Australia’s media has faced “persistent efforts” by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to influence and censor content, according to a new report from an Australian think tank.
In an analysis of 24 privately-owned Australian media organisations that produced news media in Chinese, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) found four had evidence of CCP ownership or financial support — including the Australia Pacific Media Group which has been previously criticised for being a propaganda arm for the CCP through its publication Pacific Time.
Other outlets — including the ABC — were found to be influenced by Party campaigns to restrict information that does not align with Beijing, through decisions about content posted on the social media platform WeChat.
“CCP-aligned media in Australia have been involved in a range of concerning activity, including suspected political interference,” it said.
Nevertheless, ASPI said the ABC and SBS were among the most reliable sources of Chinese-language news media in Australia.
“A handful of outlets, such as the ABC and SBS, generally offer high-quality coverage of a range of issues”, it said, recommending that the Federal Government provide greater funding to the public broadcasters’ Chinese-language news services.
Changing Chinese-language media landscape
Changing demographics among Australia’s Chinese diaspora in recent decades has seen significant shifts in the Chinese language media.
According to Professor Wanning Sun of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, growth in the population of mainland Chinese people in Australia has meant that Chinese language media is “no longer dominated by media establishments catering to earlier Cantonese-speaking generations”.
“What has emerged instead is a vibrant media sector catering mainly to a Mandarin-speaking migrant community from the People’s Republic of China,” she wrote in 2016.
The current media landscape has also been shaped by the rise of social media.
“Persistent efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to engage with and influence Chinese-language media in Australia far outmatch the Australian Government’s work in the same space,” the ASPI report’s author Alex Joske said.
WeChat has approximately 3 million users in Australia, and according to ASPI may be behind “the most substantial and harmful changes ever observed” in Australian Chinese-language media.
The social media giant, owned by parent company Tencent, heavily censors content mainly for users registered in China, while international accounts do not share the same restrictions.
Media organisations can set up “Official Accounts” internationally, which allow them to post content publicly to their followers.
But WeChat’s international version only allowed outlets four posts a month, a restriction which the report found pushed Australian media organisations to register in China.
The app also recently blocked one of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s posts, while there have been concerns that other politicians using the app have been forced to self-censor their comments.
Australia should curtail CCP influence over media, report says
The ASPI report urged the Australian Government to hold WeChat to the same oversight as other social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, to ensure that it meets the same standards and rules.
Other examples of CCP influence identified by ASPI included Australian Chinese-language media executives attending forums and training sessions backed by Beijing, and the organisation’s owners having ties to Chinese businesses.
This led some media groups to completely avoid publishing news critical of the Chinese Government, disinformation or a tendency for bilingual media organisations to omit certain information in their Chinese translations.
ASPI said Government policy must be tightened to prevent foreign influence on Australia’s media.
“[Australian regulations] haven’t introduced sufficient transparency to the Chinese-language media sector and influence from the CCP,” its report said.
ASPI, established by the Federal Government in 2001, is partially funded by the Department of Defence and lists a number of defence companies among its sponsors.
The independent think tank has also received funding from overseas governments, including the US State Department, for specific projects as listed on its website.
By Prianka Srinivasan