Kenya

Vulnerable
Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
High
42 85
Local Resilience & Response
Notable
38 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key findings

Report by: Angeli Datt and Anonymous

 

  • Increased influence efforts: Beijing’s media influence efforts in Kenya increased during the coverage period of 2019–21. The most significant shift was the expansion of state-linked outlets on social media, including in Kiswahili, and the establishment of diplomatic accounts that actively reach out to journalists and online users.
  • Low return on investment: Despite significant economic and political investment, Kenyan news readers do not often proactively turn to traditional forms of Chinese state media, though public opinion polls show the majority of Kenyans think overall Chinese influence in Kenya is beneficial for the country (see Impact).
  • Regional influence hub: Beijing has made Kenya a central focus for media influence in East Africa and the African continent. Xinhua, China Radio International, China Daily, and China Global Television Network all have their Africa headquarters in Nairobi, and each office has local and Chinese staff. Many Kenyan journalists are attracted to these outlets by higher pay and ample job opportunities (see Propaganda).
  • Large-scale content dissemination: Paid content, sponsored content, and content-sharing agreements between Chinese state media and Kenyan media allows Chinese Communist Party-backed messages to reach significant audiences. China Global Television Network holds a regular slot on public broadcaster Kenya Broadcasting Corporation’s Channel 1 from 11:00 p.m. to midnight, Monday to Friday. China Radio International broadcasts for 19 hours a day in English, Chinese, and Kiswahili on a frequency provided by Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. Xinhua content is published at least once a day in major outlets; it covers pan-African news more frequently than local outlets. Chinese state-linked companies place paid inserts in Kenyan outlets at least weekly (see Propaganda).
  • Unlabeled state-produced content in local media and covert payments: Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, a state entity, has published Chinese propaganda which is not clearly marked as coming from state media or the Chinese foreign ministry. Digital outlet Tuko TV has published Kiswahili content from China Radio International attacking criticism of Chinese government policies but is not labeled as coming Chinese state media. A few Kenyan journalists who returned from subsidized trips to China went on to publish articles repeating Chinese Communist Party propaganda, though they could not always find a local media outlet willing to publish them. The Chinese embassy in Kenya has also reportedly offered gifts, such as phones, laptops, shopping vouchers and paid holidays, to local journalists to report favorably on certain issues related to China (see Propaganda).
  • Increased engagement online, sometimes covert: Authorities have made efforts to expand the reach of Chinese government-linked Kiswahili social media pages and influencers, sometimes obscuring state ties. The China Radio International Kiswahili Facebook page, which is run from China and Kenya, boasts 2 million followers across Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi. The China Radio International-controlled Kiswahili Facebook page Yoyoasema, which has 35,000 followers, obscures its ties to the Chinese state and features videos of local Africans making positive remarks about China and Chinese engagement in Africa. To attract Kenya’s young and online population, Chinese diplomats have adopted an increasingly active presence on social media, responding to Kenyan media reporting and engaging directly with local users—efforts that likely have a greater impact on the local population than media output (see Propaganda).
  • Growing control of infrastructure: Chinese companies own or are involved in a significant portion of the content dissemination infrastructure in Kenya. Such involvement extends to digital and satellite television services, construction and maintenance of the telecoms infrastructure, and ownership of popular news and information-sharing social media apps; Chinese companies also hold a large portion of the mobile phone market share. A positive impact of Chinese media influence has been reduced costs for content infrastructure (see Control over content).
  • Chinese diaspora: The Chinese diaspora in Kenya is relatively small, estimated between 20,000-36,000 individuals. There are no major independent, Chinese-language outlets targeting this population; the Chinese-language content that is available generally originates with state media or pro-Beijing actors (see Diaspora media).
  • Strong media ethics a source of resilience: Media ethics and civil society initiatives on press freedom provide resilience to the covert and corrupting methods of Chinese Communist Party media influence. Kenyan journalists are unafraid to stand up to Chinese officials or criticize lopsided economic deals, and editors have defended their journalists when they come under attack by Chinese state-linked actors or take measures to limit the reach of Chinese state produced content. In November 2019, the Media Council of Kenya publicly rebuked Kenya Broadcasting Corporation for publishing Chinese propaganda (see Resilience and response).
  • Political and legal vulnerabilities: Limited laws and regulations around foreign ownership, cross ownership, and political ownership of media, and the lack of political pushback to Chinese Communist Party media influence, are two prominent vulnerabilities in Kenya’s media sector (see Resilience and response).

header2 Background

Kenya has a status of Partly Free in Freedom in the World 2022, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties;1 and a status of Partly Free in Freedom on the Net 2021, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on internet freedom.2 Kenya holds regular multiparty elections. However, pervasive corruption, tribalism, and brutality by security forces remain serious problems.

Kenya has one of the most vibrant media landscapes on the African continent, with journalists actively working to expose government corruption and other wrongdoing. The dominant and most influential mainstream media houses are owned by political and business elites, who are increasingly making positive assessments of China’s role in the country. The diminishing influence of traditional media, due in part to financial challenges, leaves them more vulnerable to interference.

