National security and economic prosperity are strongest in nations where democratic rights are protected, and a free press is a key watchdog of democracy. Foreign aid specifically focused on bolstering independent media by providing technical training and emergency assistance is especially needed given the threats journalists currently face. Countries that have experienced recent expansions in press freedom, such as Angola, Ethiopia, Malaysia, and Ecuador, are particularly vulnerable to backsliding and require special focus.
Support social media as an alternative outlet for free expression in repressive environments. Innovative alternatives to state-controlled media regularly spring up on social media, including recently in Venezuela, Armenia, and Sudan. Related technology can be used to circumvent censorship and keep reporters anonymous where needed. Donor agencies should provide funding for technology that increases journalistic freedom. And where the potential for undermining press freedom has not been activated yet, the groundwork is being laid for future influence, if—or more likely when—Beijing decides to deploy it.
The results have already affected the news consumption of millions of Americans.
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Moreover, the varied and aggressive ways in which the CCP seeks to influence media narratives abroad undermine democratic governance and electoral competition in other countries, including US allies like Taiwan. The cumulative effects of these efforts, if unchecked, could have far-reaching implications for democratic governance, press freedom, and US influence worldwide. Through a variety of news distribution partnerships and through social media, Chinese state media content now reaches hundreds of millions of people in numerous countries and languages.
Efforts to more deeply penetrate foreign media markets and spread preferred CCP narratives show no sign of ebbing. The CCP also embeds its narratives in foreign media through proxies and allied figures, including Chinese diplomats, friendly media owners and journalists, and foreign politicians with business interests in China. The CCP and its agents, allies, and proxies also work to suppress critical coverage of China abroad. The CCP has also successfully co-opted media owners, who then marginalize critical reporting in their own outlets, notably in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and outlets serving the Chinese diaspora.
Occasionally, this extends to English-language media, as occurred in September when a partially Chinese-owned newspaper in South Africa discontinued a weekly column after its author wrote about abuses in Xinjiang. Finally, over the past five years, technologies that deliver content to news consumers have opened new avenues for Chinese government influence abroad. In Africa, the Chinese television distribution firm StarTimes—which has become a key player in the transition from analog to digital television in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and elsewhere—holds the power to determine which stations its viewers can access.
Although privately owned, StarTimes has benefited from a close relationship with the Chinese government and occasional subsidies. Recent evidence suggests these communications are increasingly monitored and censored according to Chinese government standards. The strategies Chinese officials, state media, and other actors employ to exercise influence over media around the world have the potential to undermine key features of democratic governance and best practices for media freedom.
In some cases, this potential is already being realized. Chinese state media publications distributed in other countries routinely omit any mention of government links that would signal their origin to uninitiated news consumers. Indeed, it is precisely because news consumers in many countries are typically not attracted to or convinced by Chinese government propaganda that layers of obfuscation are employed to distance content from its authoritarian origins.
Chinese state media thus employ deceptive taglines in their advertising. Such disingenuous self-identification extends to paid print advertorials. In many cases, this lack of transparency extends to the economic arrangements surrounding various activities, be it how much China Daily is paying for each advertorial, how many and which journalists travel to China on government-paid trips, or what financial benefits news exchanges provide to each party.
These CCP efforts to conceal the origin, scale, and nature of Chinese state media involvement abroad compromise the integrity of resulting public debate, and erode cultures of transparency at outside media operations. Chinese government obstruction or imposition of penalties on outlets viewed as critical, in addition to limiting their audience, can prompt stock losses and dent income from advertising. Chinese government representatives also pressure businesses not to place advertisements in critical outlets.
The Chinese government and its partners have also found ways to provide other advantages to Chinese state media abroad relative to competitors.
For example, after overseeing the transition from analog to digital television in a number of countries in Africa, StarTimes has prioritized Chinese state media channels in its package offerings at the expense of independent international news stations. In Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, television packages that include channels like BBC World Service cost more than basic versions with local channels and Chinese state media.
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More generally, as Beijing has expanded its aid and investment in foreign media sectors, it has tended to favor state-owned outlets over independent, private competitors, mirroring the media landscape in China. Twenty years ago, many Chinese in the diaspora got their news from relatively independent papers or broadcasting operations based out of Hong Kong or Taiwan. CCP authorities exert enormous influence over the Chinese-language Australian media, where most such publications, with notable exceptions run by dissident communities, are pro-Beijing.
In Australia, a recent study of news sources available to the Chinese diaspora found negligible political coverage of China on the WeChat channels of Chinese-language news providers. Incredibly, between March and August , none of the WeChat channels published a single article on Chinese politics, despite the run-up to the important 19th Party Congress that fall.
Although Chinese government efforts to use media influence for electoral meddling have been limited, important incidents have recently emerged. The run-up to the midterm elections in the United States also saw CCP-backed efforts to reach American voters—in particular, soybean farmers. While the impact of these efforts was limited, they reflect willingness by Chinese state media to use established avenues of content dissemination in an effort to influence American voters.
These examples primarily involved propaganda and disinformation spreading on non-Chinese owned social media platforms like Facebook, LINE, and YouTube. But the growing use of the China-based WeChat application by both diaspora communities and non-Chinese speakers in countries like Malaysia, Mongolia, and Australia, creates a fertile foundation for future CCP electoral meddling.
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WeChat was not designed to work in a democracy. When attempting to restrict the operating space for independent diaspora or offshore Chinese media, Chinese officials have undermined the rule of law in other countries by maliciously harnessing court systems and flouting conflict-of-interest and other standards meant to ensure honest business practices. In Southeast Asia, several cases have emerged involving the Sound of Hope radio network. Based in the United States and founded by practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual group, which is banned in China, the station broadcasts uncensored news about rights abuses and corruption in China, among other debate-based and cultural programming.
