China’s low-cost deal with Solomon Islands newspaper could bring large strategic benefit

Details of the deal caused a stir, especially the Solomon Star’s pledges to promote “China’s goodwill” and its role as the country’s “most generous and trusted development partner.”

Dr Shailendra Bahadur Singh

In the geopolitical sphere of the Pacific, China has undeniably demonstrated sharp acumen for recognizing opportunities and remarkable skills for making deals with island countries in the region, especially those of a strategic nature.

Most recently this was evident in the nearly U.S. $140,000 agreement between the Chinese Embassy in Honiara and the Solomon Islands’ leading newspaper, the Solomon Star, to “promote the truth about China’s generosity and its true intentions to help develop” the Melanesian country.

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With the injection of funds, the newspaper replaced its aging printer and acquired a broadcast tower for its radio station.

Details of the deal caused a stir, especially the Solomon Star’s pledges to promote “China’s goodwill” and its role as the country’s “most generous and trusted development partner.”

The story was broken on July 30, through an exposé published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

The undertaking was reminiscent of the requirements that the communist political ideology places on its media system requiring loyalty to the state, as opposed to the Western liberal media model adopted in the Pacific, where media theoretically owe allegiance to society.  

However, because of the focus on the news media’s public-interest role, it is easy to forget they are business entities that need to first survive in a capitalist system before they can fulfill their role in the public’s interest.

For news media organizations in the Pacific, survival in the small systems where they operate can be a struggle because of limited advertising revenue, marginal profits and diseconomies of scale.

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After the bills are paid, there is hardly anything left for recapitalization, which means that a new printing press is usually out of the question, even though it could be transformational for the business.

In the Solomon Star’s case, the Chinese offer would have hit the right spot, with the temptation too hard to resist.

The newspaper’s chief of staff, veteran journalist Alfred Sasako, stated that the organization had tried for more than a decade to get assistance from Australia but to no avail.

For all the criticism that it has received over the deal, the Solomon Star is a national icon with a relatively proud journalistic tradition. This is all the more reason that its pledge has aroused concern about the “Chinese claiming its pound of flesh in return for any financial support, and the newspaper turning into a propaganda rag for the Chinese state party.”

Sasako has scoffed at such claims, insisting that the newspaper will maintain its independence, while castigating critics for “demonizing China.” 

Doubling down on the deal, he stated that Western countries such as the United States had neglected the Solomon Islands for decades and were only showing interest because of the Chinese deal.

It is true that the Solomon Star has been a thorn in the government’s side for a long time.

Despite its deal with China, in July the newspaper reported that a 30-strong delegation to Beijing headed by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare was funded by the Solomon Islands, rather than China, as was commonly believed.

Independent reporting of this nature is crucial but given “the deal,” it remains to be seen whether this will be a continuing trend or a rare occurrence.

Interestingly, while the Solomon Star deal attracted the lion’s share of the coverage, an editorial in the newspaper in August claimed that other local media organizations also applied for Chinese financial support.

This included the Solomon Islands’ second daily, the Island Sun, and the country’s national broadcaster. Neither denied the accusation.

In the same editorial, the Solomon Star claimed that Georgina Kekea, president of the Media Association of the Solomon Islands, had applied for Chinese funding to establish a secretariat after requests to Australia and the United States were rejected.

In a statement posted on the association’s website on Aug. 2, Kekea did not deny the allegation outright. Instead, she castigated the Solomon Star for “inappropriately” using confidential information that the association had shared with members. Kekea clarified that Australia had since provided funding to recruit an association coordinator.

One of the many questions arising from “the deal” is, besides the Solomons’ national media, what are the wider implications in a region where media organizations are struggling to survive? This is pertinent given recent OCCRP reports of an aborted deal in Palau involving the publisher of the country’s oldest newspaper and a Chinese business group.

It is not inconceivable that news media in other Pacific island countries are struggling, especially in recent years. Their already vulnerable financial situations have been dealt additional blows by the disruption brought on by the rise of digital news and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Solomon Star-China deal is indicative of how seriously Chinese diplomats take President Xi Jinping’s order to “tell China stories well” and how they try to apply it in every corner of the globe, including the remote Pacific region. 

Xi’s initial call to spread good tidings about China in 2013 was aimed at using its own communication channels to showcase the nation to the rest of the world. The deal with the Solomon Star shows that the policy has evolved and developed to co-opt news media in other countries to sell China to local populations.

If winning over the Solomon Islands is a priority, it should not come as a surprise: The country experienced violent anti-Chinese riots in April 2019 over Parliament’s selection of Sogavare as prime minister and again in 2021 because of the Sogavare government’s decision to recognize China over Taiwan.

The riots partly explain the Sogavare government’s policing agreement signed with Beijing last year to enhance cooperation on law enforcement and security matters. The agreement also covers the protection of Chinese citizens and businesses.

The media deal aimed at winning public approval and the policing agreement to contain any public discontent show China’s strategy to address a problem from multiple angles for comprehensive and effective results.

This applies to the overall Chinese strategy to gain influence. For example, China is often accused of elite capture, where public resources are directed to the elite to the detriment of the rest of society.

The question is whether the Solomon Star deal constitutes media capture. If so, it could be catastrophic because the media are usually the last line of defense.

If there is both elite capture and media capture, that defense is gone, and the public is at the mercy of a cabal. This worst-case scenario indicates that besides an eye for deals and large strategic benefits on minimal investments, China is accomplished at employing tactics or methods in a coordinated manner to achieve its geopolitical goals.

This article was first published in Benar News and has been republished here with the kind permission of the author(s)/editor(s).

Contributing Author: Dr Shailendra Bahadur Singh is an associate professor and head of the journalism program at The University of the South Pacific in Fiji. He has written widely on Pacific media, politics and development. The views in this article are his own and do not reflect the position of The University of the South Pacific or BenarNews.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The Australia Today is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. The information, facts, or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of The Australia Today and The Australia Today News does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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