Kenya and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) established diplomatic relations on December 14, 1963.3 Kenya has been a member of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since 2017, applied to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) the following year, and is a member of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).4 The two countries have close economic ties. China has invested in several key infrastructure projects in Kenya including a $3.6 billion loan for a standard-gauge railway from Mombasa to Nairobi, the country’s largest infrastructure project since independence.5 China has provided billions in development loans, the amount of which peaked in 2014, and China is Kenya’s largest export market.6 The two countries concluded negotiations on a mutual legal assistance treaty and extradition treaty in December 2016, though neither appears to have gone into force.7 Prior to the negotiations, in April 2016, the Kenyan government controversially extradited 45 Taiwanese nationals to China despite reports that the maneuver violated Kenyan law.8

The Chinese diaspora in Kenya is relatively small. While formal, census-style counts are difficult to come by, a Christian missionary organization has estimated the population at around 36,000.9 China’s Ministry of Commerce estimated the number to be “more than 20,000” with most of the population located in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu10 Many Chinese expatriates work for construction and engineering companies, retail outlets, restaurants, import/export business, or in the tourism industry.

header3 Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

 

Key narratives

Chinese state media and diplomatic officials promoted several positive narratives related to bilateral relations, COVID-19 diplomacy and China’s response, and China’s political system and economy. Common themes included the positive effects of the Chinese government’s strategy in Africa meant to create a perception of China as a friend to the African continent. During the coverage period, Chinese propaganda in Kenya promoted narratives that the Chinese government decisively responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and shared information in a timely manner, touted pan-African cooperation during the pandemic, and pushed back on negative or derogatory comments about Chinese people in early 2020.1

Messaging related to bilateral relations and Chinese economic investment in Kenya describes such ties with common Chinese Communist Party (CCP) terminology like “win-win,” and by saying that the two countries share a “common future.”2 Chinese state media covers controversial Chinese-backed economic projects in Kenya in a more positive manner than local media.3 Similarly, propaganda also touches on China’s rise and states that Chinese military and technological advancements are not a threat to Kenya.4 A widespread campaign to promote the CCP around its 100th anniversary in 2021 included diplomatic op-eds touting the success of China’s authoritarian political system.5

US-China competition in Africa has also appeared in propaganda talking points. The most notable anti-US narratives promoted in Kenya included claims that the United States was the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, or criticism of the state of US democracy.6 Tied to this were narratives that promoted China’s investment and relations in Kenya and the African continent with the question, “who has done more for Africa?”7

One incident during the coverage period in particular reflects how Chinese state media and diplomatic accounts try to create a narrative promoting the Chinese government when faced with negative local sentiment. In April 2020, reports that Black Africans in China were being denied essential services amid the country’s COVID-19 response, and in some cases evicted from their homes and placed in mandatory quarantine, led to an outcry in Kenya and other countries.8 China’s foreign ministry issued statements denying that people from Africa faced discrimination in China. Further, China’s ambassador to Kenya denied that those impacted were Kenyans, and officials pushed a narrative that China treats everyone “equally.”9 The Chinese embassy in Kenya tried to respond to the allegations with videos on Twitter, and these tweets were received with skepticism by many local netizens.10

While Chinese officials expressed remorse, they didn’t apologize for the reported incidents, which one of Kenya’s largest newspapers wrote in an editorial was a “betrayal” of Africans who stood “together with the Asian country at its hour of need.”11 Later, a Global Times piece claimed the reports were misinformation “hyped” by Western media and used comments from Kenyan officials to support that narrative.12 As the China Global South Project noted, Beijing’s media ecosystem in Africa had been geared towards promoting positive narratives and was initially caught off guard by the angry discussions. Officials eventually responded more decisively though media outreach and use of Twitter and other social media platforms, and by blaming the West for the outcry.13

Key avenues of content dissemination

Hub for Chinese state media presence: Nairobi has been a hub for Beijing’s media in Africa for decades, but especially since the 2012 opening of the China Central Television (CCTV) Africa headquarters, which later was rebranded China Global Television Network (CGTN). Xinhua,14 China Radio International, China Daily, and CGTN all have their Africa headquarters in Nairobi, and each has local and Chinese staff. In April 2021, state media parent company China Media Group (CMG) launched its Africa headquarters, also in the Kenyan capital.15 CCTV Africa and CGTN Africa have notably hired many prominent Kenyan journalists, often paying them much higher salaries than they received from local papers and creating approximately 70 jobs in a financially struggling industry.16 One Kenyan media expert estimates that Chinese state media overall has created 500 media jobs, of which 300 are radio and television journalism jobs.17 A 2017 academic study found allegations that Kenyan journalists had been “poached” as “factually inaccurate” and that journalists had applied for the positions for a variety of reasons, including prestige associated with working for an international outlet.18

Chinese state media aimed at local audiences, including in Kiswahili: A large portion of Kenyans receive news from television programs (73 percent). A significant portion also consumes news via radio, particularly in rural areas.19 CGTN is available free to air. CCTV Chinese is accessible via digital and satellite packages, including those from Chinese company StarTimes (see Control over content). China Radio International (CRI) is available on shortwave and digital radios, and since 2006, has broadcast over 19 hours of English, Kiswahili, and Chinese content daily after Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) gave it the radio frequency 91.9 FM.20 Global Times has a correspondent in Nairobi; China Daily’s Africa edition and China Africa Review, a monthly magazine, are found at some newsstands. CRI and People’s Daily are both available in Kiswahili, the second official language in Kenya alongside English.21 The size of the audience for each is unclear.

