The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that media in democratic countries are indeed strategic industries, serving as a principal means of communication between governments and citizens. Yet, the recent crises also show that hostile foreign powers can use the same channels of communication to influence narratives, spread disinformation, and contribute to panic or social unrest.
The People’s Republic of China is a recent addition to the plethora of actors who seek to influence media across the world, including in Central and Eastern Europe. The Chinese party-state recognizes the value of controlling foreign media as tools for channeling power by fostering a positive image of the country. It influences media content by promoting Chinese Communist Party (CCP) narratives, suppressing critical voices, and managing content delivery systems. In Europe alone, Chinese investment into media amounted to $2.3 billion between 2008 and 2018.
Influence attempts include mergers in and acquisitions of media, placing advertisements in media outlets, hiring PR companies to facilitate the penetration of China’s narratives into the media, or intimidating journalists writing articles labeled as allegedly “anti-China.”
Czechia serves as an interesting test ground revealing some of the tactics described above. A study by the MapInfluenCE project proved a link between Chinese acquisition of media outlets and narratives changing to reflect Chinese owners’ priorities. In 2015, the nominally private Chinese company CEFC acquired a stake in Empresa Media, securing an access to one TV station (TV Barrandov) and a number of magazines (e.g. Týden, Instinkt). The study uncovered that the acquisition had a profound impact on the company’s media outlets’ discourse on China. Not only did all negative mentions of China disappear, but so did even neutral coverage, resulting in these media reporting on China only in a positive manner. Moreover, it was not only the tone of the reporting that changed, but the composition of the covered topics. The media in which CEFC held a stake covered the China-led Belt and Road Initiative with a frequency unparalleled by any of the other analyzed Czech media outlets. Without a doubt, Chinese (co)ownership changed this particular set of Czech media into a platform upon which messages broadly compatible with Beijing’s worldview could be conveyed.
The advocacy effort run by MapInfluenCE ultimately led to the media being included into the draft of the Czech investment screening regulation, which entered the Czech Parliament in April 2020. Its final version, however, is yet to be seen. When it is finally adopted, it must still face the most difficult of challenges: withstanding potential political pressures during its application. Prime Minister Andrej Babis owns a media house, as do other Czech oligarchs.
While the inception of investment screening mechanisms in the Czech Republic is commendable and may inspire other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, it is fair to acknowledge that investment screening is not a silver bullet. There are still other tools readily available for influencing media content. One of them is the threat presented to the media in terms of losing revenue from advertisements if their content is incompatible with the advertiser. In fact, this measure wielded by hostile foreign power may be the most effective and potentially devastating to the media in small markets, such as in countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Revenues from advertising represent the bulk of most media outlets’ income and any disruption can ruin the publisher.
China is known for repeatedly pressing businesses not to place advertisements in critical outlets, such as in Hong Kong’s Apple Daily. The issue, again, is not hypothetical in Central Europe. In April 2020, the Chinese state-owned CITIC, which at that time held a stake in Empresa Media, exercised its warrant to acquire a controlling stake in Médea, one of the biggest media companies placing advertisements in Czech media. Surprisingly, the move has not attracted much attention, despite it revealing the limits of investment screening regulations. Even if investment screening regulation had already been in place in Czechia in April 2020, CITIC would effectively bypass it by exercising options. Based on interviews with journalists and drafters of the legislation, the investment in this specific case would not be considered a new investment, thereby triggering an investment screening process, but an already concluded one.
The (co)ownership of media in Czechia by a Chinese state-owned company was already problematic, yet the ownership of an advertisement company may present an even more serious threat to media freedom and plurality. Some have already started speculating that the aim of acquiring a stake in an advertisement company was to pressure the media – dependent on revenue from advertisement – to report more positively about China. Others have concluded that exercising the option to acquire a controlling stake was most likely motivated by economic, rather than political, rationale. But even those analysts admit the purchase can serve to influence the media in favor of China should this be a requirement for receiving a favorable contract for advertisements.
The experience with drafting the investment screening mechanism in Czechia revealed that efforts to change the public discourse on hostile foreign influence can be effective, as they have so far gone largely unnoticed by the governments as well as society at large. The case of Chinese acquisitions of Czech media companies demonstrates that media regulations have to be a set of complex measures to affect all possible infringements on media freedom and plurality. The effective protection of media through regulations relies on the political will of policymakers to close the security loopholes in national media legislation and in media practice, and depends on the trust by regulated industry toward the government.
The first precondition for tackling the issue will be the mental shift of relevant stakeholders toward understanding the media’s vulnerabilities. Afterward, policymakers must work to understand legal mechanisms that could protect media from hostile influence. At the EU level, it would be prudent to create or use existing grant schemes and mechanisms to support journalists, many of whom are already active in researching and publicizing hostile foreign influence operations. The EU should be also more proactive in strengthening its own, democratic narrative inside the Union, and in ensuring freedom of media and journalists.
This article was originally published in The Diplomat. It is republished here with the consent of the author.