The Media Today

As US-China rivalry heats up in the Pacific Islands, the press gets stuck in the middle

February 28, 2023

Earlier this month—on the same day that officials went public about a Chinese spy balloon flying over the US, triggering weeks of media coverage—the US officially opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands, an archipelago nation in the southern Pacific. The embassy was itself a response to increasingly “bold moves” from China in the Pacific region, as the Associated Press put it, and yet the story largely flew below the radar in the US news cycle as balloon-mania took hold. When I asked Dorothy Wickham, a veteran journalist in the Solomons, how the new embassy was playing over there, she suggested that any noticeable impact paled in comparison to ongoing work on a huge stadium complex that China is funding for the Pacific Games, a quadrennial sports event that the Solomons will host this year. “That’s difficult to beat,” Wickham said.

The recent ties between China and the Solomons have run much deeper than sports facilities, especially since the Solomons government ended its official recognition of Taiwan in 2019. Last year, the government signed a security pact with China—the first of its kind in the region—that spooked Western officials and made international headlines, though it wasn’t entirely clear what the pact entailed. According to a report by Wickham and Kate Lyons, who covers the Pacific for The Guardian’s Australian edition, even senior politicians in the Solomons were surprised when details from a draft of the deal first came to light, a leak that surfaced not in Solomons media but via the Twitter account of Anna Powles, a senior lecturer in security studies at Massey University, in New Zealand. (“I was given the draft security agreement and, after verifying the document was credible, shared it on Twitter,” Powles told me in an email.) Officials have said that the deal will not allow China to open a military base in the Solomons. But it does allow China to deploy police and military staff to the country.

If the secrecy around the deal was not unusual for China, it was for the Solomons; Wickham wrote afterward that she hadn’t experienced anything like it in her thirty-five years covering the country, where reporters have traditionally been able to challenge those in power. Since the deal, the government “answering questions has become a bit of an issue here,” Wickham said recently, with officials “shutting out” local media, in particular. Last summer, the government said that it would ramp up its oversight of the Solomons’ public broadcaster; around the same time, officials threatened to ban certain foreign reporters from the country in response to a documentary on Chinese influence made by Australia’s ABC, which Solomons officials accused of “racial profiling.” When Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, visited the Solomons and hosted a news conference last year, journalists hoping to cover it were told either that they would have limited opportunity to ask questions or that they couldn’t attend at all. The country’s media association organized a boycott of the event in protest.

The Solomons wasn’t the only Pacific Island nation that Wang visited on his tour and was not the only country where the local press was shut out, exacerbating broader fears of a corrosive Chinese influence on press freedom in the region to go with its otherwise expanding influence. Dan McGarry—a longtime journalist in Vanuatu who was at one point nearly banned from that country after reporting on Chinese influence there—told me that these fears are, in part, fair. Chinese officials aren’t actively trying to suppress Pacific Island media, McGarry said, “but it’s very, very common for them to be having quiet conversations” with local politicians, telling them, for example, that they don’t see why they put up with negative press. “The context for political elites is changing” in the Pacific Islands, McGarry said. “There’s more of a tendency to think it’s okay to stifle dissent or commentary or analysis or any kind of questioning.”

Still, McGarry also said that the trajectory of press freedom in the Pacific Islands is not a simple, linear story. Various Pacific nations have relatively repressive media climates compared to the Solomons, a state of affairs that “isn’t new and isn’t as a consequence of Chinese influence,” Powles, the academic who posted the draft Solomons-China security pact online, told me. (Nor was Wang the only foreign official to face criticism for shunning Pacific Islands journalists last year: so, too, did Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, during a trip to Fiji.)

“What we have seen with respect to China,” Powles told me, “is a small increase in the number of pro-Chinese commentary in media outlets, including op-eds written by Chinese diplomats.” Indeed, the most significant story line about the media and strategic competition—at a moment when China is trying to gain influence in the Pacific Islands, and the US and its allies are trying to combat it—may not be one of repression, but of greater attempted engagement by outside powers. Either way, the media seems itself to be emerging as one more theater of this strategic competition, albeit a less immediately visible one than stadiums and embassies. “There’s a real competition going on here,” Ofani Eremae, a longtime journalist in the Solomons, said, “not only in other areas but also in the media sector.”

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The US, for one, has long treated media as one source of soft power overseas, be that through its own state-funded broadcasters—such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—or through cash that it has provided (albeit, generally, in relatively small amounts) to existing outlets. In the Pacific Island region, the US has provided funds, for example, to train members of the media; so, too, have entities funded by the governments of Australia and New Zealand. China—whose president, Xi Jinping, has stressed the importance of “telling China’s stories well” overseas—has engaged with Pacific Island media in multiple ways, too, from expanding the footprint of its own state media there to placing op-eds by diplomatic personnel in local outlets. China even paid to install a new press gallery in Fiji’s Parliament.

Such efforts are not entirely new and have not always been driven by heightened strategic competition in the Pacific Islands (funders often cite development and anti-corruption concerns, among other broad goals). But there’s evidence that the latter context has led foreign powers to “consider how to compete for the power of influencing the discourse” in the region, as Denghua Zhang and Amanda H.A. Watson, researchers at the Australian National University, predicted in 2020. Last year, for instance, the US State Department laid out a variety of steps that it is taking to (among other objectives) counter “state-sponsored information manipulation” in the broader Pacific region, including ensuring access to “credible Western media organizations” in the Pacific Islands. A department spokesperson told me that it pays for licenses to allow outlets in the region to use AP content, and that it has also funded events that “link Pacific journalists with each other, as well as with US and other third-country experts,” including a workshop in Australia in November focused on fighting mis- and disinformation. (When I asked, in a follow-up message, whether the department was specifically concerned about “state-sponsored information manipulation” emanating from China, it did not respond.)