Paid inserts and content-sharing agreements: Paid advertorial content from Xinhua and China Daily is found in Kenya’s two most read print newspapers, the Daily Nation and the Standard. The Nation Online, which has the second-highest reach of digital news, also carries paid content from Xinhua. The advertorial content covers the launches of new projects by the Chinese government and are labeled as sponsored content.

Nation Media Group also has a content partnership agreement with Xinhua, which it has relied on heavily for news content. Xinhua content is generally offered for free or very low prices.22 According to the website of Nation Online, 45 percent of the total Xinhua articles published since 2006 were during the coverage period (2019–21), showing an growing use of Xinhua content.23 The content of the articles with Xinhua bylines ranges from coverage of China to pan-African coverage, to even coverage of local Kenyan news, with articles sometimes coauthored by Xinhua and a local journalist.24 However, as discussed in the Resilience and Response section, Kenyan editors often limit the reach of propaganda through the selection of stories they publish. Xinhua is more likely to cover pan-African content than local outlets, though that is starting to change.

Close partnership with Kenya Broadcasting Corporation: State-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) has agreements with CGTN, and its new studio was built with Chinese funding.25 A CGTN English-language news program, “Africa Live,” airs daily on KBC Channel 1 from 11:00 p.m. to midnight, Monday to Friday.26 KBC, a state entity, has published Chinese propaganda and several articles that promote Chinese government narratives about issues like Xinjiang, the Uyghur homeland and location of atrocity crimes against ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, or about poverty alleviation. This content is not clearly marked as coming from state media or the Chinese foreign ministry.27 For example, in March 2021 KBC published an article titled “BBC’s irresponsible reporting on China” but didn’t clearly mark that the article was from China Daily—it just reprinted the China Daily disclaimer at the bottom without further context: “The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.” KBC has occasionally published articles critical of human rights issues in China, but regularly republishes Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson statements as articles.28

China Radio International also provides content to KBC Radio in the form of news programs, drama shows produced by CRI, and Chinese language lessons.29 Similar content is also shared on digital outlet Tuko TV, such as a piece attacking a Financial Times article and defending Chinese government policies in Africa but such content is not labeled as coming from CRI and thus appears to news consumers as being locally produced.30

In November 2021, during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), China Media Group held a media summit and announced a joint partnership between 36 African media groups, including KBC, and Chinese state media; the partnership would involve “exchange of content, exchange of staff, and coproduction.”31

Chinese officials increase presence on social media; launch Kiswahili pages: Over 80 percent of Kenyans receive news from online sources or social media.32 Kenya’s large population of young people—the average age is 20—accounts for the dominance of social media in news consumption.33 The most significant strategic change in Chinese state media dissemination in the period under study was the increasing presence of Chinese state media and of Chinese officials on social media. Chinese state media is present on most major forms of social media, especially Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. CRI has a Kiswahili-language Facebook page that boasts over 2 million followers, as well as an Instagram page, though it has only about 6,000 followers.34 As the CRI Kiswahili service is broadcast in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Burundi, it can be assumed that their social media followers come from across these countries, and it is unclear what percentage of followers are from Kenya. The account is labelled as being managed from China and Kenya. CGTN paid for ads on Facebook between February-June 2021 to market CGTN to Kenya users with headlines like “China's preeminent 24-hour News Channel. A new way to see China!” and “CGTN, See the Difference.”35 CRI Kiswahili also bought approximately 14 Facebook ads targeting Kenyan users between June 2021 to May 2022, but only two garnered impressions over 150,000.36

China’s embassy to Kenya has both a Twitter account (8,370 followers) and Facebook account (24,000 followers).37 Chinese diplomatic accounts in Kenya generally publish content from Chinese media or official websites. They also post statements or “fact sheets” about current affairs—for example, one in 2020 about safety standards for Chinese fish imports, which was published in response to a critical news coverage—and tag local media outlets for attention.38 They also repost commentaries written in local media by Chinese diplomats. This sort of online engagement more directly reaches Kenyan news consumers and has a higher impact than traditional media outlets.

The Kiswahili Facebook page Yoyoasema, which has 35,000 followers, describes itself as a video creator page and obscures its ties to the Chinese state.39 The page is managed by CRI and features Kenyans, Ugandans, and Tanzanians making positive remarks about China and Chinese engagement in Africa.40 Participants include local journalists and other local faces, and most of its videos have several thousand views. Under its own name, CRI Kiswahili ran a series in November and December 2020 called “My Xinjiang Diary” that featured the Tanzanian journalist and chief broadcaster of CRI’s Kiswahili service, Fadhili Japhet Mpunji, who is based in China. Mpunji traveled around Xinjiang on a trip that whitewashed human rights abuses occurring there; the series was similar to programming by other foreign journalists and influencers working for Chinese state media outlets.41

Diplomacy efforts in local media: Starting under Wu Peng, China’s ambassador to Kenya from April 2019 until September 2020, Chinese companies and state officials began to more proactively engage with local media and local audiences to counter negative perceptions of China and the CCP. Wu authorized the creation of diplomatic social media accounts to directly engage with the Kenyan public and, during his tenure, the embassy spokesperson began to respond to negative press stories.42 Chinese companies, which previously had not often engaged with the Kenyan public, became more active in promoting corporate social responsibility reports and contacting journalists. This strategy has continued under Wu’s successor, Zhou Pingjian, who said China’s media engagement in Africa should result in “favorable” narratives on the Chinese government’s presence in Kenya and Africa.43 Wu’s promotion to director general of the foreign ministry’s African affairs department likely reflects high-level support for his approach to public diplomacy.