The case was ongoing as of May and marked the third of its kind in the region; two similar cases have taken place in Indonesia and Vietnam—the latter resulting in two men being imprisoned.
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Journalists and news outlets reporting critically about Chinese government actions or pro-Beijing officials outside mainland China also face threats of or actual defamation lawsuits. Leung, the former Hong Kong executive who has been denouncing Apple Daily advertisers, has brought a defamation suit in Hong Kong against a journalist with a separate outlet who wrote about his possible links to organized crime.
In other instances, Chinese investments in foreign communications sectors have raised concerns about conflicts of interest, corruption, and questionable bidding practices. In Taiwan, attempts by a company owned by a China-friendly media tycoon to purchase stakes in a major cable company sparked fears that such cross-ownership would cause cable providers to advantage pro-Beijing stations at the expense of independent or pro-independence ones. Following vigorous public debate, the deal was rejected by regulators.
Having an economically powerful authoritarian-led state rapidly expand its influence over media production and dissemination channels in other countries is a relatively new phenomenon. The current impact of Chinese media influence operations on democratic institutions and practice remains relatively limited, although it disproportionately affects diaspora communities.
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In addition, Beijing has demonstrated a willingness to ignore or violate outright diplomatic norms, human rights protections, and laws of foreign countries to achieve its ends. However, the ability of the CCP to achieve its desired goals through its foreign media influence campaigns is still contested. Critical reporting about Chinese government actions within and outside of China appears with regularity, reaching large audiences.
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A number of independent Chinese-language media in Hong Kong, the United States, and elsewhere have become more professionalized and influential over the past several years. Civil society groups, media owners, and former officials in countries where Chinese influence is expanding have begun to speak out and urge their governments to uphold good governance standards when considering Chinese investment in communications infrastructure.
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These sums were calculated from data in a network carriage report provided by SNL Kagan, August Detailed data on file with the author. But it is their domination of the media that has underwritten their success. Over the past few years, a new toolbox has emerged that illiberal leaders in fragile democracies deploy to control and co-opt the press, with the aim of ensuring their stay in power.
This toolbox leaves out tactics like censorship, force, or outright intimidation of journalists. Instead, it contains a collection of methods used to harness structural conditions. Once successful co-optation has taken place, media are incorporated into the system as building blocks that prop up those in power. The illiberal toolbox for co-opting the media contains a variety of legal, extralegal, and economic strategies for applying pressure to critical outlets, and supporting friendly ones.
Hungary serves as the primary example where this co-optation has been successful. But it is not just Hungary and Serbia where media co-optation by ill-intentioned political leaders can threaten democracy. Globally, independent media foster public discussion and political participation that is grounded in well-informed opinions. These practices are essential to democracy, and today they are under strain.
While the public sphere has expanded exponentially in the new millennium, this expansion has brought with it confusion, economic disruption, polarization, and an increasing level of distrust toward the institutions that underpin democracy. Of these institutions, the media are under particular duress. It takes place gradually and stealthily, and after a point it is difficult to reverse. This makes the media in many countries vulnerable—and by extension, threatens the very basis of democracy by undermining an essential check on unbridled government power.
The application of financial and economic pressure is an effective means for co-opting outlets. This technique takes advantage of the changing media business model, which has left many outlets cash-strapped. The near total consolidation of the media in progovernment hands accelerated starting in KESMA unifies more than media products, and exhibits in plain sight the astonishing domination of government-friendly media in Hungary. The degree of ownership consolidation seen in Hungary has yet to take hold in Serbia. However, a recent privatization drive handed several outlets to owners friendly with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party SNS.
In late , the brother of a top SNS official purchased two national television channels; he also owns three online portals, a radio station, and nine cable channels. An even more worrying form of financial pressure in Serbia is the harassment of media by the tax authorities.
In , the weekly Vrjanske novine received daily visits, which coincided with its publication of an interview with a former head of the tax authority; its owner ultimately announced that the paper could no longer withstand the pressure, and it ceased operations. In , the news site Juzne Vesti, known for its critical reporting in the south of Serbia, was subjected to its fifth months-long tax investigation in five years.
Governments occasionally deploy laws and regulations to intimidate or interfere with journalists, or to drain them of their resources. But the illiberal toolbox rarely contains instruments for the sort of blunt-force legal repression, such as censorship, that would prompt immediate condemnation by neighboring democracies and media monitors. Instead, it is the politicized implementation of technical laws that puts pressure on independent outlets. Similarly, Serbia has also undermined press freedom through politicized manipulation of the law. But politicians have continued to file costly defamation suits seeking exorbitant civil damages.
The Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media is only partially staffed and is operationally dysfunctional, having notably failed to call out governing party dominance of the media landscape during election campaigns. Harassment can also take more direct forms, such as physical attacks and threats.
But thuggish attacks are generally absent from the illiberal toolbox.
Instead, political leaders signal that hostility toward journalists is permissible, including by standing down in the wake of aggression against them rather than insisting on a timely and effective follow-up, or by deploying proxies to delegitimize their work. In this way, they cultivate an atmosphere of fear and impunity in which journalists know that scrutiny of power is fraught with risk.
Smears and verbal harassment from politicians and online accounts are omnipresent, and attacks by government-friendly tabloids are a regular occurrence. That attack was egregious enough to prompt a response—a ruling party official was detained and stripped of his position for allegedly ordering it. However, that such a severe, apparently premeditated attack took place at all underscored the widespread perception in Serbia that independent journalists operate at their own risk. Though outright harassment is rare in Hungary, the government makes sure journalists know their place.