China’s state TV expanding, but fetters remain

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BEIJING (AP) - The killing of a South Korean coast guard officer by a Chinese fisherman should have been tailor-made for China’s CCTV News as it embarks on an ambitious plan to become a global network with assertive international coverage.

Instead, according to CCTV employees, the story languished for hours as editors awaited political guidance from above, while would-be competitors such as Qatar’s Al-Jazeera reported extensively on December’s attack.

In charting its growth, CCTV is closely studying other models, especially Al-Jazeera, which rolled out a global English language 24-hour news network five years ago and quickly made a name for itself.

Qatar’s government bankrolled the station as part of its ambitions to parley its massive energy wealth into international influence, much as China is seeking global media stature behooving its booming economy, which now ranks second largest in the world behind the U.S.

But while Al-Jazeera’s access and deep knowledge of the Middle East _ and a hands-off approach by its masters _ have been its greatest assets, state-run CCTV’s emphatic allegiance to the authoritarian communist state and the party seem to be its biggest liability.

This greatly challenges CCTV’s credibility and agenda to influence and channel global public opinion, said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project website at the University of Hong Kong.

“The role of the media as defined by the (Communist) Party is to serve the party’s interests,” Bandurski said.

A longtime CCTV program producer who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic said virtually everything in the news report is decided based on political considerations. The issues are discussed at meetings, but the decision always lies with the top bosses while the journalists have no say in the outcome, she said.

Still, CCTV is gearing up to supersize its global footprint this year in pursuit of swaying a foreign audience to China’s views and confronting what Beijing considers the Western media’s inate anti-China bias.

The network is opening studios in Washington and Nairobi, Kenya, each employing as many as 200 staffers. Worldwide, it will increase numbers of foreign correspondents from 66 to 80 by the end of 2012, with more to come, according to people familiar with the plans.

In Africa, CCTV has linked up with major satellite TV operator MIH Group and plans to operate upward of a dozen offices, according to Martyn J. Davies, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa who has discussed the expansion with CCTV officials.

China is a major player in Africa but its media has been very low key,” said Davies, who in 2004 helped set up Africa’s first Beijing-sponsored Confucius Institute for Chinese language studies.

Yin Fan, spokeswoman for CCTV’s international department, said the station was withholding comment until a formal launch of the expanded service. Individual employees said they had been told not to speak to the media about the expansion plans.

Many of the reporters, cameramen and technical staff are being lured from other news organizations with high salaries and attractive perks. One freelance reporter in east Africa said CCTV recruited him aggressively and agreed to almost doubled his fee from $350 to $600 dollars per report. It also offered him the chance to present his reports in front of the camera instead of passing the footage to others. The reporter asked not to be identified by name.

Veteran U.S. foreign correspondent Jim Laurie, hired to help in Washington, said on his website he was looking for experienced news professionals and that plans call for the U.S. operation to produce four hours of programming daily by June. Laurie declined to comment for this article.

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