Wu, and his successor, Zhou, have had several commentary pieces and interviews published in local newspapers in which they defend Chinese policy. According to interviews conducted for this report, media outlets are often paid to carry these opinion pieces from ambassadors or diplomats.44 In February 2020, Wu had two op-eds published in local outlets; one sought to reassure Kenyans that China was responding the coronavirus pandemic and working to keep local residents safe, and another discussed Chinese-African cooperation.45 The Daily Nation ran an interview with Zhou in December 2020 in which he discussed COVID-19 and Chinese loans to Kenya, while other outlets have published his commentary pieces about the CCP’s centennial and China’s military advancement.46 One outlet, Capital FM, has published five opinion pieces from Zhou since October 2020 and tagged them as “Fifth Estate,” a term commonly used to refer to bloggers or nonmainstream opinion writers.47 The frequency of such opinion pieces has markedly increased since Wu’s posting and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Subsidized journalists trips: Kenyan journalists have regularly been invited to China to cover major events, like CCP meetings or BRI forums, and on other sponsored trips to China with fellow Kenyan media professionals or with small groups from other African outlets.48 In April 2019, Beijing invited Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta to the Second BRI Forum and sponsored two of the five journalists who traveled from Nation Media Group and Standard Media Group.49 While these trips have stalled since 2020 due to travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, they had usually involved visits to political venues in Beijing, tourist sites like the Great Wall of China, and visits to other cities like Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai. It appears one exchange, the "Belt and Road" National Journalists' Organization Leaders Seminar was held in July 2021 and was likely virtual, with participation of some media professionals from Kenya though the outlets are not named.50 According to a 2021 survey of Kenyan journalists conducted by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 94 percent of respondents did not see any change in coverage of China by journalists who went on these trips.51

According to a journalist who participated in one such trip, Chinese organizers did not explicitly demand stories or favorable coverage from them, but would organize interviews with “positive news makers” such as university lecturers, technology experts, or company chiefs.52 When those experts touched on sensitive subjects like China’s lack of independent media or disappearance of CCP critics, it was often in defense of government actions. According to one example shared by the journalist, an expert told a gathering of invited African journalists in 2019 that the “CCP was like a grandfather who provides everything to his family and demands maximum loyalty from his children.”53 A few journalists who returned from subsidized trips went on to publish articles repeating CCP propaganda, though they could not always find a local media outlet willing to publish them. For example, a Standard journalist’s puff piece about positive ways Chinese-backed infrastructure projects and technology advances had affected his life was published in Xinhua, rather than his own paper.54 There has been no organized trip for Kenyan journalists to Xinjiang yet, even though Chinese officials in Nairobi often say they plan to allow one.

According to the 2021 IFJ survey of Kenyan journalists, 16 percent of respondents said their media organizations were supported by Chinese influence in some way, which included financial support, trainings, equipment and technical support, and content partnerships.55

Payment for favorable content: The Chinese embassy has reportedly offered gifts to local journalists to report favorably on certain issues related to China.56 The gifts—which include items like phones, laptops, tablets, shopping vouchers during the Christmas or Chinese New Year periods, paid holidays in Kenya through Chinese tour companies, and dinners, but not outright cash payments—are issued through third parties to keep the Chinese government from being directly connected.57 Coverage resulting in such gifts is usually related to major events, such as during the lead up to FOCAC meetings, or if a Chinese official is visiting the country or a Kenyan official is visiting China. There is no evidence that the articles produced have any conflict-of-interest disclosures or labels about the source of payments.

Role of prominent local actors: Pro-Beijing content is also commonly found in local media through friendly politicians or local elites. Politicians from the ruling Jubilee Party, especially President Kenyatta, regularly praise the Chinese government in local media, especially infrastructure projects and their resulting “mutual benefit.”58 Other influential opinion leaders, like Peter Kagwanja, head of the Africa Policy Institute, write positive assessments of China’s relations with Kenya and has friendly relations with the Chinese embassy in Kenya.59 In November 2021, Chinese and Kenyan businesspeople launched a Kenya-China Chamber of Commerce. The announcement included a speech from the trade minister repeating CCP talking points like “win-win cooperation” and the aim of promoting “friendship and cooperation.”60 No local media outlet has been purchased by a Chinese entity, though there had reportedly been interest in the Standard at one point.61

Disinformation campaigns

During the coverage period, no CCP-backed disinformation campaigns were found to have specifically targeted news consumers in Kenya. However, global disinformation campaigns from China, such as those about the origins of the pandemic, reached Kenyan social media users. For the purposes of this report, disinformation is defined as the purposeful dissemination of false or misleading content, especially through inauthentic activity—via fake accounts, for example—on global social media platforms. There was a great deal of misinformation related to China and COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic, which helped fuel racially discriminatory attacks or sentiment towards Chinese nationals in Kenya.62

