Sri Lanka maintains a Strong and Close Relationship with China. The Country supported Sri Lanka during the war and also in postwar development via the issuance of loans (approximately $ 3 billion as of last year).

Sri Lanka is also part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) in a big way, with the Port City in Colombo being a major project.

China was, is, and probably will be an ally of the Sri Lankan State, even more so after the regime change in Sri Lanka last November. Testament to this is how other superpowers of the world are now vying for Sri Lanka’s attention.

But all is not well in paradise. The mention of Sri Lanka in a Freedom House report released recently, which motivated further digging, has brought to light some worrying revelations on China’s efforts to shape the China narrative in Sri Lankan media.

The Colombo Gazette discovered that China has undertaken various initiatives, some overtly and some covertly, to the end of promoting a positive image for themselves and their dealings with Sri Lanka.

It was revealed that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rolls out a “Red Carpet” program for Sri Lankan journalists on an annual basis, providing them with all-expense-paid luxurious lengthy stays in China, and in return, the journalists are explicitly instructed to provide positive media coverage on China when they return to Sri Lanka. Some are even awarded diplomas in international relations at the end of their stays.

Even more shocking was the overt nature in which the Sri Lanka-China Journalists Forum (SLCJF) promotes CCP propaganda in the name of journalism within Sri Lanka which dates back almost 20 years. A brief look at their website would attest to this.

Certain activities by the Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC) in co-operation with China are also questionable, and one ought to be concerned about information control technologies deployed in Sri Lanka over the years by China, which have surprisingly not made many headlines.

Pushing CCP Propaganda

A Freedom House report titled “Beijing’s Global Megaphone: The Expansion of Chinese Communist Party Media Influence since 2017” by Senior Research Analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Sarah Cook mentions Sri Lanka as being victim to one of many tactics employed by the Chinese State to ensure the curation of stories in line with the CCP’s propaganda narratives.

The report, referring to Chinese-sponsored training sessions and programs as a means to promote favoured content abroad by cultivating foreign media that can produce their own favourable content, states: “According to some past participants from Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the visiting journalists are made to understand that their hosts expect them to reciprocate for the well-funded events by producing content that promotes the CCP’s preferred narratives.”

This report also cites a previous study published by the International Republican Institute (IRI), an organisation advocating for democracy worldwide, in June last year, titled “Chinese Malign Influence and the Corrosion of Democracy: An Assessment of Chinese Interference in Thirteen Key Countries” edited by Dr. David Shullman, Senior Adviser at the IRI, who oversees work addressing the influence of China and other autocracies on democratic institutions and governance in countries around the world.

This report has a more comprehensive analysis of Sri Lanka in this context.

In reference to China’s influence in the information space, the report states: “The CCP has been able to rely on its tight relationships with Sri Lankan elites, along with relatively limited public knowledge of the details of infrastructure-financing deals, to create a generally positive view of China’s engagement.

However, with foreign media attention on the ‘debt trap’ narrative around the Hambantota Port deal damaging the BRI brand globally, the CCP is stepping up efforts to shape information about China and its engagement with Sri Lanka…The CCP sponsors media tours of China for Sri Lankan journalists, including meetings with top government officials. In exchange, according to Sri Lankan journalists, China expects positive coverage in local media.”

Sri Lankan Journalists’ Views

Probing into the matter, Colombo Gazette spoke to a few journalists who have been on such training sessions and trips to China. Many said it was an unspoken rule that if you visit a country on that state’s budget, you are expected to promote it. They clarified that this was not the case only with China, but also applied to other countries they visited in a similar capacity.

When the Colombo Gazette queried Dr. Shullman about this, he responded: “While it is certainly true that there will be some expectation of positive coverage on the part of all countries that host media training sessions, the opacity of China’s effort and its ambitious scope and scale set it apart.

“Developing country journalists paid to come to China receive not only housing and training, but unique access to Chinese Government Officials and Ministries. Foreign journalists are directly encouraged to publish positive stories on China in their local media, with a focus on co-operation with their country and the benefits of BRI, and often explicitly told not to publish negative stories.

Most of the outlets do not disclose the Chinese Government’s support for their journalists. Combined with the Party’s publicly stated desire to push its propaganda efforts in the developing world.”

It is well known that for journalists to be eligible to attend tours or training sessions overseas, the editors of the publications by which they are employed would have to put forward recommendations.

However, the journalists we spoke to were of the opinion that the decision didn’t lie just with the editor; once the list of names goes to the embassy, they would sift through the writers’ work and decide on whether they were an appropriate choice.

Upon their return, should a journalist write anything critical of the country they visited, they would most likely be excluded from future tours of this nature by the embassy.

Reiterating this sentiment, and touching on the expectation that journalists are to write positively about the country they visit, was Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Asia-Pacific Desk Head, Daniel Bastard.

