One Belt, One Voice: Chinese media in Italy
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) efforts to improve China’s image abroad have led to an internationalization of Chinese media and collaborations with media from foreign countries. Italy is no exception, says Francesca Ghiretti.
Chinese and Italian media collaborations are long-standing and numerous. Two Italian media outlets, the national public broadcasting company Rai and the Italian National Associated Press Agency ANSA (Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata) signed agreements with the broadcasting platform China Media Group and party-state news agency Xinhua respectively when Italy joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2019. Rai laid out plans for future co-productions in their statement, but so far, nothing has materialized. As for ANSA, the deal guaranteed Xinhua a platform for translated news coverage. Since then, ANSA has increased its coverage on China, the majority of which comes from Xinhua.
ANSA publishes unedited reports from Xinhua
Most concerning is the fact that ANSA publishes the translated version of the news from Xinhua without editing it. In other words, ANSA serves as a platform for Xinhua’s propagandistic material that reaches the Italian public. Most recently, ANSA published Xinhua news congratulating China on honoring its promise to host a zero emission Olympics. The article used lavish language such as “great,” “pride” and “gratitude”, highlighting also the positive aspects of China hosting the games and ignoring the controversy around the Olympic games. The collaboration calls into question the reliability of information and creates fertile ground for disinformation. In this case, the article promoted Beijing’s agenda to avoid the games being boycotted.
ANSA has tried to signal that some of its reporting comes from Xinhua to better inform the readers of the origin of the information. However, their efforts are insufficient. The average reader may not be aware that Xinhua’s news carries a propaganda. Considering the high volume of ANSA readers, such messages might have a wide reach and problematic implications.
Italian media seek partnerships with Chinese media for two main reasons.
First, the Chinese pay for the space given to their content on Italian platforms and second, some Italian outlets hope to break through the large Chinese market. In short, money is the driving force in this partnership, especially on the Italian side.
As these collaborations are numerous and include the publication of propagandist content the question is whether they end up influencing the perception of the Italian public towards China. A study conducted by the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, Sinofon, Palacky University and Ca’ Foscari University of Venice shows that between 2017 and 2020, the opinion of Italians about China did not improve: the perception of 44.7 percent of surveyed people has remained unchanged, 38.5 percent say it has worsened and only 16.8 percent see an improvement.
The survey does not look directly at the impact of media, but arguably if the message conveyed by Chinese media on Italian platforms had worked, we should have witnessed an improvement in Italians’ perception of China. The negative trend of Italian public opinion towards China has been confirmed by a survey undertaken by the Italian Institute for Foreign Affairs (IAI) in collaboration with the University of Siena.
The past years have seen a visible growth of information on China
The findings of the study should not be an excuse to sideline the issue and avoid a much-needed discussion about practices such as that of ANSA, in Italy and elsewhere. Compared to other places, the Italian debate on China remains underdeveloped and marginalized.
The past years have, however, seen a significant growth in information on China. On the one hand, that means more potential for disinformation. On the other, journalists with an expertise on China have benefited from increased interest in China relations and have therefore more space to look deeper into topics.
It remains unclear how widespread such practice is in other European countries. The EU currently lacks guidelines on how to approach media collaborations with authoritarian countries. Censoring content is hardly a desirable outcome. However, standardized labeling of the origin of the news as well as the potential insertion of warnings for propaganda-like content would be advisable. The problem, clearly, goes beyond collaborations with Chinese media, or access to Chinese propaganda, as it is embedded in the broader debate on how to fight disinformation without restricting a fundamental right such as that of freedom of the press.
This short analysis is taken from a larger report co-authored by Francesca Ghiretti and Lorenzo Mariani published with the Italian Institute of Foreign Affairs (IAI).