By Bhavna Mohan
Sri Lanka maintains a strong and close relationship with China. The country supported Sri Lanka during the war and also in postwar development via the issuance of loans (approximately $ 3 billion as of last year). Sri Lanka is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in a big way, with the Port City in Colombo being a major project.
China was, is, and probably will be an ally of the Sri Lankan State, even more so after the regime change in Sri Lanka last November. Testament to this is how other superpowers of the world are now vying for Sri Lanka’s attention.
But all is not well in paradise. The mention of Sri Lanka in a Freedom House report released recently, which motivated further digging, has brought to light some worrying revelations on China’s efforts to shape the China narrative in Sri Lankan media.
The Colombo Gazette discovered that China has undertaken various initiatives, some overtly and some covertly, to the end of promoting a positive image for themselves and their dealings with Sri Lanka.
Even more shocking was the overt nature in which the Sri Lanka-China Journalists Forum (SLCJF) promotes CCP propaganda in the name of journalism within Sri Lanka which dates back almost 20 years. A brief look at their website would attest to this.
Certain activities by the Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC) in co-operation with China are also questionable, and one ought to be concerned about information control technologies deployed in Sri Lanka over the years by China, which have surprisingly not made many headlines.
Pushing CCP propaganda
The report, referring to Chinese-sponsored training sessions and programs as a means to promote favored content abroad by cultivating foreign media that can produce their own favorable content, states: “According to some past participants from Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the visiting journalists are made to understand that their hosts expect them to reciprocate for the well-funded events by producing content that promotes the CCP’s preferred narratives.”
This report also cites a previous study published by the International Republican Institute (IRI), an organization advocating for democracy worldwide, in June last year, titled “Chinese Malign Influence and the Corrosion of Democracy: An Assessment of Chinese Interference in Thirteen Key Countries” edited by Dr. David Shullman, Senior Adviser at the IRI, who oversees work addressing the influence of China and other autocracies on democratic institutions and governance in countries around the world. This report has a more comprehensive analysis of Sri Lanka in this context.
In reference to China’s influence in the information space, the report states: “The CCP has been able to rely on its tight relationships with Sri Lankan elites, along with relatively limited public knowledge of the details of infrastructure-financing deals, to create a generally positive view of China’s engagement. However, with foreign media attention on the ‘debt trap’ narrative around the Hambantota Port deal damaging the BRI brand globally, the CCP is stepping up efforts to shape information about China and its engagement with Sri Lanka…The CCP sponsors media tours of China for Sri Lankan journalists, including meetings with top government officials. In exchange, according to Sri Lankan journalists, China expects positive coverage in local media.”
Sri Lankan journalists’ views
Probing into the matter, Colombo Gazette spoke to a few journalists who have been on such training sessions and trips to China. Many said it was an unspoken rule that if you visit a country on that state’s budget, you are expected to promote it. They clarified that this was not the case only with China, but also applied to other countries they visited in a similar capacity.
When the Colombo Gazette queried Dr. Shullman about this, he responded: “While it is certainly true that there will be some expectation of positive coverage on the part of all countries that host media training sessions, the opacity of China’s effort and its ambitious scope and scale set it apart.
“Developing country journalists paid to come to China receive not only housing and training, but unique access to Chinese government officials and ministries. Foreign journalists are directly encouraged to publish positive stories on China in their local media, with a focus on co-operation with their country and the benefits of BRI, and often explicitly told not to publish negative stories. Most of the outlets do not disclose the Chinese Government’s support for their journalists. Combined with the Party’s publicly stated desire to push its propaganda efforts in the developing world.”
It is well known that for journalists to be eligible to attend tours or training sessions overseas, the editors of the publications by which they are employed would have to put forward recommendations. However, the journalists we spoke to were of the opinion that the decision didn’t lie just with the editor; once the list of names goes to the embassy, they would sift through the writers’ work and decide on whether they were an appropriate choice. Upon their return, should a journalist write anything critical of the country they visited, they would most likely be excluded from future tours of this nature by the embassy.
