A survey of Chinese-language media in Australia
What’s the problem?
In the past two decades, Australia’s Chinese-language media landscape has undergone fundamental changes that have come at a cost to quality, freedom of speech, privacy and community representation. The diversity of Australia’s Chinese communities, which often trace their roots to Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and Taiwan as well as the People’s Republic of China, isn’t well reflected in the media sector.
Persistent efforts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to engage with and influence Chinese language media in Australia far outmatch the Australian Government’s work in the same space. A handful of outlets generally offer high-quality coverage of a range of issues. However, CCP influence affects all media. It targets individual outlets while also manipulating market incentives through advertising, coercion and WeChat. Four of the 24 Australian media companies studied in this report show evidence of CCP ownership or financial support.
WeChat, a Chinese social media app created by Tencent, may be driving the most substantial and harmful changes ever observed in Australia’s Chinese-language media sector. On the one hand, the app is particularly important to Chinese Australians and helps people stay connected to friends and family in China. It’s used by as many as 3 million users in Australia for a range of purposes including instant messaging.1 It’s also the most popular platform used by Chinese Australians to access news.2 However, WeChat raises concerns because of its record of censorship, information control and surveillance, which align with Beijing’s objectives. Media outlets on WeChat face tight restrictions that facilitate CCP influence by pushing the vast majority of news accounts targeting Australian audiences to register in China. Networks and information sharing within the app are opaque, contributing to the spread of disinformation.
Australian regulations are still evolving to meet the challenges identified in this report, which often mirror problems in the media industry more generally. They haven’t introduced sufficient transparency to the Chinese-language media sector and influence from the CCP. Few Australian Government policies effectively support Chinese-language media and balance or restrict CCP influence in it.
What’s the solution?
The Australian Government should protect Chinese-language media from foreign interference while introducing measures to support the growth of an independent and professional media sector. WeChat is a serious challenge to the health of the sector and to free and open public discourse in Chinese communities, and addressing it must be a core part of the solution.
The government should encourage the establishment and growth of independent media. It should consider expanding Chinese-language services through the ABC and SBS, while also reviewing conflicts of interest and foreign interference risks in each. Greater funding should be allocated to multicultural media, including for the creation of scholarships and training programs for Chinese-language journalists and editors. The government should subsidise syndication from professional, non-CCPcontrolled media outlets.
On WeChat, the government should hold all social media companies to the same set of rules, standards and norms, regardless of their country of origin or ownership. As it does with platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the government should increase engagement with WeChat through relevant bodies such as the Department of Home Affairs, the Australian Cyber Security Centre, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the eSafety Commissioner, the Australian Electoral Commission and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. The aim should be to ensure that WeChat is taking clear and measurable steps in 2021 to address concerns and meet the same sets of rules, standards and norms that US social media platforms are held to. This effort should be done in tandem with outreach to like-minded countries. If companies refuse to meet those standards, they shouldn’t be allowed to operate in Australia.3
The government should explore ways to amend or improve the enforcement of legislation such as the Broadcasting Services Act 1995 and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 to increase the transparency of foreign ownership of media in any language, regardless of platform.
Download full document
The full document "The influence environment" is available for downloaded here.
17 Dec 2020