A woman passes by a billboard depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)…
FILE - A woman passes by a billboard depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Belgrade, Serbia, April 1, 2020. The text on the billboard reads "Thanks, brother Xi.”

WASHINGTON - In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, China sought to block news of the rapidly spreading virus, detaining those who tried to speak out. But in the months that followed, as the pandemic ravaged families and economies worldwide, Beijing sought to reset its public image through foreign media, research published Wednesday by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) shows.

A survey of 54 journalist unions in 50 countries found a rise in the number of countries reporting a visible Chinese presence in their media, from 64% to 76% in a year. In countries where China has offered support and training to local media, a higher percentage said coverage of Beijing was more favorable, the IFJ report found.

"The coronavirus story over the past 12 months has been successfully used by China to create a more positive image of China, in a number of countries," Jeremy Dear, the IFJ's deputy general secretary, told VOA.

Survey respondents were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 coverage of China since the start of the pandemic, with 1 being the most negative and 10 being the most positive. The survey found that the continent whose China coverage saw the greatest positive change was Europe, scoring 6.3, while North America's saw the most negative change, scoring 3.5.

Beijing's influence was viewed most positively in Africa, where half of those surveyed described it as beneficial, and all reported China as a visible presence in their media.

Dear said China is "putting a lot more effort and resources into trying to shape the media narrative," including pressure from ambassadors and diplomats, offers of media training or more lucrative employment contracts, and free content to news outlets under economic hardship. A drop in advertising revenue during the pandemic further added to shrinking newsrooms globally.

At the same time, Beijing sought to limit foreign media inside China, denying visas to journalists or expelling them. The measures came in response to the U.S. imposing visa caps on the staff of five Chinese-run outlets, including the Xinhua News Agency, and the U.K. media regulator Ofcom (Office of Communications) removing China Global Television Network (CGTN), saying the license holder did not have editorial responsibility for the network's content. Ofcom regulates TV, radio and video-on-demand sectors as well as fixed-line telecoms and mobiles.

Despite these "sometimes contradictory attempts by China to influence global media," Dear said, "all of them have their purpose, trying to support a growing economic and political power of China and … (telling) one story, very centrally directed."

China's foreign ministry has defended its media outreach at a May 11 briefing. Hua Chunying, the foreign ministry spokesperson, said that as the world's second-largest economy and biggest developing country, "of course we should have, and we deserve, a place in the international media landscape."

"The U.S. has launched a disinformation attack on China under the pretext of media freedom," Hua said, adding that China never targets other countries.

Hua noted that the U.S. "authorizes $300 million to be appropriated for each fiscal year to 'counter the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party globally'." Hua was referencing the proposed Strategic Competition Act of 2021, a Senate bill "to address issues involving the People's Republic of China."

Media analysts, however, have pointed to differences between state-run media such as CGTN and media funded by governments but editorially independent, such as the U.K.'s BBC and Germany's Deutsche Welle. VOA and its sister networks, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), are funded by the U.S. Congress, but an editorial firewall protects them from political interference.

All countries to some extent "try to use soft power, of which media very often is, in order to improve their political and economic position in the world," Dear said. "That is what China is doing, and it's a reflection of its growing economic and political power."

The pandemic gave Beijing an opportunity "to promote the socialist system and the leadership of the Communist Party as superior to the Western system of democracy, universal values and freedom," Dan Garrett, a former intelligence analyst at the Pentagon, told VOA. "You definitely have an aspect of the current information campaign from Beijing that is oriented towards discrediting Western media as biased, as racist, as anti-China."

In all but three of the countries included in the IFJ research, China donated pandemic aid, medical supplies and personal protective equipment. The IFJ report found that often the supplies described in local media as donations by Beijing had been purchased from China by governments.

In Serbia, the government has aligned itself with China since Beijing supported it during the Kosovo conflict in the late 1990s and the NATO bombing of Serbian positions in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo.

Early on in the pandemic, Serbia's Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic visited Beijing, saying, "You didn't fear NATO bombs. My visit shows we're not afraid of the virus," the IFJ report said.

China also provided supplies and the bulk of Serbia's vaccines. In April, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said Serbia had received about 2.5 million doses of the Chinese-produced Sinopharm vaccine and slightly less than a million vaccines from all other manufacturers combined.

China's influence and its backing by Belgrade "exists without any doubt," said Dinko Gruhonjic, editor in chief of the Serbian media outlet VOICE and program director of the Independent Journalists' Association of Vojvodina.

"It is simply put as official propaganda, claiming that European Union and the West abandoned Serbia in need. And that the country would be doomed without the help of 'Chinese brothers' who provided sanitary materials, vaccines and other means of help," Gruhonjic told VOA.

"It was one of the dominant narratives in most pro-government media, including billboards placed around Belgrade in support of the alleged friendship between the Serbian and Chinese people," Gruhonjic said.

The billboards appeared in Belgrade last year, saying "Thank you, brother Xi." They were allegedly funded by a pro-government tabloid newspaper, according to RFE/RL.

The Serbian government owns or controls nearly all media in the country, the IFJ reported.

"The Serbian public accept those narratives and propaganda. The majority consume state and pro-government media and is convinced that allies of Serbia are from the East of the globe and the enemies are from the West," Gruhonjic said.

Besides noting an increased Chinese presence in their media, more than 80% of those surveyed worldwide flagged concerns over growing disinformation in national outlets.

Garrett, of the nongovernmental organization Securing Tianxia, said that China, Russia and others "rely on individual citizens and individual newsreaders' inability or a lack of time to comprehensively review media sources to get the full story from multiple different sources."

"I think it is a very challenging problem for your average media consumer," he added.

The IFJ report found that Beijing's influence was viewed more positively in Africa than in any other continent.

China has offered media content, training and resources to several African countries where local news outlets face economic hardships.

"China has really invested in its media in Africa, and specifically in Kenya, so that they can have their own media houses to tell Chinese stories," Eric Oduor, secretary-general of Kenya Union of Journalists, told VOA.

An earlier report by the IFJ found that in Kenya, most of the biggest outlets have content-sharing deals, including the Kenya Broadcasting Cooperation, which has a state-of the-art studio built with Chinese funding.

The state-run CGTN and Xinhua News Agency have headquarters in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, where they develop and share content with local media outlets.

"I don't believe that there is any expectations that journalists (are) supposed to abide by," Oduor said. When officials are in Kenya, like during President Xi Jinping's visit, "they try to lobby and work with journalists and also media managers so that they can have space for their own stories."

For the IFJ, its findings underscore the importance of independent news and media literacy and helping news managers understand the ethics of receiving free content from China.

"What we're seeing here is a very centrally directed narrative, whether it's about the Belt and Road Initiative, whether it's about coronavirus, whether it's about the Uyghurs, whether it's about the South China Sea. All of these issues that are politically or economically important to China," the IFJ's Dear said. "That's why journalism is so important. … It doesn't just accept what any government says. It asks questions of that government. It gets other points of view." 

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