“Inviting Sri Lankan journalists on trips is not necessarily a reprehensible practice. But in China’s case, the journalists are chosen not by their editors but by the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, with the Party’s approval. And something is demanded in return. The conditions are clear: They must promise to ‘tell the China story well’,” he told the Colombo Gazette.

The Free Media Movement (FMM), a local organisation advocating for mass communication media freedom in Sri Lanka, said they were not aware of such activities.

“I am not in a position to comment on any observations with regard to the training’s for Sri Lankan journalists in China as I have not attended any of these. I can confirm that such training’s do occur, but not the extent of the influence exerted on the reporting on China,” FMM Acting Convener C. Dodawatta told the Colombo Gazette.

RSF, however, seemed more privy to the local goings-on.

RSF Asia-Pacific Desk Head Bastard said: “The most popular program used by China towards Sri Lankan journalists is called the ‘Red Carpet’ Program.

It is a yearly invitation in China for 10-month, all-expense-paid visits with the undisguised aim of generating favourable press coverage. Reporters are given luxurious accommodation in central Beijing, two trips a month to different Chinese provinces, Chinese-language courses, and a monthly stipend of up to 5,000 RMB. At the end, the journalists even receive a ‘diploma in international relations’ from a Chinese university.”

Sri Lanka-China Journalists Forum

The Sri Lanka-China Journalists’ Forum (SLCJF) was singled out by many rights groups we spoke to, who said it is indicative of Chinese efforts to the end of pushing CCP propaganda.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) Researcher on China, Yaqiu Wang told the Colombo Gazette: “The forum is supported by the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka and if you skim the website, the information is propagandistic.”

Asked if this is a cause for concern, she said: “Yes, it is definitely a cause for concern, as you can see, the Chinese Government is financing pro-Beijing propaganda in the name of ‘journalism’. It might not influence the views of people who follow China affairs closely, but the general public can be susceptible to such so-called ‘journalism’.”

Freedom House Senior Research Analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Sarah Cook, and author of the Freedom House report released last month, reiterated this sentiment.

She said: “Many tactics are used by the Chinese and some of these mentioned in the report (in the ‘propaganda’ chapter) may be particularly relevant to Sri Lanka journalists’ training’s, co-operative associations, and joint publications issued in the local language.

“Looking at the website of the SLCJF, it seems like these initiatives are fairly long-running and it’s hard to know their precise impact from a quick glance, but it fits with what the report describes.”

IRI’s Dr. Shullman also pointed out that Chinese efforts on this front in Sri Lankan is nothing new, stating: “The SLCJF was established in May 2001 as the ‘Sri Lanka-China Young Journalists’ Forum’ but was apparently renamed in 2011 to allow for wider access.

Although the forum has not received widespread attention in local media circles, the organisation has, according to its website, to date facilitated 70 scholarships, 10 seminars, and 52 exchange programs. The website also promotes articles on ‘stronger diplomacy’, ‘regional co-operation’ and China’s ‘peaceful development’.”

Sri Lanka Media Resilient?

It can be argued, however, that Sri Lanka has a resilient media infrastructure that would not allow for complete censorship.

This can be seen with certain media organisations publishing content critical of the Chinese and its projects in Sri Lanka. Many were outraged at the 2017 99-year lease of the Hambantota Port, with many media organisations criticising the move.

Wang from HRW said: “In my research on the BRI projects in Sri Lanka, I came across articles by local journalists that shed a critical light on the projects, so there is still good and independent reporting out there.”

Cook from Freedom House feels this would further fuel the CCP’s efforts: “In general, I imagine that some of the Chinese activity and influence in Sri Lankan media may have intensified in recent years as the Embassy and Chinese Government respond to scepticism and concerns over the port project and Chinese loans in the context of the BRI.”

Certain past involvements of the Sri Lanka Press Council (SLPC) with the Chinese were brought to light, and may also be of concern.

“In 2015, a Chinese delegation visited the state-run SLPC, to discuss ‘inter-cultural exchanges between the two countries’ and plans to implement training programs for journalists,” shared IRI’s Dr. Shullman.

An SLPC press release in 2015 stated: “…This delegation comprised of representatives from the publication sector and institutions to protect cultural heritage, as well as representatives from stakeholders of current trends in mass media expressed views on the importance of launching programs to further strengthen inter-cultural relations between the countries. As a preliminary step, it has been proposed to implement training programs for journalists at the end of this year or in the first quarter of the ensuing year (2016).”

As stated on its website, the SLPC’s vision is to protect the press freedom of Sri Lanka and its mission is to popularise press freedom as cultural elements for national development. In addition, it is also the local body which receives complaints pertaining to the publication of inaccurate or defamatory information.