Chinese diplomats in Kenya promoted disinformation from the government about the origins of the pandemic, suggesting it came from the United States.63 This global campaign utilized fake and repurposed accounts to spread the message on social media, though it is unclear how many people in Kenya viewed such content.64 The embassy in Nairobi has also shared posts that are part of the CCP’s global campaign to deny allegations of forced labor and atrocity crimes against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.65 Kenyans, like other Africans, received this information mainly on Twitter and Facebook, though Chinese state narratives are sometimes amplified by local experts friendly to the CCP.66 Additionally, state media has tried to portray the incidents of harassment of Africans in Guangzhou as “misinformation” spread by Western media.67

Censorship and intimidation

There is generally little direct censorship in Kenyan media on China-related topics. There is no evidence of media owners or editors suppressing stories critical of China. In fact, the opposite often occurs: many Kenyan journalists make efforts to limit the reach of Chinese state media content, particularly opinion pieces (see Resilience and response section). However, self-censorship sometimes occurs among journalists with close ties to the Chinese embassy who, for example, may not want to harm their relationship with a source, including for the purpose of not losing out on trips or gifts.68 While the Chinese embassy and Chinese companies have pressured media outlets over critical reporting, most newspapers have withstood the pressure. According to the IFJ 2021 survey, 10 percent of Kenyan respondents said their publications had been criticized by Chinese officials for their reporting.69

Some stronger interventions occurred before our coverage period. In 2018, the Chinese ambassador to Kenya publicly threatened to cut funding for the Standard Gauge Railway deal over a fisheries trade dispute. The threat was apparently also meant to show displeasure over negative media reports and public comments by politicians, but it was unsuccessful in preventing future reporting on such issues.70 That same year, the Chinese operator of the Standard Gauge Railway, Chinese Roads and Bridges Corporation (CRBC), threatened to sue the Standard for its investigative reporting on abuses in railway operations.71 The newspaper declined to retract the story or apologize (see Resilience and response). According to the editor of the paper at the time, Joseph Odindo, “the Chinese Embassy and their communications manager canceled all their advertisements with the Standard and withdrew the [paid advertorial] supplement.” He added, “They demanded that we had to stop negative coverage.” 72

Control over content distribution infrastructure

Chinese companies own or are involved in a significant portion of Kenya’s content dissemination infrastructure. Such involvement extends to digital and satellite television services, construction and maintenance of the telecoms infrastructure, and ownership of popular news and information-sharing social media apps; Chinese companies also hold a large portion of mobile phone market share.

PRC-based StarTimes Group—a privately owned satellite company that has close ties to the CCP—has become one of Africa’s most important media companies with 10 million subscribers across 30 countries, including in Kenya, where it has its African headquarters in Nairobi.73 In Kenya, it provides basic digital-television packages that offer local news channels alongside Chinese state media; packages with other international broadcasters cost more, though overall cheaper than before.74 The company has received millions of dollars’ worth of loans from state-owned China Development Bank, and had 1.4 million subscribers in Kenya as of 2019.75 In 2019, the Chinese government selected StarTimes as the implementor of a project announced by Xi Jinping in 2015 to bring digital television access to 10,000 rural villages in 25 African countries.76

TikTok, a global subsidiary of the Beijing-based social media company ByteDance, is one of the top ten most popular social media apps in Kenya. There have been some documented cases around the world in recent years of TikTok removing or downplaying politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines, although the company has subsequently reported correcting errors.77 A media report from June 2022 based on leaked TikTok meetings raised concern that statements made by ByteDance regarding data privacy of US users were false, and more broadly called into question other statements the company has made regarding its policies.78

The top two most popular new aggregator apps, Opera News and Scooper News, are also owned by PRC-based companies.79 Users have alleged censorship on Opera News in Nigeria, though no allegations of censorship have arisen in Kenya.80 Opera was a Norwegian company which was acquired by Chinese company Beijing Kunlun in 2016. The US Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) forced Beijing Kunlun to divest its ownership in the app Grindr in 2020 over data privacy concerns.81 Opera also has a popular browser used by “every second mobile internet user” in Kenya, according to the company in 2019.82 Scooper News is owned by Transsion, which also owns popular app is Vskit, a video sharing platform similar to TikTok, with PRC company NetEase; Shenzhen-based Transsion is the largest mobile-phone supplier in Africa and owns the brand Tecno.83 Some Tecno phones sold in Africa and Southeast Asia have been found to come preinstalled with malware.84

Huawei, a PRC-based company with close CCP ties and a record of building censorship and surveillance systems in China and abroad, is involved in developing digital infrastructure in Kenya. Huawei provides and supports the main system for mobile phone payments, known as M-pesa, and is the main provider of Wi-Fi routers in Kenya. Though Kenya is not yet considering fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks, Huawei has been closely involved in building telecoms infrastructure, including through a 2019 deal with Kenya’s leading provider, Safaricom, to increase network-traffic capabilities.85 Huawei was involved in a rural telecommunications project in Kenya and received $100 million from the Export-Import Bank of China (EXIM Bank) to build fiber-optic cables. A Huawei-built smart city in Nairobi is also semioperational as of 2021.86 Chinese-owned mobile phone device providers, especially Tecno, Infinix, Oppo, and Huawei, made up approximately half of the market in 2021.87

Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance model

There is little adoption by Kenyan journalists of Chinese media governance norms, despite efforts by Chinese officials to encourage media to write positively about Chinese government policies. Overall, Chinese officials have had an easier time gaining support from political elites, especially through the CCP’s deepening relations with the ruling Jubilee Party. In January 2018, the deputy minister from the CCP’s propaganda department met with the Jubilee Party upon the party’s invitation.88 At the end of the visit, the CCP and Kenya’s president announced that Kenyan officials would be trained on “democracy and party management” by CCP officials in China under a scholarship program that would be offered to 20 members of the Jubilee Party annually.89 It is unknown trips went ahead before the pandemic caused widespread travel restrictions.

