Careless journalism, defying logic

How a fake story about China taking control of Zambia's national TV made it to Kenya's The Star.

Posted by Dani Madrid-Morales on July 1, 2016

Be it Facebook posts about how Whatsapp is going to become a pay service or resuscitated old urban legends, I cannot help but being amazed at the number of fake news that circulate online, get shared and retweeted. What strikes me the most, however, is to see well-established news media fall into these traps, when all it takes to spot a fake story is 20 seconds of basic googling. Recently a colleague shared one of these stories on the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China listserv. The story claimed that China was taking over Zambia's national broadcaster. As I started to trace the origins of the story I could not believe that a fake report that started in an anti-government blog in Zambia made it to South African and Kenyan media. While I was still recovering from my incredulity, I decided to wrote a post about the case for the "China in Africa - The Real Story blog". Here is a slightly reedited version.

Is China taking control of Zambia’s national broadcaster? No, it is not.

On September 19, 2015, Zambia’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services (MIBS) signed a contract worth US$273 million with China’s Star Software Technology, a subsidiary of Star Times, to implement phases 2 and 3 of Zambia’s migration to digital terrestrial television after successfully winning a public tender. The story was reported at the time by well-established local news outlets, such as the Zambia’s Daily Mail, and international media such as Reuters. Now, fast-forward to May 2016 when the story resurfaced on a Zambian blog called Zambia Watchdog, but with a very different spin and an alarming headline: "Star Times cheats PF, signs contract to take over ZNBC operations." In September 2016 the website ceased to be available, online and its associated Facebook page had been closed down.

It would not take one long to notice that Zambia Watchdog was a dubious source of information, with a very strong negative bias towards the ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF) and, by extension, towards China, which enjoys cordial relationships with the PF. The blog presented itself as a source of "Breaking and Investigative Journalism on Zambia," but reads more like an infuriated collection of difficult-to-believe stories. Here are two representative posts of how China is framed in the blog: "Chinese embassy ignores PF mob" (March 1, 2016) and "Chinese nationals accused of defiling Luanshya girls freed" (March 6, 2012). All the stories in the blog are anonymous.

Despite the obvious bias, the May 2016 post on Zambia Watchdog about the takeover of ZNBC, Zambia’s National Broadcasting Corporation by StarTimes, was soon picked up Nigeria’s Leadership newspaper and several industry blogs, like the one curated by South African journalist Thinus Ferreira, a regular contributor in South African media on television-related stories. None of the two reached out to Star Times for comment. Three weeks after the original post, Kenya’s The Star revisited the story once more, using Zambia Watchdog as the only source of information. Even if we ignore the fact that republishing a story three weeks after it allegedly occurred does not leave The Star in a very good position, the real problem in this case is that the original Zambia Watchdog post was plagued with inaccuracies, omitted information and sought no other objective than presenting a distorted view on StarTimes operations in Zambia, and criticizing the PF. Here I refute three of the many inaccurate/incomplete claims in the blog post, which all subsequent reports cite.

#1 – "[T]he deal hands over control of public broadcasting in Zambia to the Chinese for 25 years."

Even though the details of the 2015 agreement were not made public, the takeover of the public broadcaster by a foreign entity would require the amendment of the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation Act, something which would not easily pass through Parliament without a lot of publicity.

#2 – "In September 2013, Zambia’s government cancelled a digital terrestrial TV tender awarded in 2011 to China-backed Star Times Group subsidiary Star Software Technology, due to "irregularities" in the tender process."

In 2013, Zambia’s government indeed cancelled the tender awarded to StarTimes for phase I of the digital migration, after complaints by two of the other four biding companies, all of which, by the way were Chinese (Huawei, ZTE, Gospel Digital Tech and King Tai Investments). However, in 2014, StarTimes was again awarded the tender for phase 1, which was completed in 2015, and then was awarded tenders for phases 2 and 3.

#3 – "Under the terms of the deal, Star Times appears to be determined to exclude all other players from the market."

The contract not only does not give StarTimes a monopoly over the provision of terrestrial television digital services, but the government has introduced specific quotas for local content on new stations created after the opening up of frequencies.

There are probably two takeaways from this story, which is neither the first nor will be the the last in which Chinese companies’ investments in Africa are misreported. First, Chinese deals in the information and telecommunication sectors in Africa are usually opaque, which means they are difficult to be subjected to public scrutiny. This sometimes leads to increased suspicion. A more transparent and open communication strategy by companies like StarTimes, Huawei or ZTE could certainly reduce such public skepticism. Second, the ease at which inaccurate information can be circulated and reproduced online these days makes it more important for journalists to follow basic professional standards such as using multiple sources, checking for accuracy of statements and presenting all possible views on a story. Unfortunately, as this blog can testify, these are too often forgotten.