Reiterating this sentiment, and touching on the expectation that journalists are to write positively about the country they visit, was Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Asia-Pacific Desk Head, Daniel Bastard.
“Inviting Sri Lankan journalists on trips is not necessarily a reprehensible practice. But in China’s case, the journalists are chosen not by their editors but by the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, with the Party’s approval. And something is demanded in return. The conditions are clear: They must promise to ‘tell the China story well’,” he told the Colombo Gazette.
The Free Media Movement (FMM), a local organization advocating for mass communication media freedom in Sri Lanka, said they were not aware of such activities.
“I am not in a position to comment on any observations with regard to the trainings for Sri Lankan journalists in China as I have not attended any of these. I can confirm that such trainings do occur, but not the extent of the influence exerted on the reporting on China,” FMM Acting Convener C. Dodawatta told the Colombo Gazette.
RSF, however, seemed more privy to the local goings-on.
RSF Asia-Pacific Desk Head Bastard said: “The most popular program used by China towards Sri Lankan journalists is called the ‘Red Carpet’ program. It is a yearly invitation in China for 10-month, all-expense-paid visits with the undisguised aim of generating favorable press coverage. Reporters are given luxurious accommodation in central Beijing, two trips a month to different Chinese provinces, Chinese-language courses, and a monthly stipend of up to 5,000 RMB. At the end, the journalists even receive a ‘diploma in international relations’ from a Chinese university.”
Sri Lanka-China Journalists Forum
The Sri Lanka-China Journalists’ Forum (SLCJF) was singled out by many rights groups we spoke to, who said it is indicative of Chinese efforts to the end of pushing CCP propaganda.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) Researcher on China, Yaqiu Wang told the Colombo Gazette: “The forum is supported by the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka and if you skim the website, the information is propagandistic.”
Asked if this is a cause for concern, she said: “Yes, it is definitely a cause for concern, as you can see, the Chinese Government is financing pro-Beijing propaganda in the name of ‘journalism’. It might not influence the views of people who follow China affairs closely, but the general public can be susceptible to such so-called ‘journalism’.”
Freedom House Senior Research Analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Sarah Cook, and author of the Freedom House report released last month, reiterated this sentiment.
She said: “Many tactics are used by the Chinese and some of these mentioned in the report (in the ‘propaganda’ chapter) may be particularly relevant to Sri Lanka – journalists’ trainings, co-operative associations, and joint publications issued in the local language.
“Looking at the website of the SLCJF, it seems like these initiatives are fairly long-running and it’s hard to know their precise impact from a quick glance, but it fits with what the report describes.”
IRI’s Dr. Shullman also pointed out that Chinese efforts on this front in Sri Lankan is nothing new, stating: “The SLCJF was established in May 2001 as the ‘Sri Lanka-China Young Journalists’ Forum’ but was apparently renamed in 2011 to allow for wider access. Although the forum has not received widespread attention in local media circles, the organization has, according to its website, to date facilitated 70 scholarships, 10 seminars, and 52 exchange programs. The website also promotes articles on ‘stronger diplomacy’, ‘regional co-operation’ and China’s ‘peaceful development’.”
SL media resilient?
It can be argued, however, that Sri Lanka has a resilient media infrastructure that would not allow for complete censorship.
This can be seen with certain media organizations publishing content critical of the Chinese and its projects in Sri Lanka. Many were outraged at the 2017 99-year lease of the Hambantota Port, with many media organizations criticizing the move.
Wang from HRW said: “In my research on the BRI projects in Sri Lanka, I came across articles by local journalists that shed a critical light on the projects, so there is still good and independent reporting out there.”
Cook from Freedom House feels this would further fuel the CCP’s efforts: “In general, I imagine that some of the Chinese activity and influence in Sri Lankan media may have intensified in recent years as the Embassy and Chinese Government respond to skepticism and concerns over the port project and Chinese loans in the context of the BRI.”
Certain past involvements of the Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC) with the Chinese were brought to light, and may also be of concern.