Chinese diaspora media

There are no major independent, Chinese-language outlets targeting the small Chinese diaspora in Kenya; Chinese-language content available to this population is generally from state media or pro-Beijing actors. StarTimes and China Radio International broadcast state media content in Chinese on television and radio. Many Chinese correspondents stationed in Nairobi also report their stories in English and Chinese. Overall, Chinese-language media in Kenya is generally found on WeChat and produced by bloggers or digital-only outlets. WeChat is owned by PRC-based technology company Tencent, which has close ties to the CCP.

One of the most prominent diaspora media outlets is the Voice of Africa, (非洲之声), which publishes pro-Beijing content on an official WeChat channel and through a newsletter with over 3,000 subscribers. As it is registered as an official account in China, Voice of Africa channel is subject to Chinese censorship restrictions. It was founded in 2007 by Han Jun, a prominent Chinese community leader in Kenya who is closely affiliated with the CCP. Han Jun also runs the United Front Work Department-linked East Africa-China Chamber of Commerce, and East Africa-China Promotion of Peaceful Reunification Association.90 Voice of Africa mainly publishes content from the Chinese foreign ministry and Chinese diplomatic missions in other African countries, as well as Xinhua pieces on Sino-African issues, events in China, and Chinese state media pieces on global current events, according to a Freedom House review of the content on its WeChat channel. In August 2017, the Chinese embassy hosted a celebration of the Voice of Africa’s 3,000th publication, saying that it had been run single-handily by Han Jun for 10 years.91 Chinese diplomats commended the outlet for being a “main channel for overseas Chinese in Kenya to understand Kenya, Africa, and the motherland.”

Other active WeChat accounts include those affiliated with or marketing visa services or business operations while also posting political news or CCP propaganda. The account for the visa center for Kenya (肯尼亚共和国驻中国华东地区签证中心) operates a WeChat channel under the name YUYU Kenya Visa Center (YUJU肯尼亚签证中心). It does not have an active website and the WeChat account posts political news promoting pro-Beijing narratives. Another account called Kenya East Africa Visa Center (肯尼亚华东区签证中心) mainly posts about financial news but occasionally publishes pro-Beijing propaganda, such as praising "the human rights and democratic accomplishments China has achieved." Another WeChat account, East Africa Business Online (东非经贸在线) also posts pro-Beijing content.

The Global China Media Cooperation Union, an initiative established by the state-run China News Service, lists two other publications based in Kenya, whose staff have attended Chinese-language media summits in China hosted by party-state entities.92 The two publications include an infrequent newsletter published by the Kenya-China Economic and Trade Association since 2011 (肯中经贸协会快讯),93 and the Kenya Chinese Voice (肯尼亚华声报), a newspaper that began publishing in 2005.94 Neither publication has a current website or WeChat channel. They may be distributed through private messaging or email distribution channels, if at all.

header4 Resilience + response

Underlying media resilience

  • Investigative reporting, journalistic ethics, and publication of independent foreign media content: Strong journalistic ethics and professionalism among Kenya’s media workers are the backbone of the country’s underlying resilience to Chinese government’s media influence efforts. Influential news outlets have the resources, skills, and personnel to conduct investigative reporting, such as on corruption, food safety, and security issues.1 In Kenya, all daily newspapers publish content from independent international news wires such as Agence-France Presse, Reuters, and the Associated Press, and American outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. The EastAfrican, a weekly newspaper published by the Nation Media Group, buys content from the latter three newspapers to run as features or analyses. The Daily Nation occasionally runs pieces purchased from Project Syndicate, a pool of expert commentaries from world and business leaders.
  • Civil society attention on press freedom and media literacy: The Media Council of Kenya, an independent press council, is tasked with regulating ethical conduct by journalists.2 It holds trainings for media professionals, media literacy workshops for the public, and publishes a code of conduct for journalists. The Media Council also publicly advocates for press freedom and journalists’ safety.3 There are also independent civil society groups that monitor and advocate for press and internet freedom, such as the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ).4
  • Regulatory provisions: Kenya has a limited regulatory system in place that enhance transparency related to traditional media ownership. The Communication Authority of Kenya (CA) assesses individuals who apply for licenses and frequencies to broadcast under provisions enacted in the 2010 Kenya Information and Communications (Broadcasting) Regulations.5 Under local regulations, radio and television programs must broadcast between 40 to 60 percent local content, with specific criteria of what qualifies as local.6 The Public Procurement Regulatory Authority also supervises the bidding process for investment in media or digital infrastructure if the project involves public resources.7

