YANGON, Myanmar – The presentation slide shows graffiti protesting against harbor development by the Chinese government in Uruguay. Another slide displays a photograph of two Colombian farmers carrying banners opposing a Chinese subsidiary‘s efforts to explore for oil in Caqueta.
The 12-slide presentation by journalist Andres Bermudez Lievano was part of a two-day media workshop – “Inside Out and Outside In: Reporting the Socio-Environmental Impacts of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)” – held in Yangon at the end of May.
BRI is China’s ambitious push to connect and improve trade and investment with countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America through a major build-out of physical and digital infrastructure.
And the workshop – a collaboration between environmental news website China Dialogue, Earth Journalism Network (EJN), and the Myanmar Journalism Institute – brought together journalists from Southeast Asia, China, Colombia, and Kenya.
The first objective, said Sim Kok Eng Amy, EJN’s Asia-Pacific project manager, was to allow journalists from China and the countries developing BRI projects to discuss the social and environmental impacts of the projects they’ve covered. Another objective was "to provide a platform for journalists to discuss challenges and ways to deal with these challenges, to share information and data, and facilitate collaboration among them,” said Sim, a former journalist for Lianhe ZaoBao in Singapore.
Finally, the workshop discussed ways to provide a channel for other stakeholders involved with BRI, such as companies, researchers and affected communities, to have journalistic input and perspective.
Belt and Road Mega Project
Announced in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping as The 21st Century Silk Road Initiative, BRI, as stated by Beijing, aims to improve the global economy by promoting trade, culture and technology transfers among nations in Asia and Europe.
To support the initiative, the Chinese government is financing infrastructure development, such as railroads, toll roads, ports and power plants. Dozens of countries are currently participating in the BRI, representing more than half of the global population and a third of the world’s GDP, according to a report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. It could eventually connect more than 4.4 billion people and generate gross domestic product of US$21 trillion, noted a report by the Brookings Institute think-tank, citing a summary from the 2016 inaugural Belt and Road Summit.
In its current development, BRI comprises six economic corridors running from China to Southeast Asia, Central and South Asia, through Mongolia to Russia and into Europe. It also now extends to parts of Africa and South America.
For Indonesia, BRI is in line with President Joko Widodo’s infrastructure development priorities, which include sea toll projects and a vision of making the archipelago part of a world maritime axis. China has become a vital investor in the country, committing US$1.3 billion in 763 projects as of the second quarter of 2017, according to Indonesia‘s Investment Coordination Agency or BKPM.
News about BRI
Coverage of BRI projects has been mixed, however.
Mainstream media in Vietnam mostly publishes positive news, said Vi Tran, a journalist from Luat Khoa magazine.
Independent media, on the other hand, publishes stories on the environmental and social impacts of BRI-funded projects, such as pollution or debt incurred through their development, Tran said. But their coverage, she added, was not intensive.
In Indonesia, BRI is also often covered by print and online media. On 26 May 2019, an online search using the keywords “belt and road” returned 700 results from Tempo.co’s English edition; 582 results from kompas.com; 414 from mediaindonesia.com; 87 from detik.com; and eight from republika.co.id.
However, most of those stories looked at BRI from economic and political points of view, such as President Widodo's and Vice President Jusuf Kalla’s attendance at the BRI conference in China; investment prospects; Indonesia-China bilateral relations; and the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project funded by Beijing.
There was little news focused on the environmental impacts of the BRI project.
In other countries, such as Sri Lanka, the issue of debt accrued by taking BRI financing has been more the focus. While in Malaysia, recent BRI news has been about Prime Minister Mahatir Muhammad’s decision to cancel a fast train and gas pipeline projects.
In Latin America, there are two frames of media coverage of Chinese investment, said Lievano. First is about the threat Chinese investment poses to local employment and resources. The second is about China as a vital economic partner, a source of funding and loans and a key trade partner.
Often coverage involves simple narratives about protests or demonstrations, said Lievano. Other times it’s about the influx of cheap, imported goods or trade volumes and its impact on China’s relationship with the US.