“In 2015, a Chinese delegation visited the state-run SLPC, to discuss ‘inter-cultural exchanges between the two countries’ and plans to implement training programs for journalists,” shared IRI’s Dr. Shullman.
An SLPC press release in 2015 stated: “…This delegation comprised of representatives from the publication sector and institutions to protect cultural heritage, as well as representatives from stakeholders of current trends in mass media expressed views on the importance of launching programs to further strengthen inter-cultural relations between the countries. As a preliminary step, it has been proposed to implement training programs for journalists at the end of this year or in the first quarter of the ensuing year (2016).”
As stated on its website, the SLPC’s vision is to protect the press freedom of Sri Lanka and its mission is to popularize press freedom as cultural elements for national development. In addition, it is also the local body which receives complaints pertaining to the publication of inaccurate or defamatory information.
The question arises of whether such an organization, whose independence is paramount to the basis of its functions, working in collaboration with another country that has increasing vested interest in Sri Lanka, to promote the education of their journalists, know that they are walking a fine line.
This raises concerns on how deep this issue really goes; have we only scratched the surface?
Deeper than we think
In 2010, when China and Google were fighting the censorship battle which resulted in Google withdrawing from the Chinese market, it was reported in Sri Lanka that experts from China would help Sri Lanka block “offensive” websites.
That very year, many news websites that were critical of the Sri Lankan Government’s policies or personnel at the time, were blocked. This move, eerily similar to the measures taken within the Chinese State, garnered widespread criticism locally and internationally.
Subsequently, in May 2019, it was reported that Sri Lanka turned to China to obtain mass surveillance systems reminiscent of the systems used in China.
The question that arises is whether the Chinese, while providing Sri Lanka with its know how and expertise, is in fact privy to exerting control on these systems.
On his visit to Sri Lanka recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said China would always respect Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and not allow any “outside influence” in its internal affairs.
However, actions speak louder than words.
A study published in September 2019 by the Open Technology Fund – titled “The Worldwide Web of Chinese and Russian Information Controls” by Valentine Weber – outlines that Chinese and Russian information controls “are spreading more efficiently to countries with hybrid or authoritarian regimes, particularly those that have ties to China or Russia. Chinese information controls spread more easily to countries along the Belt and Road Initiative.” As mentioned earlier, Sri Lanka is a big part of the BRI.
The report states that the Chinese company ZTE, based in Shenzhen, has deployed censorship and safe sites technology in Sri Lanka. It also mentions that the “People’s Liberation of Army Intelligence Division”, a Chinese-related entity, is training officials in Sri Lanka on information controls.
This information should raise some red flags.
Current political climate
After the November 2019 presidential election and a change of regime in Sri Lanka, with powers now back with the Rajapaksas, many fear the change is more than favorable to the CCP engaging in more concentrated efforts.
“I know the recent election doesn’t bode well for human rights and journalism and the country has a history of disappearing independent and critical journalists. Given such political development and Sri Lanka’s increasing dependence on China economically, it is definitely worrying,” shared Wang from HRW.
Bastard from RSF said: “Sri Lanka is a major strategic step in China’s BRI program, and China uses its investment into Sri Lankan economy to gain influence and impose its narrative in local media. It is all rather worrying since the current Government privileges close ties with China, and since pro-Rajapaksa media outlets tend to reproduce China’s narrative and remove any negative content.”
In efforts to crackdown on these moves to mute or curate local media, Cook from Freedom House advises journalists that as a starting point, “you might want to look at aspects that relate to certain officials or parts of the Sri Lankan Government bureaucracy trying to learn from, borrow, or mimic aspects of China’s digital authoritarianism”.
The world over, global superpowers compete for control; control over territory, control over trade; control over people and minds. Many a strategy have been adopted to this end over the ages, some more overt – like war and coups – while sometimes more covert strategies are preferred.
Needless to say, the inner workings of the latter are more difficult to uncover as their modus operandi is to avoid just that. Nevertheless, this doesn’t and shouldn’t hinder continuing efforts to that end, if we are to be independent.