China-specific resilience

  • Critical media coverage on CCP and economic projects: Kenyan media has found ways to push back on CCP and proxy attempts to promote positive coverage of China and bilateral relations and to obscure negative coverage. While Kenyan media outlets do not have dedicated China reporters or correspondents based in the region, in 2020 Kenya’s Nation Media Group, the largest regional media group, launched an Africa desk to cover the continent and its international relations, thus expanding coverage of China-Africa relations and CCP policies.8 Kenyan publications cover or publish stories critical of the Chinese government, such as reports by human rights groups, statements by United Nations agencies, and other countries’ criticism of the CCP’s treatment of Uyghurs, albeit with less frequency than other international outlets.9 The Nation Media Group is the only group to publish content locally prepared on Xinjiang, while other local publications mostly use wire stories.10 Local outlets also cover labor rights issues, corruption, and economic investment issues involving Chinese companies, often exposing wrongdoing and leading calls for accountability.11 Kenyan media, mainly relying on international wires, have published articles on China’s influence on the media and information sources globally, mainly in relation to disinformation campaigns or international social media takedowns of fake accounts.12  Kenyan media has raised questions about Beijing’s official messaging about the pandemic, amid constant Chinese government propaganda about its response to COVID-19 (a narrative often backed by Kenyan and African political leaders). A May 2020 editorial in the Standard discussed the origins of the pandemic and that such questions are being raised “not only by citizens of Chinese’ Western ‘enemies,’ but also by those from its friendly countries such as Kenya.” 13 The editorial goes on to argue that “this matter cannot be swept under the carpet. It cannot be dismissed as just another Trump-China supremacy ‘war.’”
  • Kenya media defends journalism’s role in exchanges with Chinese counterparts, officials: Kenyan media professionals have defended the role of watchdog journalism in discussions with Chinese counterparts, or have brushed off criticism of their coverage from Chinese officials.14 For example, during a forum jointly organized by the Chinese Embassy in Kenya and the Media Council of Kenya in November 2020, to coincide with the FOCAC’s 20th anniversary, Kenyan media professionals spoke of their duty to “fight for the truth” even while Chinese attendees spoke of the need for news to be “factual and regulated.”15
  • Newsroom identification of propaganda: Kenyan journalists’ commitment to professional ethics has also extended to efforts to limit the reach of Chinese state media content, particularly opinion pieces. Xinhua struggles to place commentary pieces under content-sharing agreements and opinion pieces from ambassadors or diplomats tend to be paid inserts.16 Most editors in Kenyan newsrooms say they would not publish state media commentary pieces on its editorial merit even if provided for free.17 Occasionally, Xinhua interviews local and Chinese experts for local stories. However, local media rarely picks up these pieces, with Kenyan editors explaining that there is often skepticism about the true expertise of the individuals featured by Xinhua; that the news items at hand are too obscure to attract much interest; or that there is a reluctance to run them due to an awareness that Chinese outlets publish material without independent editorial oversight.18 In November 2019, the Media Council publicly rebuked public broadcaster KBC for publishing Chinese propaganda, noting an incident in which it ran an unbylined story about the positive effects in Xinjiang of the Chinese government’s poverty-alleviation campaign.19 The narrative is among those employed to whitewash the CCP’s massive human rights abuses in the region.
  • Solidarity and pushback on censorship attempt: In 2018, a series of exposés by Standard reporter Paul Wafula on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR)20 and its Chinese operator, Chinese Roads and Bridges Corporation (CRBC), prompted harassment against both from the Kenyan government, the Chinese company, and online commentators.21 The CRBC threatened to sue the Standard over the allegations. In response, the paper denounced the threats,22 and Kenyan netizens came to Wafula’s defense with a Twitter hashtag campaign.23
  • Political pushback, sometimes: Political pushback on CCP influence efforts has generally been limited due to the close ties between the president and ruling party and the Chinese government. However, there has been occasional examples of political pushback. In 2006 and again in 2016, Kenya’s National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, raised concerns about KBC’s relationship with Chinese authorities. Lawmakers questioned whether the handing over of a radio frequency to CRI, and primetime television slots given to CCTV, had harmed Kenya’s sovereignty, especially as Kenyan media were not given reciprocal access in China.24 In early 2022, Kenya relations with China began to feature in political campaigning ahead of August elections. Aden Duale, a former National Assembly majority leader, publicly criticized Chinese policy in Kenya following Wang Yi’s visit to the country in early January; he alleged that Beijing sought to ensnare African countries in “debt traps” by dangling massive loan packages, with resulting arrears exacerbating local corruption and slowing development.25
  • Growing civil society and independent expertise: While in-country expertise on China remains limited, Kenyan civil society has played a role in growing awareness of CCP influence in media. Organizations like the Africa Policy Institute’s China-Africa Center, and the Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies, conduct independent research on China.26 In a March 2022 report, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) detailed workshops it hosted with the Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) for media workers reporting on Chinese influence in Kenya. The event emphasized fact-checking and flagging misinformation and offered guidance for those covering Chinese investment projects.27