“However, there are no efforts to include Chinese perspectives,” said Lievano.
Such narratives provide an economic perspective, often with a focus on commodities, but do not include the social, economic and environmental impacts of BRI. “Is that positive or negative?” he asked.
Other important issues missing from media coverage: China’s contradictory approach to Latin America, Lievano said.
On one side, China is the global leader in climate negotiation and environmentally friendly technology. On the other side, Chinese investment in Latin America is mostly channeled into fossil fuel exploration, rather than renewable energy, he explained.
Challenges in BRI coverage
There are many aspects of the BRI project that are under-reported in Vietnam, said Tran, including corruption and project implementation, the use of Chinese technology and its consequences, and the dark side of BRI project in other countries.
But covering these issues isn’t easy.
Tran said censorship and banning of access by journalists to BRI projects were among the major barriers. Chinese government hostility towards civil society organizations and journalists, harassment and threats of jail, a lack of knowledge in and ability to analyze BRI issues, and the lack of a network with reporters in other regions, were also obstacles facing journalists, said Tran.
In Indonesia, media coverage still focuses largely on politics and the economy. This also correlates with the fact that there remain a small number of journalists reporting on environmental issues, much less the environmental impacts of BRI projects.
In addition, a number of projects related to BRI are located outside of Java, in smaller districts or remote areas that usually require resources to get to. And much like Vietnam, Chinese-funded projects are often heavily guarded and difficult for journalists to access.
Hao Zhou, an international editor of Caijing, a Beijing-based independent magazine, said that his media publishes a lot of stories about BRI, but not without obstacles.
“Covering this topic needs funding, especially for travel to hostile areas. Also convincing the interviewees to be truthful,” he said.
Global collaboration in covering BRI
Journalists play an important role in increasing global understanding of BRI, Sim from Internews’ EJN explained.
“Balanced reports can support stakeholders of country recipients of BRI projects," she said. "This way it will benefit local communities and national development.”
Such news coverage can also support agencies in the Western world and host countries to make objective assessments on BRI projects, Sim added. In addition, there are possibilities for parties in China to push for improvements in their government and in project implementation, either at a domestic level or in countries receiving BRI funding.
For now, however, media coverage of BRI in China is heavily focused on China’s perspective, ignoring local voices that are working with the BRI project, said Sim.
Meanwhile, foreign media and local media in countries receiving BRI funding publish stories focusing on their own perspectives.
Journalists in these places as well as in China are often shackled by a lack of resources and access to information needed to write informative and balanced stories that might spark a constructive dialogue, said Sim. She hopes increasing understanding of that perspective and creating more networking opportunities will help journalists deal better with challenges and difficulties and allow them to work together to create a global conversation about BRI.
Maria Waruru, a freelance journalist from Nairobi and a workshop participant suggested that governments and BRI project management be more transparent to prevent the spread of misinformation and fake news.
Journalists must also always uphold journalistic principles, including faithfulness to facts and fact-checking. "That means doing research, drawing local and international comparisons and avoiding populist narratives,” said Waruru.
Hao Zhou agreed with that suggestion and added that journalists need to have the courage to tell stories rationally, objectively and continue to track the issue. He also emphasized the importance of working with internal and external parties.
Lievano suggested looking more deeply at Chinese companies to improve understanding of how contracts and bank loans are issued, reviewing any public claims or protests if any. And if the project is deemed unsuccessful, journalists must investigate the contributing factors.
He also emphasized the need for collaboration among international journalists. One way could be through the sharing of good stories or articles, filed under the keyword of “good BRI stories,” for example. They could also share track records of companies as part of a comparative study. In addition, Lievano said, there was a need to strengthen relationships with networks that could help find information about project and companies, such as the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) or Finance Uncovered.
This story was originally published in Indonesian on Ekuatorial, a Jakarta-based GeoJournalism platform supported by EJN.
Banner photo: BRI workshop participants in Yangon follow a presentation on how the media cover the initiative / Credit: Phetsiam Promngoy