View the published article on the Huffington Post.
Global state-funded television news channels like Al Jazeera, China’s CCTV and RT (formerly Russia Today) have proliferated in recent years — and now they’re expanding, with a host of new services that tailor the news to local interests.
Al Jazeera, for example, has hired close to 200 people for an all-Turkish channel. RT now offers Spanish-language reports. And at CCTV, programs that debuted early this year include “Biz Asia America,” a daily business show targeted at the U.S., and “Americas Now,” a weekly newsmagazine for Latin America.
But one of the busiest new markets for the global channels is, perhaps, a surprising one: East Africa, where the new daily program, CCTV Africa, launched in January. Expected later this year is Al Jazeera Swahili, a 24-hour news channel as well as new East Africa-focused half-hour daily news television programs in Swahili and English from a more traditional international broadcaster, BBC.
Why East Africa? All of these new operations are based in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, where the media business operates with relative freedom from government interference. And while many western countries are still suffering from economic slowdown, Kenya’s economy is on the rise — with growth of nine per cent in its GDP over the past decade, according to the World Bank.
That economic growth means more money for the advertising that global media hope will help sustain their new operations. Synovate, a Global Market Research Company, stated that the Kenyan media industry has experienced a tenfold increase in advertisers between 2006 and 2010.
China’s ambitious investments in Africa in recent years give it a particular incentive to target African media audiences, says Tom Rhodes, East African correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “They see Kenya as an economic hub for trading, where they can do business from there, take resources from the media hub and use it as a transaction point.”
As Kenya’s largest trading partner, China also has a substantial financial investment in Kenya’s infrastructure — including playing a major role in the country’s switch to broadband connection. “The Chinese companies are doing all this work,” says Cowan. In return, the government has “granted them prime slots on domestic stations, not surprising because they have invested billions in the country. They are hoping to make a lot of money out of Africa.”
Others note that Kenya and its neighbours — like Somalia, home to the Al Qaeda-linked insurgents called al-Shabab — are undercovered on the global news stage. Few international stations have permanent bureaus in Kenya and there are no regional TV news stations that cater to both an international and African audience.
The East Africa startups of Al Jazeera and CCTV are creating tensions within Kenyan television journalism. Of Kenya’s five major television stations, two are regarded as pro-government, one is owned by the state and two are viewed as more independent. KTV, a private station, was the most-watched until it lost senior staff to CCTV this past year.
At first glance, it might seem puzzling that a Chinese channel, owned and operated by the Chinese government, would try to compete in Kenya’s already fairly competitive TV market. Chinese censors keep tight control over what is reported by state media within China. But Rhodes says things seem to be looser at CCTV Kenya than at CCTV China. “The censorship isn’t quite as rough,” he says. “I get the impression that there is a lot more press freedom and allowance.”
When CCTV started hiring to launch its new Africa program, it scoured Kenyan TV staffs, scoping out the competition’s talent. One Kenyan online news station, Jackal News, reported the network was looking to hire roughly 200 local journalists. And since none of the local stations have large staffs, “When two or three people are removed, that creates unrest and openings,” says James Smart, a news anchor for NTV.
Smart says six of his channel’s journalists — including two top anchors and an editor — were all hired by CCTV. One of the biggest losses was at KTN, where Beatrice Marshal — who had worked as deputy managing editor and anchor — was lured away to become lead anchor at CCTV.
Up against the deep pockets of China’s state funding it was almost impossible for Kenyan stations to hold on to highly experienced and talented staff. After being offered salaries twice what they earned at the Kenyan station, John Mwendwa, head of news at K24, says his network “lost some of its best reporters.” Saida Swaleh, a reporter at KTN, said her colleagues ran towards the money. “They came with fat checks and everyone wanted to go where the money is,” she says.
In addition to the larger salaries, reporters who move to an international network often get greater television exposure and travel opportunities. Signing with CCTV means their reports may be seen globally, via the Chinese broadcaster’s satellite channel, and not just within Kenya. But Mwendwa says that CCTV’s programming doesn’t resonate well with all Kenyans. Many, he says, are skeptical of their biases and “The perception of Chinese media is as having the interests of their people at heart.”
Inside Kenyan TV newsrooms, changes to programming had to be made as a result of lost employees. K24 “pulled one show off air and a second had to find a new cohost,” says Mwendwa. Although vacancies have been filled by employees hired from other local radio and television stations, some channels have suffered a decline in their ratings. KTN “is slowly dying because people do not really ‘trust’ the ‘rookies’” who have replaced veteran journalists hired away by CCTV, says George Nyabuga, assistant director at the University of Nairobi School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
While scrambling to find replacements, Kenyan network executives worked to create and implement incentive programs to keep their best and brightest. At NTV, for instance, new incentives were offered based on employee “experience, expertise, performance and planned growth within the organization,” says Sharleen Samat, the channel’s head of TV. “It is a competitive package,” says Samat, though she declined to give details.
Despite the tempting offers from global channels, some journalists remained faithful to their local stations. “CCTV isn’t reaching the kind of audience I’m reaching now,” says James Smart, the NTV news anchor. Despite having a smaller staff, Smart says NTV covers local news — particularly breaking stories — more thoroughly than the Chinese-owned network. When a grenade attack killed several people in a Nairobi bus terminal last month, it was the top story on every local station throughout the day. CCTV, however, reserved only two minutes of its coverage of the attack, says Swaleh.
While managers wring their hands about how to replace veterans lured to the global channels, some Kenyan reporters think their arrival could actually be a boon for local journalism, by opening many new job opportunities.
Before, competition for the few jobs available was so fierce that “unless one is exceptional, they can hardly get a job, particularly in a good or established station,” says Nyabuga. He says the new competition has the potential to improve journalistic standards and improve coverage of events in Kenya.
Some journalists say the increased competition has also forced news networks to offer more competitive salaries. “Local journalists are beginning to tell more stories from the entire East Africa,” says Mutiga Murimi, a reporter at K24. “And local media houses have already begun opening bureaus everywhere in the entire region.”
But the competition is set to grow much more fierce. Right now, CCTV offers only one hour of African programming each day, but Kenyan reporters say that Al Jazeera has begun recruiting for a 24-hour Swahili channel. It is expected to poach top Swahili reporters, but the hope is that Al Jazeera Swahili will force networks to put more resources and focus on Swahili programming.
Follow Annie Claire Bergeron-Oliver on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/@AnnieClaireBO