China, meanwhile, seems to have picked up its media outreach, too, including in the Solomons. In 2019, after the Solomons government reversed its recognition of Taiwan, local journalists including Wickham were invited to visit China on a “look and learn” tour. More recently, the Chinese embassy in the Solomons hosted a Zoom session pairing local journalists with newsrooms in China in the hope of encouraging them to collaborate, according to Eremae, who attended the session. And both Wickham and Eremae told me that the embassy has recently offered some form of material assistance to the Solomons’ two main newspapers. (The papers and the embassy did not respond to requests for confirmation.)

Different types of media engagement, of course, are not created equal. Eremae told me that, in his experience, Western powers provide assistance with a view to strengthening the work of journalists on the ground and are open to criticism and tough questions, whereas Chinese officials are happy to put out press statements but less willing to take questions. “I think the idea is to tame the media to be always on their side,” Eremae said, of Chinese engagement with regional outlets. McGarry told me that, if he were looking for ways to counter Chinese influence in the region, “I would certainly be putting my money on free media, because it’s one of the rare areas where China just has no response whatsoever—they don’t have any kind of card to play.” A service similar to Voice of America, that lifts up “independent voices, critical of the powers that be, willing to report, investigate, and question people in power… well, boy, that would be great,” he said.

Recently, McGarry has been working for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project as the group has expanded into the Pacific region—an initiative that has received funding from the US State Department, McGarry said, but is not (at least on OCCRP’s end) driven by any desire to engage in geopolitical competition. (McGarry’s work there, he stressed, is completely editorially independent.) Eremae has also received funding and support from OCCRP to start a new investigative outlet in the Solomons, filling a gap in a media market that has long had limited resources to invest in in-depth journalism, and was hammered by the pandemic. Still, Wickham told me that some local journalists have expressed frustration that media aid coming from Western countries remains more focused on training than cash assistance. Wickham said that one member of the media recently told her, “We are trained out. What we really need now is assistance to revive these media organizations and keep them afloat so they can do their job.”

Whatever the motivation, and however it’s funded, truly independent journalism in the Pacific Islands primarily benefits local journalists and news consumers whose lives and interests are very far from reducible to the story of strategic competition in their region, even if the latter is very real. Global headlines, with their focus on diplomatic tit-for-tats, often fail to reflect this richness and local agency. McGarry complained to me about what he described as “chess-metaphor journalism” about the region in the international press. “Everyone’s talking about: They’ve got this piece, now they’re moving onto this piece,” he said, “with no thought or consideration for the people who actually live on those squares on the board.”

Some news from the home front:
Last week, we wrote in this newsletter about a town-hall event that CJR had organized, scheduled for yesterday, to address questions about a series that we recently published critiquing the coverage of Russian attempts to intervene in the 2016 election and the subsequent Trump presidency. Due to the moderator’s illness, the planned Zoom forum was postponed and will now be rescheduled for a later date. We’ll be back in touch with a new date and time. Questions already submitted will not need to be resubmitted. Thanks for your understanding.

Other notable stories:

  • Recently, a filing was made public in a defamation case that Dominion Voting Systems, an election-tech company, has brought against Fox News over the network’s coverage of Trumpworld’s 2020 election lies, presenting evidence that various Fox hosts knew that the claims were untrue and yet platformed them anyway, in part out of concern for their ratings. (Fox has claimed that the filing presented quotes out of context.) Yesterday, another filing in the case became public and showed that Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox, acknowledged, in a deposition in the case, that several Fox hosts “endorsed” Trumpworld’s claims. Murdoch denied that Fox as a whole endorsed the stolen-election lie, but said, “I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight.”
  • Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism produced a database aimed at tracking funding that Meta’s (formerly Facebook’s) Journalism Project provided to US local newsrooms between 2018 and last year. “While Meta has frequently promoted its investments into local journalism, tracing this funding has been surprisingly difficult: there are no disclosure requirements and Meta does not keep a public register of payments that researchers and journalists can scrutinize,” Gabby Miller writes for CJR. “Only Meta has comprehensive data on its monetary awards to news organizations.”
  • After Nancy Dubuc quit as CEO of Vice Media amid financial turbulence at the company, bosses promoted two executives, Bruce Dixon and Hozefa Lokhandwala, to jointly replace her. Meanwhile, the company moved to shutter its French arm after fifteen years of operation, citing financial reasons. Twenty-five staffers will be affected by the closure, with some among them telling Le Monde that bosses made “bad strategic choices.”
  • In the UK, James Wong, an ethnobotanist and gardening columnist at The Observer, The Guardian’s Sunday sister paper, announced that he will no longer write his column after bosses reprimanded him for publicly criticizing an article about trans rights that appeared in the paper. Wong lodged a formal internal complaint about the article and has accused The Observer of “institutionalized transphobia”; Press Gazette has more.
  • And Jennifer Szalai, the nonfiction book critic at the New York Times, eviscerated a new memoir by Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor and likely 2024 Republican presidential hopeful. The book, which is titled The Courage to Be Free, “is courageously free of anything that resembles charisma, or a discernible sense of humor,” Szalai writes, adding that it “reads like a politician’s memoir churned out by ChatGPT.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.