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • Political response stunted by pro-Beijing ruling party: One of the biggest gaps in Kenya’s resilience is the co-opting of the political elite by Beijing, and a failure of politicians to push back except when politically expedient. There have been no official government statements, hearings, or expressions of concern about covert, corrupting, or coercive incidents of Chinese government influence during the coverage period. Local government representatives have generally not backed investigative reporting or defended press freedom, and instead have been more likely to back the Chinese government’s narratives. While the foreign ministries of Nigeria and Ghana summoned their respective Chinese ambassadors over the instances of discriminatory treatment of Africans in China in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Kenya’s foreign minister came under fire for her silence on the issue.1
  • Lack of ownership regulation: Kenya does not have a law restricting cross ownership of media outlets. The public broadcaster KBC is the only media entity allowed more than one frequency for television and radio in a single coverage area, which creates de facto limits preventing private media owners from dominating the television or radio markets.2 However, some owners control radio, television, and print outlets. There are no limitations on the proportion of foreign ownership of radio and television media outlets, but the address and nationality of media owners must be reported to relevant authorities.3 There are no regulations addressing media ownership by political parties or other partisan groups.
  • Gaps in transparency and media ethics: Individual journalists generally do not report efforts by the Chinese government or CCP-linked actors to influence their reporting, including through the payment of gifts, even though such gifts are explicitly prohibited by the Kenya Media Council’s code of conduct. KBC runs Chinese state-produced content with little to no labeling of where it is from. While international social media companies Twitter and Facebook have labeled the global or regional CGTN, Xinhua, and CRI Kiswahili accounts as state controlled, the local embassy’s Twitter and Facebook are self-labeled as the “official embassy account.” They don’t carry the companies’ “government-operated” account label, or any additional transparency information.
  • Limited research on disinformation: There are no nongovernmental initiatives to track and expose foreign disinformation, including from China. Local expertise on China is limited, and Confucius Institutes or Chinese government scholarships or trips are the main opportunities for those interested in China research. Increased funding for independent research institutes, scholarships, and language study could increase local expertise.

header6 Impact and Public Opinion

The Chinese government has invested enormous resources and personnel to deepen relations with Kenya, and clearly views Kenya as central to its media influence efforts in East Africa and the broader African continent. Yet despite this economic and political investment, Kenyan news readers hardly consume Chinese news. According to one survey, in 2017, after years of Chinese state media presence in Kenya, when asked if they accessed Chinese state content in the past month 96.7 percent of respondents said they did not engage with it at all, and 3.8 percent of respondents replied “rarely.”1 A 2018 study of university students also found low engagement with Chinese state media.2 The increased engagement by Chinese state-linked actors on social media appears to be a tactic to overcome low consumption of traditional forms of Chinese media, and online efforts likely have a greater impact.

Journalists in Kenya broadly see China’s engagement as positive for the media sector. According to a 2021 survey of Kenyan journalists conducted by IFJ, 49 percent of respondents said they saw Chinese influence as a positive for their country’s media.3 Only 16 percent viewed it as negative, and 35 percent of respondents said they didn’t know.

Public opinion polls show that the percentage of Kenyans who believe China has a positive influence on the economy is generally still very high. According to a 2020 Afrobarometer survey, 65 percent of respondents believed China’s influence was positive, though that was down from 76 percent in 2014–15.4 The Afrobarometer survey also found that Kenyans still largely preferred the United States as an economic model for Kenya’s development, with 43 percent citing it as the best model for Kenya over 23 percent who preferred the Chinese system.5 A Pew survey that asked respondents if they had a favorable view of China had 58 percent respond positively in 2019, the most recent survey, slightly down from 67 percent in 2018.6 A quarter responded in 2019 that they viewed China unfavorably, slightly up from the 17 percent who responded that way in 2018.

A positive impact of Chinese media influence has been the lowering of costs for content infrastructure. StarTimes lowered subscription fees to around $2.50 per month after it entered the Kenyan market in 2012; before its entry, the market was dominated by a South African provider charging $9.50 per month. Huawei sells internet routers at a much lower price than European competitors such as Ericsson. This has allowed major telecommunication companies like Safaricom to offer high-speed internet to consumers without charging for routers, and instead charging subscription fees only.

header7 Future trajectory

  • Turning to low-cost content from Beijing: If Beijing invests further in local media outlets, in particular by arranging unrestricted content-sharing arrangements, op-eds and commentary pieces, Chinese state media will likely bypass limited ad hoc safeguards—generally the editors and journalists dedicated to journalistic ethics. Financial pressure on local media outlets may see more editors turn to Xinhua’s free content.
  • Infrastructure control could permit further manipulation: While Chinese companies’ investment in content dissemination infrastructure has so far had a positive impact— lowering costs for consumers—the dominant position of companies with close ties to the CCP or vulnerable to Chinese government pressure could result in the manipulation of content to boost positive coverage of China or censor or downplay critical coverage. A March 2022 announcement from Huawei that it would train 20,000 Kenyans, of which 12,500 are civil servants, in the next three years in information technology may also permit aspects of the CCP media governance model to seep in.1
  • Greater social media presence and targeted disinformation: Chinese state-linked actors will almost certainly be more active on social media in order to shape narratives favorable to Beijing. There may be efforts, as seen in other countries, to use foreign or local social media influencers with obscured ties to the government to conceal the origin of CCP propaganda.2 There may also be an adoption of targeted disinformation campaigns towards Kenyans.
  • Increased investment in local language content production: Beijing may start to produce more state media in Kiswahili with content relevant to Kenya and hire more local journalists while controlling the editorial direction from Beijing. The strategy would represent an expansion of China Radio International’s approach, and result in a far wider reach of state media.

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