled by the government through the Information ministry, rarely runs news and information critical of China, its nationals and investments.

On the other hand, as online research on its reportage revealed, the public media is happy publishing content that is uncritical, sometimes unverified, news that extols the Chinese government and its interests in Zimbabwe.

The official media has also been a ready conduit for Chinese-generated statements attacking the private media and accusing it of being sponsored by the west to generate anti-China disinformation.

“Public media are evidently supporting Chinese actions and are blind to any negatives by the Asian nation and its nationals,” said

Zinef’s Njabulo Ncube who viewed the private media as “filling that gap through focus on Chinese transgressions”.

Donald Rushwaya, deputy general manager at the China-linked Caecerc said: “I feel like the private media has a hidden agenda. They are trying to tarnish (China). Some of the words in private media are too harsh.”

This story was commissioned by IDT, a Zimbabwean Investigative Centre, in collaboration with the Africa China Reporting Project (ACRP)