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Can CCTV Become the Next Al Jazeera?

In a recent piece published in the Columbia Journalism Review, Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi assesses the early stages of China’s multibillion dollar efforts to expand its domestic media empire onto the global stage. Just this year, CCTV launched two network broadcast centers—one in Nairobi and the other (called CCTV America) in Washington, DC. Radio enthusiasts around the world can now tune into China Radio International, which offers programming in more than sixty languages. And Xinhua, the government-owned news agency, already has more than 10,000 employees in 107 bureaus, with plans to expand into 100 countries.

Mustafi poses an interesting question: “Can CCTV become the next Al Jazeera, a serious new player on the global broadcast field?” “Perhaps,” Mustafi writes,

But a news organization looking to make a global splash needs a big story to put it on the map. Al Jazeera English was nowhere until the Arab Spring bloomed, a story on its home turf that it covered better than its more seasoned competition. CNN did the same with the first Gulf War, and became a household name across the world. The success of China’s global media effort may depend on whether its media can identify that big story when it arrives, and then let the coverage prove their journalistic mettle to the world in a way that declarations from well-meaning editors and officials never will. If CCTV can become the go-to channel for everyone in the world, even if only for a few days, it could change the game for good.

But even if that big story arrives, it is hard to say whether or not journalists working for Chinese news organizations will even be given a comparable chance to prove themselves. In terms of objectivity, the respective records of Qatari-backed Al Jazeera and America’s CNN are in no way blemish-free. But unlike in Qatar, where the regime is known for “playing all sides,” and unlike in America, where “independent media” is held up as the benchmark, the media in China is attached to a regime which adheres to the belief that, as the current head of CCTV, Hu Zhanfan put it “[the] first social responsibility and professional ethic of media staff should be understanding their role clearly and be a good mouthpiece.”

The reality is, of course, more complex than just a story of propaganda reproduction and export. With the commercialization of information media in the early post-Mao reform era, even state-owned media organizations such as CCTV and Xinhua have sought to gain credibility by reorienting their content away from government propaganda and toward consumer demands. But will this enhanced credibility be enough to win over international audiences? For Mustafi, the answer is, at present, probably not. “In soft-power terms, if the country with the better story wins, then China’s political system just may be the villain of its own piece.”

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Amy Qin is currently working as a researcher and freelance journalist for the Beijing bureau of The New York Times. Her writing may be found on the Times’ China blog, Sinosphere.

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